Jason Cowan
The Union Democrat

The iconic Tunnel Tree at the Calaveras Big Trees State Park toppled over Sunday during a åΩthrough the Mother Lode, state officials confirmed Monday.

Tony Tealdi, a supervising ranger, said the 2,000-year-old tree, known formally as Pioneer Cabin Tree, fell at approximately 2 p.m. Sunday. No injuries were reported at the park that was open during the incident.

“Nobody heard or saw it fall,” he said. “There weren’t very many people there due to heavy rains.”

It wasn’t known Monday morning what caused the fall of the tree that was 250 feet tall by 33 feet wide. Environmental scientists were on scene Monday investigating, Tealdi said.

Lisa Boulton, executive director of the Calaveras Visitors Bureau, said James Sperry, owner of the land, carved the tunnel into the sequoia with an axe in 1881. The tree was hollowed out before that by a fire, likely by a lightning strike.

“I think he was looking for a big enough tree to carve so a car could go through,” she said.

The lightning strike made it easier to carve the tunnel shape, she said.

“It would have hit the top and come down to the ground. They’re very tall. They make good lightning conductors.”

The tree was carved to divert attention from the Wawona Tree in Yosemite to Calaveras County. Travellers were able to fit a Ford Model T through it in the early 1900s but not much else. Tealdi said the sequoia was wide enough for a horse and carriage.

Tealdi speculated the tree could have fallen for a combination of reasons related to the weather. The giant sequoia, though alive at the time, was not healthy. After it fell, it splintered. He said about 25-30 feet of the tree, near the base, was still standing.

Bouton said the root system of a giant sequoia can be shallow. Mature trees root up to about 20 feet in depth. Tealdi said they received 8 inches of rain and 6 inches of snow Sunday.

Boulton said surface levels of a nearby creek had risen to the base of the tree.

“Since this tree was right next to the creek and the tree was flooded right now, it would have destabilized the tree underneath,” Boulton said.

“I think fire is actually more friendly than water is.”

The tunnel tree is part of an attraction that is dying off throughout the state. According to the United States Department of Agriculture there are about four sequoia tunnels and three or so redwood tunnels along Highway 101. Boulton said the trees are part of a dying breed.

The Wawona Tree fell in 1969.

“I shouldn’t think there are many of them (left),” Boulton said. “So, there are a small number having been made, this would have been one of the few. People just wouldn’t do that kind of thing anymore.”

Consensus among Calaveras County officials interview Monday was the loss of the tunnel tree was sad and the end of an era.

“It’s a devastating blow for us as humans,” Tealdi said. “It’s going back into the forest. We’re leaving the tree in its final resting place. It will be there for a long time. It will be food, a home. It will still be part of the forest environment even though the human portion is gone.”

Boulton said she didn’t think it would hurt tourism to the area and Calaveras, though. She said it has put Calaveras on the map internationally. Tealdi said he had interviews later Monday with people as far away as London.

“I actually think because of the international coverage it has received, it will be really good for the park,” Boulton said. “People are hearing of Calaveras Big Trees.”

Contact Calaveras County reporter Jason Cowan at jcowan@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4531. Follow him on Twitter at @jcowan1031.