California's Gold Rush Tree

When James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill on the American River in 1848, the California Gold Rush began. So did the mass harvest of the sugar pine, the largest North American pine.

John Sutter had set up his mill at Coloma to saw sugar pine. The tree's tremendous size--200' heights and diameters of 18' have been recorded--meant lots of quality boards from a tree. And the wood was lighter and easier to work than other pines.

Little did Sutter suspect how his lumber business would boom with the coming of the prospecting Forty-niners. They quickly created demand for boards to build mining shacks, sluice boxes, and flumes to extract the gold from river banks and stream beds. It became shoring for mines and bridges to cross the waterways. Sugar pine was used for homes, stores, and roof shingles.

After the Gold Rush, settlers began farming and ranching in the valleys. And just as before, the sugar pine yielded wood for their barns and fences, even though the remaining trees were 100 miles away.

As California's fruit-growing industry developed, growers turned to the sugar pine for boxes and crates because it imparted no taste to the fruit. It was also good-looking.

Even after 150 years of harvesting, sugar pine still grows in commercial amounts in California and Oregon. But to ensure future trees, forest managers have been known to hire sharpshooters to drop the large (10-20" long), otherwise uncollectible, unopened cones from the towering treetops!

Illustration: Jim Stevenson