IDOL OF BLUE GOLD
Not since pagan veneration of the sacred oaks of Jupiter1 have trees received the honor that three generations of San Diegans have bestowed upon the eucalyptus variety.
San Diegans planted olive trees by the hundred, citrus by the thousand, and eucalyptus by the multi-million. Olives and citrus indeed contributed to bodily welfare, but the coming of the eucalyptus from Australia was, to many people, the long awaited Millenium—practically a supernatural beneficence to every area of life: economical, medicinal, and ethereal. Eucalyptus provided not only wonder wood and wonder drugs, but wonder miracles. Indeed, to many early San Diegans it was wunderbar.
Enough printer’s ink was distributed by federal and state agencies, alone, in encomiums to the “gum tree,” to have required a raise in public taxes. And the private hot air generated in its behalf blew up a bubble more dazzling than the Credit Mobilier.2 The San Diego eucalyptus bubble, however, never exploded; it served first as a fetish, and then was retained as an ornament.
For a number of years after the mid-nineteenth century it appeared that almost no part of southern California’s business life would avoid revolutionary but beneficial changes from the introduction of the eucalyptus. Some of the big dreams became mere illusions; other phenomenal prospects failed to materialize only because San Diegans of the Victorian age, as fate willed it, were born thirty years too late (not too soon).
Consider two examples: shipping and potash. A California state publication of 1875 told how the tall, straight tree-emigrants from Australia permitted shipbuilders to lay down a keel almost two hundred feet long, and to build upon it with timbers and planking that surpassed oak and teak in strength.3 It was reported in 1888 that “the best whalers that sail the South Sea are of eucalyptus wood.”4 There is little wonder that California’s seacoast cities began to cultivate the gum tree seriously. The only trouble was that time moved on, but wooden ships didn’t.
Although the state report of 1875 was out of date when published, few really knew it. The trees of Frank A. Kimball and his brother Warren C. Kimball, of National City, were already in the ground.5 During the following decade they planted thousands more.6 The Kimballs were interested not only in ships, but in wharfs,7 with what were said to be indestructible eucalyptus piles.8
The potash industry, too, was outmoded in the last half of the 19th century exactly as was wooden shipbuilding-in each case by the mining industry. Potassium compounds from the earth were found, and the big business of potash production that had existed virtually unchanged for thousands of years suddenly was no more. If long-used methods of securing this product had continued another half century it is probable that southern California, with its potential of unlimited eucalyptus timber, could have become the nation’s capital for ceramics, glass, soap, fertilizers and munitions-because potash was used for just such vital manufacturing projects.
For two centuries prior to the Civil War, the making of potash from wood ashes was America’s foremost chemical industry. In addition to domestic consumption, millions of dollars worth of the product was exported annually from our country.
From three to five acres of well-timbered land was required to produce one ton of potassium carbonate. To get this valuable residue, the wood ashes were leached with water, and the solution evaporated in iron pots-thus, the name “potash.”
The depletion of American forests started a search for other sources of potassium. Germany finally became the supplier until World War I. During this period of belligerency, American production resumed and multiplied its pre-war output by forty times. During that war a San Diego company of which Fred A. Heilbron, local lawyer and civic leader, was an officer, made tons of potash by burning sea kelp on eucalyptus wood.
The official California report of 18759 quoted Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, the 19th century’s recognized world-expert on the eucalyptus,10 as saying that his tests showed that the ashes of these trees “contained a larger proportion of potash than the elm or maple, which are the trees most esteemed for the purpose in America. The yield from the latter trees is estimated at ten per cent of the ashes, while that from the eucalyptus is twenty-one per cent.”11
Californians read glowing reports, like the above, in the official state publications and in their newspapers,12 and they planted eucalyptus “like mad.”
FEET OF CLAY APPEAR
In the early 1900s over twenty-five million horses and mules furnished the power on farms of the United States.13 Millions more were used in mines, forests, and in both light and heavy urban hauling. Tough, straight timber was needed to make shaves, heavy wagon tongues and couplings, swivel-trees, beds and siding, spokes and rims for the millions of carriages, drays, farm wagons, plows and implements, and the horse-cars that the many millions of horses (and oxen) used in carrying the loads and in doing the work of the land. In any event it was too soon for California gum tree growers to get into the profitable act; the curtain was going down when they arrived.
