Sequoia National Park turns 125 years old today

George Stewart, a newspaper editor in Visalia, is “the father of Sequoia National Park because of all he did to save the big trees,” said historian Terry Ommen of Visalia.
George Stewart, a newspaper editor in Visalia, is “the father of Sequoia National Park because of all he did to save the big trees,” said historian Terry Ommen of Visalia. Collection of Terry Ommen

Sequoia National Park, the nation’s second-oldest national park and home to mighty giant sequoias, celebrates its 125th anniversary on Friday.

But without the efforts of an obscure Visalia newspaperman, there might be nothing to celebrate.

A century before the phrase “tree-huggers” was coined to describe environmentalists, Visalia Delta associate editor George Stewart recognized the need to protect the giant sequoias from logging interests.

Congress passed the act creating Sequoia National Park, and on Sept. 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed it into law.

The park is the home of the Gen. Sherman tree, the world’s largest tree by volume, that is viewed by about 1 million people per year.

Stewart is “the father of Sequoia National Park because of all he did to save the big trees,” said historian Terry Ommen of Visalia.

Stewart arrived in Visalia in 1876. Before long, he was writing editorials about saving the big trees from logging.

“George Stewart was really a fan of the big trees and started lobbying big time to save them,” Ommen said. “He ended up having lots of contacts in Washington, D.C., and used those to pitch his case.”

Sequoiadendron giganteum trees are among the world’s oldest and biggest and exist naturally only on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada at elevations from about 5,000 to 7,500 feet.

Sequoia National Park, home to 26 groves of giants, is in the heart of the giant sequoia habitat zone extending from Placer County to the Tulare-Kern county line.

Stewart focused on saving the Garfield grove, which had been put on the market for purchase.

3,266Number of rings counted on a felled giant sequoia

The cause also gained steam when the utopian Kaweah Colony was established near Three Rivers and colonists began building a road toward Giant Forest to log the trees.

The federal law creating the park, and another law that went into effect a week later creating Yosemite National Park, saved both Garfield grove and Giant Forest and 20 smaller groves.

The park is a major draw for both tourists and residents of the gateway community of Three Rivers, said John Elliott, publisher of The Kaweah Commonwealth weekly newspaper.

“Everybody in this town has a story to tell about they came because of the park,” he said. “It’s such a magical place. We go to the park  it’s a way to recharge, to be unplugged in this beautiful wilderness and national treasure in our backyard.”

The first civilian to serve as superintendent was Walter Fry, who once had a summer job as a logger and helped cut down a giant sequoia.

He counted the rings — 3,266 years.

“He quit,” said Bill Tweed, retired park naturalist and historian. “He said he would never do that again.”

In 1940, Kings Canyon National Park north of Sequoia was created, and the two are now operated as one.

The parks now attract about 1.5 million visitors a year; in 2012, visitors spent an estimated $122.1 million inside the parks and within 80 miles, according to a University of Idaho study commissioned by the National Park Service.

At first, however, there was no tourism because there were no roads.

But in 1903, the 9th and 10th U.S. Calvary regiments – African-American units called Buffalo Soldiers – finished extending the Kaweah Colony road to Giant Forest.

In charge was Capt. Charles Young, the second black American to graduate from West Point.

“He opened the park to tourism,” Tweed said.

The New Deal in the 1930s brought the Civilian Conservation Corps to transform the park.

“There were 1,000 CCC enrollees working every day on buildings, stone walls, trails and campsites,” Tweed said.

Stewart, the founder, remains an important figure in the history of Visalia and the park.

In 1930, when he was still alive, Mount Stewart in Sequoia National Park was named in his honor.

Stewart was the right person to lead the effort, Ommen said: “He was a natural leader. People gravitated to him. He communicated with powerful people, and they listened to him.”

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks celebration

Saturday, Sept 26

Free entry to all national parks

  • 7 a.m. - 10 p.m.

The public is invited to an all-day celebration of the 125th anniversary of Sequoia National Park and the 75th anniversary of Kings Canyon National Park.

  • 10 a.m. - noon

A special anniversary ceremony of music and guest speakers under the trees will take place in Sequoia National Park at the Gen. Sherman tree main parking area. Speakers will share highlights of the past 125 years and hopes for the future. The area is wheelchair accessible.