LeBaron: Longtime guardians of our dead trees

  • Luther Burbank and Ollie Bockee standing with a block of petrified wood bound for New York, NY circa 1917. Courtesy of the Sonoma County Library.

There's going to be a party at the Petrified Forest later this month. It's a centennial celebration, which is a little hard to explain, given that the volcanic episode that created these acres of natural history occurred about 3.4 million years ago and it has been a destination for the excited scientist and the curious tourist for 144 years.

The celebration (May 17 and 18 — free on the Saturday, by admission on Sunday) will have music and food and all the hoopla that comes with a birthday party. It will mark the 100th anniversary of the ownership — and dedicated stewardship — of three generations of determined women who have pushed back at State Parks' grandest plans to buy the site, who have made 100 years of pay-as-you-go improvements and created a tourist stop to both marvel at and learn from.

Let's talk a bit about tourism. It has always been a factor in the progression of our history. First came the Native Americans. Then came the tourists.

The Spanish marched up from San Francisco Bay. The first were priests and soldiers, but, for the most part, they were sightseers — tourists. The Fort Ross Russians had no military reason to follow the river upstream or climb the highest mountains. They were taking stories of what was here to see back home to Russia. They were tourists.

Tourism is a leading industry in our county — throw in wine and it is THE leading industry. How that came to be has a lot to do with the progression of transportation — of traveling.

Last month, I wrote about early travelers who — separately and in three languages — in the 20 years before any true settlements here, described the mighty oak forests and compared the area to "an English park."

The traveling writers who followed them would report that there were a lot more wonders to be seen than in any old Sherwood Forest.

In the 1850s, the first tourists came on horseback and in buggies to see the amazing geysers canyon, the No. 1 wonder of the northern frontier. Then, in 1870, a homesteader swinging his pickaxe discovered wonder No. 2 — chunks of wood that look like logs but feel like stone. He spread the word and kept digging, eventually uncovering a complete petrified tree, which he called "The Queen."

As word got out, a paleontologist from Yale made the long trip west to study the specimen, which he and his colleagues determined was Sequoia langsdorfii, an extinct species of redwood, which had been turned to stone by a pre-historic volcanic episode. Right in our own backyard.

Now stagecoaches met the railroad in Santa Rosa and followed the trails to the Big Geysers, passing right through the bailiwick of the old guy known as Petrified Charlie. Charles Evans, a Swedish immigrant who had sailed the seas before settling on the mountain on the eastern edge of Sonoma County — just three miles from the Napa line — had that pioneer sense of a profit to be made. He dug some of the dirt from around those astonishing logs and posted a sign saying "Petrified Forest," adding the amount of the admission fee.

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