Von Mueller14 had said that eucalyptus would revolutionize the manufacturing of carriages, wagons, farm implements and railroad freight cars. But his envisioned “revolution” was actually in the take-over of all such things by “tin lizzies,” lumbering motor trucks, and mechanized farm implements.
In spite of all that has been written above, the uses of the tall trees were encouraged by many other flames of hope. One of the most honest, earliest touted, and thereafter perennially claimed advantages of eucalyptus was that it would replace coal in California and in the whole southwest.15 This was a matter of no small moment. The only trouble was, as with some of the other unfulfilled promises, the moment of opportunity had already slipped by.
The Scientific American gave a report in 190316 that had its origin many years earlier17 in the claims of numerous writers. It praised in the eucalyptus a “remarkable sun power storage capacity . . . one percent of the solar energy received … its dry timber, heavier than coal, has an equal or higher thermal power, bulk for bulk, than coal … the equivalent of 20 tons of coal per acre per year.”
The date of the above article, 1903, is worth re-stating. Before that time the west and southwest had little good coal available, and their petroleum age had not arrived. In the 1880s San Diego’s crude oil was shipped in from Peru and her coal from Australia. Both were expensive.18 Wood was the fuel employed by early railroads19 and steam vessels. Sacramento river steamboats, for example, burned a cord of wood an hour in the 48-hour run from San Francisco to Butte City.20 In 1922 a Southern Pacific employee told this writer of his earlier experiences as a fireman on locomotives between San Francisco and Portland. He had the Siskiyou mountain run and said that he couldn’t throw logs into the firebox fast enough to keep up steam for the hard pull.
Most of the homes in California had wood stoves for cooking and open fireplaces for warmth. Even great hotels like Horton House and Hotel del Coronado, in the San Diego area, were equipped with fireplaces in nearly every room.21 San Diego city directories of and before 1900 pictured ads only of wood stoves. They listed almost as many wood dealers as saloons and livery stables!
Immediately after 1900 the steamships and railway locomotives converted to oil. Gas pipes laid in some of San Diego’s streets as early as 188122 began to serve more and more residences, although the cord-wood business continued on a modest scale.
SALES, SWALES, AND SCALES
When state and federal agencies were issuing lavish reports that the eucalyptus genus was one of “the most important to man in the vegetable kingdom 23 it is not
surprising that private promoters entered the business of selling both nursery stocks and land planted with groves of young gum trees.
The Kimball brothers were interested in such sales as early as 1875,24 and brokers in the land boom of the late 1880s didn’t overlook this priceless government propaganda in their sales pitches.
An illustration of the advertising used in such promotions has survived in a 32-page brochure of the Eucalyptus Timber Company, “capitalized at $100,000,” with headquarters in Los Angeles.25 The brochure is in the San Diego Public Library.
Public and private ballyhoo claimed that groves of eucalyptus trees kept summer temperatures in California’s hot valleys several degrees lower than was customary before the genus was introduced.26
Continued reports were circulated that eucalyptus groves dried the marshy swale lands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin valleys and left tillable soil where unhealthy swamps had been.
It was stated, truthfully, that the bark of the tree would furnish tannic acid;27 but the allegation that this would be a cheap local source of materials for tanning the millions of hides produced in California at that period was, perhaps, somewhat of an exaggeration.
Eucalyptus oil, which was “stored up in the pellucid glands” of the leaves28 and principally of medicinal benefit, was quickly publicized as possessing various economic values. From this oil, for instance, perfumes could be made29—and good ones; but left unsaid in these reports was the fact that they could be made more cheaply from coal tar.
Dyes could also be made from the oil.30 But, as with the perfume, dyes could be made more cheaply from coal tar.
One company in Alameda, California, claimed that their eucalyptus oil preparation prevented incrustations in steam boilers, to the unlimited benefit of all railroads!31 This discovery was nationally publicized.
The solution to boiler scale was trivial when compared with what the plantings of eucalyptus trees were said to do to the scale on grape vines. France furnished the principal evidence. “A writer in the Paris Temps mentions . . . that parasites (phylloxera, etc.) disappear from vines growing near the eucalyptus. The experiment, made during several years, and in several vineyards, has been uniform in its result.”32
The same parasites were the scourges of California’s grape growers.33 When the news from France reached California, thousands upon thousands of trees were sold for planting along the extensive and valuable vineyards from Napa and Sonoma to Escondido and El Cajon.
