The Wawona Tree of Yosemite National Park in Beauties of California (1883). It fell in 1969. (via University of Connecticut Libraries/Wikimedia)

A giant fell last weekend: the towering Pioneer Cabin Tree at Calaveras Big Trees State Park in California toppled in a winter storm. The giant sequoia was likely hundreds of years old, but was most famous for one distinctive feature: a tunnel through its trunk.

Drive-through trees were created amid groves of giant sequoia and coastal redwoods around the West Coast in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were a novelty to attract tourism, visually emphasizing the colossal size of the trees. Before the hole in the Pioneer Cabin Tree, which came from an earlier fire, was expanded 137 years ago into a complete tunnel, 19th-century photographers had captured people standing and sitting within the cabin-size cavity.

The Pioneer Cabin Tree before its hole was further opened into a tunnel (1850–1950) (via Boston Public Library/Flickr)

Photography was a major medium in encouraging public and political interest in national parks, and the hollowed trees made for an incredible visual. Horse-drawn carriages driving through them demonstrated just how large and otherworldly these natural wonders were, and that such wild places could be tamed to human whims. Later, automobiles tooling through reminded viewers that these landscapes were accessible for road tripping.

While great for building visitor enthusiasm, tunnels were terrible for the trees, weakening their stability. “In those early days, national parks usually were managed to protect individual features rather than to protect the integrity of the complete environment,” the National Park Service states. The Wawona Tree in Yosemite National Park was cut in 1881 and teetered over in 1969 during an extreme winter.

News of the Pioneer Cabin Tree’s fall shared by the Calaveras Big Trees Association (screenshot by the author via Facebook)

Like the Wawona Tree, the Pioneer Cabin Tree will likely remain prone on the forest floor. The Calaveras Big Trees Association stated that it will offer a “habitat for many creatures … slowly decomposing to improve the soil for future sequoias.”

Few of the tunnel trees are left. Those that survive are mostly private California roadside attractions: Shrine Drive Thru Tree in Myers Flat, Klamath Thru Tree in Klamath, and Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree in Leggett. Sequoia National Park has the Tunnel Log, cut from a giant sequoia after it fell in 1937, and Tuolumne Grove in Yosemite includes the Dead Giant, which had the fortune of already being dead when it was cut in the 1870s.

Even as the age of mutilating these natural wonders for entertainment has passed, the image of the goliath tree presiding over the roadway remains a part of the visual culture of American tourism. Their tree collapsed in the 1960s, but National Parks staff at Yosemite still get regular requests from visitors who want to drive through a strange icon of human progress and environmental beauty.

Pioneer Cabin Tree

Calaveras Big Trees State Park, California

The Pioneer Cabin Tree in Marvels of the New West (1887) (via Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr)

Pioneer Cabin Tree on a vintage postcard (via Malina Jones/Flickr)

A carriage traveling through the Pioneer Cabin Tree (1886) (via Library of Congress)

The Pioneer Cabin Tree (2015) (photo by Erlend Haddeland/Wikimedia)

The Wawona Tunnel Tree

Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California

The Wawona Tree in an 1887 painting, included in Redwoods: The World’s Largest Trees (via Wikimedia)

Looking through the Wawona Tree (1900–05) (via New York Public Library)

Horse-drawn wagon driving through a tunnel in the Wawona Tree (1902) (photo by Charles C. Pierce, via California Historical Society Collection/Wikimedia)

President Teddy Roosevelt driving through the Wawona Tree (1903) (via Library of Congress)

The Wawona Tree Tunnel on a Brück & Sohn postcard (1904) (via Brück & Sohn Kunstverlag Meißen/Wikimedia)

The Wawona Tree (half of a stereograph) (June 15, 1918) (via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

New Jersey tourists at the Wawona Tree (1928) (via Chetkres/Wikimedia)

The Wawona Tunnel Tree (September 1962) (via EditorASC/Wikimedia)

The fallen Wawona Tree (2012) (photo by PunkToad/Wikimedia)

Dead Giant

Tuolumne Grove, California

The Dead Giant of Tuolumne Grove (1873–83) (photo by Carleton Watkins, via National Library of Wales/Wikimedia)

The Dead Giant of Tuolumne Grove (1865–1925) (via New York Public Library/Wikimedia)

The Dead Giant of Tuolumne Grove (2014) (photo by Myrabella/Flickr)

Leggett Tunnel Tree

Drive-Through Tree Park, Leggett, California

The tunnel tree at Drive-Through Tree Park, Leggett, California (photo by Brian Grogan, via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

Tunnel Log

Sequoia National Park, California

Tunnel Tree in Sequoia National Park (1963) (photo by Ernie Tyler/Flickr)

Tunnel Tree in Sequoia National Park (2008) (photo by David Smith/Flickr)

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...