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.
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.
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 Wawona Tunnel Tree
Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California
Tuolumne Grove, California
Leggett Tunnel Tree
Drive-Through Tree Park, Leggett, California
Sequoia National Park, California