DINAH, BLOW YOUR HORN!
Railroad construction, more than any other activity, caused continuous and prolific horn-tooting about the value of eucalyptus trees-for ties. The Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe, in particular, were preparing to run transcontinental lines across the treeless wastelands of the southwest, and soon were to be laying down wooden ties by the million.
There had been flurries of publicity about the usefulness of gum tree wood for telegraph poles, pilings for piers, fence posts, and timbers for mines.34 However, its tendency to split when dried soon nullified its use for sawed lumber35 and for manufacturing hardwood furniture.36 It took forty years for the “captains” “working on the railroad” to realize that their gum trees were more like bubble-gum trees—even for ties—and that they had spent a lot of money, and wind, on a project that some of their stockholders considered a bit sticky.
During the last quarter of the 19th century the Kimball brothers of National City were both leading railroad promoters37 and eucalyptus planters in the San Diego area.
Frank A. Kimball’s diary of May, 1875, (several years before the railroad came to San Diego) shows that he was interested in planting large acreages of eucalyptus. In 1882 he was operating kilns fired with eucalyptus wood to make brick for the proposed new railway shops in National City.38 His brother, Warren C. Kimball, planted thousands of the trees along the Sweetwater River in 1884-85.39
No record has been found that the Kimball brothers planted trees for ties only. It is abundantly clear, however, that the plantings were principally for business purposes. They set out seedlings along the right of way of the railroad they helped to organize,40 and it appears that they had engine fuel in mind as well as usage for roadbed purposes.
Shortly after the turn of the century the Santa Fe system, with which the Kimballs had been associated, decided to experiment with eucalyptus ties in a big way. In 1906 they purchased the property now known as Rancho Santa Fe;41 in 1907 they sent E. E. Faulkner to Australia to secure a report about the use of eucalyptus for ties;42 and by 1910 they had planted three million trees on the 8800 acres of the Rancho. About the same time other persons and organizations, probably stimulated by the Santa Fe action, planted many acres of the trees in other parts of the county.43
All of this activity was a faux pas de luxe. Between twenty and thirty years earlier the Southern Pacific Railroad had experimented with 44,000 eucalyptus trees, and had tested them between the years 1877-1885 as telegraph poles and ties.44 The California State Board of Forestry in its first biennial report45 gave a careful review prepared by representatives of the Southern Pacific. Their conclusions were that the poles had a tendency to excess rot and the ties to crack and refuse to hold tie spikes. They abandoned the whole project.
THE FEVER TREE
A few capitalists were the persons most impressed by the many possibilities of using eucalyptus wood industrially; but alleged medicinal values of the gum tree turned most of the vast general public into cultists with more or less fanatical beliefs about its curative powers.
The rage began, as many popular customs do, with a comparatively simple, but valuable discovery. The fast-growing and extra large blue gum, in particular, helped eliminate swampy, unhealthy land in the poorly drained lower areas of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys where malaria-type fevers were a scourge to the inhabitants. There is so much testimony to this effect that little doubt can exist as to the general truth of the matter.
In a paper read before the California Medical Society in 1889, it was said that a stagnant swamp of two hundred acres would have water absorbed by eucalyptus trees growing in the area at the rate of millions of gallons per day.46
In the transactions of the California State Agricultural Society Report of 1895, Captain T. B. Merry described at length his serving on Sacramento River ships from 1854 to 1869. He reported that the region from the state capital to Red Bluff was so bad that “a worse fever and ague district did not exist in any portion of the American continent . . . They used to lay in quinine for family stores just as they would tea, coffee or sugar, but that period has passed by never to return; and the blue gum of Tasmania is to be thanked for it.”47
In a period of history when even doctors did not know the real causes of many diseases it was easy to overlook the sponge-like absorption of the stagnant water, and to assume that the foliage of the tree had a curative effect on malaria troubled areas “by emitting odorous, antiseptic emanations from the leaves . . . diffusing an agreeable, aromatic, camphoraceous, stimulating odor in the surrounding air . . . neutralizing marshy miasmas, and thus improving the healthiness of the district.” This quotation is from the report of the Secretary of California’s State Board of Health.48 Many official reports maintained that similar results had been experienced all over the world where eucalyptus had been introduced,49 and that it had become widely known as “the fever tree.”
