The Life and Death of the Largest Tree in the World

“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”

– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

On March 24th, 1991, in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California, a tremendous crash rent the quiet spring air. Park rangers over a mile away feared the worst. Had a train derailed? The rail bridge over the Eel River had seen better days, and most of the tracks were in need of repair. Rangers, park stuff, and curious onlookers rushed to the site of the noise. The bridge was intact, and there was no sign of a derailed train. But just south of the river a giant had fallen. The Dyerville Giant, a California coast redwood, and probably the largest tree in the world, had reached the end of its life.

The Dyerville Giant had been having a bad week. It was the rainy season, and the soil in the forest was saturated with water, creating a shifting, roiling, muddy base for the tree to stand in. The shallow root system it used to anchor itself in the ground was becoming exposed, and the winds whipping around its canopy – 370 ft above the forest floor – pulled and pushed 24 hours a day. A smaller tree had given up a few days earlier, crashing to the forest floor, but not before knocking other trees into precarious positions, like a gigantic domino. One of those dominos was left teetering ominously towards the Dyerville Giant. On March 24th, the leaning tree fell, and took the giant down with it.

The scene of the fallen giant must have looked, as well as sounded, like a train wreck. The shockwave created by the impact had disturbed the forest up to four hundred feet away, and splattered mud and debris nearly three storeys high on the trunks of surrounding trees. In the blink of an eye, the largest tree in the world was down. At the time it fell, the Dyerville Giant was 372 ft tall – far taller than the Statute of Liberty (a petite 150 feet), and taller even than Niagara Falls. It was of another age, at least 1600 years old when it fell. When the Dyerville Giant was a seedling, pushing its way through the soil for the first time, the Visigoths were sacking Rome, and the Roman Empire was beginning its final decline.

As a sapling (at 65 ft, a tall sapling), while it struggled for light and nutrients in a forest crowded with taller relatives, Liu Yan was establishing the Han Dynasty in China, and a Hindu philosopher in India was writing the Kama Sutra. Every year, if growing conditions were right, it grew up to another six feet. It grew steadily through the years, as kingdoms of men appeared, expanded, grew corrupt, and fell apart. Great works of literature were written and lost. Art was produced, and burned. The Dyerville Giant stretched inexorably upwards.

In the 1860s, as the newly created country of America sought to tame the wildness of the American West, for the first time in its life the Dyerville Giant faced a threat other than wind and fire. Settlers in California quickly established the value of the coast redwood. The wood is light but strong, and resists decay. Its red sheen is beautiful, and perhaps most importantly, the wood doesn’t catch fire easily. In 1863, the Pacific Lumber Company was created, and its owners, A. W. McPherson and Henry Wetherbee purchased 6,000 acres of good redwood forest at $1.25 an acre. By 1882, the PLC was the largest employer in the area, and solely responsible for the growth and development of towns springing up all along the valleys of Northern California. By 1895, McPherson and Wetherbee had sold a controlling share in the company to a Detroit millionaire named Simon J. Murphy. The Murphy family would steward the Pacific Lumber Company for the next 100 years, and demonstrate a rare sense of ethical corporate management.

At the beginning of the 1900s, cosmopolitan Americans in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, were developing the first idea of a conservation ethic, focused on preserving some of the wildness of the American frontier. As a young country, America had a love-hate relationship with its untamed parts. The boundless forest and unexplored mountain ranges both mesmerized and frightened Americans. For pioneers, the wildness was an ugly thing to be tamed and controlled, but latter generations recognized that America’s wildness could be what established it as a unique country all of its own. Let Europe have its cathedrals and ruins, America’s forests would be its cathedrals; its mountains would be castles.

In 1917, the Save-the-Redwoods League travelled from San Francisco to Humboldt County to witness the majesty of the redwood forests. Amazed by what they saw, the League raised money and in 1921, Humboldt Redwoods State Park was established. Other companies might have seen this as an infringement, but Pacific Lumber worked with the conservationists. It both sold, and donated, land to the League for far less than it would have been made if they had cut the trees down. In the 1950s, Pacific Lumber pioneered the idea of selective logging and sustainable yield – rather than clear-cutting; they cut down only mature trees, allowing young trees to continue growing. The bulk of today’s Humboldt State Park is made up of the Pacific Lumber Company’s holdings.

It was at this time that the Dyerville Giant got its name. Dyerville had been a small town at the confluence of the North and South forks of the Eel River, just north of the giant. In the 1920s it was the site of the park headquarters, and beginning in the 1930s also the site of a Civilian Conservation Camp, established as part of the New Deal. The fortunes of the small community ebbed and flowed over the next 40 years, but its fate was decided decisively in 1964, when the Eel River overflowed its banks and swept the town downstream. Dyerville was never rebuilt, but the giant tree in the area gained a name, and today a plaque and a picnic area commemorate the former town site. By the time it was named, the growth of the giant had slowed considerably, and its height was estimated at around 360 feet.

On September 30, 1985, after a week of aggressive stock purchases, Pacific Lumber was taken over by Charles Hurwitz and Maxxam Inc., of Texas. Following the completion of the hostile takeover, the Murphy family resigned, and PLC took on a vastly different form. Hurwitz and Maxxam immediately reinstated clear-cutting. Environmental activists were outraged, and in 1990 Maxxam and the redwoods became a boiling point for protest. In an embarrassing collusion between government and industry, the FBI tried hard to label the protest group, Earth First!, a terrorist organization (a label that has remained largely successful). Protests continued against Maxxam’s clear-cutting for over a decade, to little effect. Eventually, karma had enough and stepped in – Pacific Lumber filed for bankruptcy. In twenty short-years, Hurwitz and Maxxam’s aggressive and unsustainable forestry had undone the Pacific Lumber’s reputation and dismantled the company that the Murphy family worked so hard to build.

The Dyerville Giant, of course, wasn’t around to see the end of Pacific Lumber. It fell in 1991, during the angriest years of the protest. It will lie where it fell for another 400 years, slowly decaying and returning its nutrients to the soil. While it decomposes, it will provide a home for over 4000 species of birds, plants, fungi, insects and animals – a diverse ecosystem in its own right, and essentially ensuring that the Dyerville Giant will live forever. As Edward Munch wrote, “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”

Originally posted at

Featured image by: Craig Wolf

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