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Fir and other Trees of Oregon

Pleasant Valley, Multnomah Co., Oregon, April 12, 1878.

To the Editor of the Gazette

Nothing seems so wonderful to newcomers here as the giant towering and evergreen fir trees of Oregon. Never before had they looked upon such tall, gigantic trees, some being 200 and 300 feet high. It is a saying that a newcomer has to look up twice before he can see the tops of them. They grow very upright and very thick, making a dense, gloomy forest, almost shutting out all sunshine from the ground, gloomy during the brightest days. How lonely one feels in wandering through such a forest where one vast solitude reigns in primeval grandeur! The trees stand so close that a team and wagon could not find space or room sufficient for traveling. Making roads cost much labor and time in such dense woods. The firs grow very erect, straight as the hands of nature could plant them. Their roots spread out, but have a very shallow hold of the ground, being near the surface. Standing so perpendicularly like monuments, they rest all their immense weight on their bases on the solid earth, and hence there is but little strain or purchase on the rots, like there ever is on the roots of crooked or leaning trees. Where firs have been blown down a person can see how near the surface and how widely extended their roots and what a shallow depth of earth was torn up with them, like a short section or cut of a great log. There are not many limbs near the earth, as it is a law of nature that all kinds of timber growing close together denude themselves of their lower limbs, and grow tall as if ambitious to climb, and the firs outclimb them all. It is very seldom that we see any crooks, ugly knots or hollows in the firs; nothing to mar their towering symmetrical beauty. Some have short stubs or remains of old limbs on the main trunks, but they do not spoil much the value of the trees for making good lumber. But generally their trunks are limbless, tapering but little, so that often a woodman can cut ten or a dozen rail cuts or sawlogs from a single tree, but perhaps on an average he could cut about seven or eight cuts per tree. The lowest limbs of the firs are the longest, the limbs becoming shorter higher up, till the tops become cone-shaped or pointed. So close and so many are the limbs, like so many roofs rising one above another; that they keep off quite heavy rains, so the newly-arrived emigrants can find a temporary shelter under such an ample canopy instead of pitching their tents. But the long continuous rains penetrate and soak through this great awning of nature, often the covert of animals. Those tall trees bend gracefully before the winds, that rustling among their branches, sound a little like the falling of rain. I think that such tall and shallow rooted trees could not long withstand the winds and storms of Iowa. Here there are no tornadoes to destroy the magnificent forests. But fire sometimes proves destructive to vast bodies of timber, burning the tops of trees or the limbs, the flames leaping from three to tree, spreading before the breezes, so that large districts are burned over and millions of stately trees destroyed. The trees being resinous, burn easily. It is the opinion of some that if there were severe droughts here, and the sunshine very warm, like the climate of California, and if it were as windy here as in Iowa, that wild, destructive flames would sweep over all the timbered regions of Oregon, destroying these mighty forests. The burnt districts look desolate and uninviting, covered with black logs, standing trees and stumps, charred by the fire. Yet they are more easily settled and brought into cultivation than are the green woods. It is a terrible task the work of years, to open a farm in such dense and heavy forests. The emigrant need not hope to be able to clear off a good farm merely by the use of the axe, chopping down and chopping up the trees like the emigrant farmers of other states did in opening up their farms. Here it would be the work of a lifetime to clear off a farm in this way. The farmer uses a long augur instead of the axe, and bores two holes into the tree that he wishes to destroy, the holes opening into each other, and then applies fire, so that the resinous firs gradually burn down, falling with thundering crashes. In the same way fire is applied to the fallen trees, burning them into parts, so that the charred remains of the logs are rolled together and burned. Thus acre after acre is brought into cultivation. Where the small firs and other small trees stand very densely thick, people slash or cut them with axes till they cover the ground with one immense brush heap. The slashing being done, the cut bushes are left to dry or season till July or August, when fire is applied to them, when they burn off like prairie grass. This is a much better and quicker way of clearing off those almost impenetrable thickets than the slow process of grubbing or digging them out of the ground. Chinese laborers are often employed in clearing lands as they work much cheaper than white men. I fancy that some of the readers of the Gazette would like to look upon the big trees of Oregon. When I was here in 1873 I helped to measure two monarch firs; one measured 21 and the other 24 feet in circumference, being respectively seven and eight feet in diameter. Of course, there are larger trees here than any I have yet seen.

It seems wrong to destroy by fire so many millions of fine fir trees, which if sawed into lumber would amply supply the demand for lumber in states where timber is scarce and lumber an object. Unless the Northern Pacific railroad or some other railroad is built to connect Oregon with the states and territories east of the mountains, we can have no market east for the immense lumber interests of Oregon. If we had such a road east, thousands of sawmills would soon be in operation sawing up the fine firs, pines, etc., of Oregon to supply the great and increasing demand for lumber in the far off east. Lumbering would thus soon become a vast lucrative business, benefitting millions of people. Considerable of lumber is shipped from Portland and other points on ships to distant parts, for shipbuilding and other purposes. Here, where lumber is in good and so abundant, the building of houses and barns is not very expensive. The sawmills at Portland, Oregon City, and other towns, do an immense business in sawing and selling lumber.

Nearly all the trees of this Northwest Coast are different from the trees of Iowa and Illinois; the firs being the most numerous. There are not many pines in this part of Oregon, but here are many stately cedars, some several feet in diameter, large enough for good sawlogs, making super excellent lumber. The oaks, ash and maples here are different from trees of that name in Iowa. Besides those species, there are but few deciduous trees, that is, trees that shed their leaves every autumn. So that the woods are evergreen, and hence the verdure is ever blooming. In clearing land here one feels reluctant to cut down the young and beautiful firs and cedars that would be so highly valued as ornamental trees in Iowa. There are the yew tree, laurel, chittim, alder, bearberry, willows of several kinds, dogwood, and some species that I know not much about, besides shrubs such as filbert or hazel, elder bush, wild currant, wild gooseberry, salalberry, salmonberry, huckleberry, etc., etc. Here art the "continuous woods" spoken of by the poet so long ago.

The scenery here is on a scale of grandeur commensurate with the mighty forests, giant mountains and rivers of Oregon.

JAMES RICHEY.

East Portland, Oregon.

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