The United States Bureau of Forestry Bulletin in 1903 attributed to the gum tree an “exhalation of volatile oils changing the oxygen of the atmosphere to ozone . . . the purification of germ-infested matter.”50
The next step in the ever-growing veneration of the tree was to forget possible advantages that resulted from great groves of large eucalyptus, and to believe that the mere presence of a few seedlings was sufficient to overpower the malarial forces of evil. The amulet theory came into vogue. The Southern Pacific Railroad’s report of 1886 stated that some small trees planted along the tracks between a malaria ravaged town and Tulare Lake, some distance away, changed the location from one of constant illness of its section men to a station as healthy as any other on the road.51
People began to believe that leaves of the tree purified the ground whereon they fell in the yards of residential areas.52 They burned dry leaves in their fireplaces in order that the eucalyptus oil fragrance would permeate and cleanse the air of the home. They even took the eucalyptus into their homes as an ornamental talisman.
En route to the almost occult-inspired behavior, and certainly as some of its causation, were the varied uses of eucalyptus for medicinal purposes.
Because of the tree’s beneficial use in areas with malaria it was assumed that it held some agency that could replace quinine. And sure enough, the state Medical Society advertised that eucalyptus gives a product like quinine that has “affected cures in which
quinine has failed.53
Von Mueller was certain that his favorite tree was beneficial for tubercular patients and for all persons with respiratory troubles.54 Eucalyptus oil became used in the leading and highly touted cough syrups and cough drops.55 Its leaves were used for cigars and cigarettes to aid asthma. It was burned in the patient’s room, as with saltpeter.56 It was also steeped to make a tea that was alleged to “purify the blood.”
Portieres of eucalyptus seedpods, sometimes strung with large colored beads, were used extensively in southern California homes. Long strands of the pods—the size of various marbles, depending upon the variety of gum tree—were draped artistically, and festooned over open doorways between entrance hall and living room or the living room and dining room.
The use of these portieres was started with one purpose in mind: to bring the health-giving odors of eucalyptus right into the home. Houses reeked with the smell, but people tolerated it, exactly as they tolerated the stink of sheep-dip at a slightly earlier era, because they believed it was guaranteeing better health.
These bits of sylvan drapery are remembered well. They were in this writer’s own home, and the homes of friends and acquaintances. In order to corroborate my own memory, on July 22, 1970, I telephoned to several persons known by me to have been in early-day San Diego, with the results now tabulated.
Mrs. Alice Fries King, daughter of the late nationally prominent artist, C. A. Fries, said, “Why certainly I remember those eucalyptus pod portieres. They were used all over town. People thought they had medicinal values. We had friends from Connecticut who used to visit us in those years, and they always took home a suitcase packed full of eucalyptus leaves to burn in their own fireplace in the winter, to purify the air and exude health-giving qualities .57
Mrs. Lionel C. Ridout, daughter of Harry S. Utley, a prominent San Diego district attorney of the World War I era, said: “Of course I remember the eucalyptus portieres in San Diego. I’ve seen many of them. My parents did not have them, but my grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. John Manning, who came here in 1886, had them. We children used to like to swing them together to hear the rustling, rattling noise. We had to be urged away from them. They were considered as aids to health; and so was eucalyptus tea. My grandmother made eucalyptus tea for us children in our play tea sets; she called it a blood purifier.”
Several other persons of my acquaintance either had lived in homes with such portieres, or had seen them in other houses.
Another triumph for this phenomenal tree was as a “cure” for diphtheria. In 1888 one reporter of twenty-six hospitalized cases of the dreaded children’s disease watched twenty-four of the cases cured in the following manner:58
“They take the child affected, laying it on a bed and covering it with sheets or blankets in such a way as to make a tent about it. Then they take a chopping-dish and fill it with hot water, keeping a spirit lamp under it until it comes thoroughly to a boil. Then they pour a tablespoonful of the essence of eucalyptus into the boiling water, which atomizes and is carried to the nostrils of the patient, who at once begins to cough and expectorate. In from twenty to twenty-five minutes, if the patient be not too far gone, it will have coughed up a ball of tough, white mucus from the throat. The danger is then past and the recovery of the patient is only a question of a few hours after the throat becomes cleared.”
In the home of this writer, until the time of World War I, his parents kept eucalyptus oil in the medicine cabinet at all times. During winter weather when colds and sore throats were epidemic in the community it was customary to lean over, and close to, an open dish of hot water into which a few drops of eucalyptus oil had been placed, and to breathe deeply of the rising steam. Gargles were made of water with a drop of oil, and occasionally a drop was taken directly on the tongue.
Kinney wrote in 1895 that “laymen more than doctors believe in eucalyptus cures,”59 and a physician had written six years earlier about the amazing medicinal values of the tree, that they “had not been proved, though asserted until belief is established.”60 Indeed they were established! The cure itself became a contagion. Devotees of eucalyptus believed in it with the fervor of religious zealots at the healing waters of a shrine.
FINIS, THE END!
In 1955 the United Nations published the results of a world-wide study of eucalyptus. In many lands it was found to be of great value, but as to California, the report said that almost the sole surviving use was for windbreaks in the citrus-growing districts. The conclusion was: “It may be said that at present the use of eucalyptus in California has come to a standstill. The example is exceptional enough to be worth stressing.”61
The year 1800, approximately, is the earliest date claimed for a planted eucalyptus in San Diego county;62 but many “first planting(s)” in this state have been chronicled as having been between the years 1856 and 1869.63
The hundreds of varieties of the genus, with their differing characteristics, are found throughout San Diego. Certain species were known to possess advantages for a given purpose, such as pilings for piers,64 that were not available in their relatives. It was known, too, from an early date, that many of the smaller, flowering trees were more desirable for yard ornamentation65 than were the blue gum and other gigantic members of the family that were impressive for the beautification of distant, expanded landscapes, like open canyons in San Diego’s Balboa Park.66
Some twenty-six popular illusions about the value of eucalyptus trees have been given in this article. There are others67—the blossoms were manna from heaven for bee-keepers—but twenty-six is sufficient for the whole alphabet, from air-conditioning to protection of Zinfandel wine.
The very name of this tree means wellcovered, deceptive; and it was a fooler to our fathers for fifty years. They talked so much about it that they became self-hypnotized.
The finest specimens are queens of the forest world, and in their domain a person still beholds them in awe—for their majesty, and not for money or medicine. It is said the forestation on Torrey Pines hill north of La Jolla was the key to selection of that spot for the campus of the University of California, San Diego. The plantings of E. W. Scripps, the Santa Fe Railroad, and the several investors who put trees in the Encinitas-Vista-Escondido arc, made possible the modern existence of some of the most beautiful—and expensive—residential and small rancho areas in the world. Throughout a thousand square miles of San Diego county the wood of the shattered dreams of the pioneers now frames our golf courses and parks.
A check of the gallery and open-air displays shows that San Diego artists derive from the eucalyptus more inspiration than from any other tree. Dr. George Wharton James, the literary leader of our 1915 Exposition, wrote in his Exposition Memories: “Then, too, the trees! When the wind was blowing I fairly reveled in the moving pictures formed by the tall and stately eucalyptus against the pure blue San Diego sky.”69
We have come to know that there is nothing magical or supernatural about the eucalyptus. To the contrary, it is just a beautiful and wonderful companion to have around. And as for the pioneers who planted them here, whatsoever their reasons, let us arise at the gates, and among the elders, and call them blessed forever.
1. Fraser, The Golden Bough, Ab. Ed. 1923, p. 160. Also, encyclopedias, Trees.
2. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, II, p. 202.Also, encyclopedias.
3. Appendix to Journals of Senate and Assembly (Calif.), Report of State Board of Health, 1875, V. 3, pp. 140-1.
4. Overland Monthly, N. S., 1888, V. 12, p. 456.
5. Diary of Frank A. Kimball, National City Pub. Library, Compare: Phillips, The Story of El Rancho de la Nacion.
6. San Diego Union, 6/21/1884 and 5/23/1885.
7. San Diego Union, Weekly, 11/24/1870.
8. Note 3, p. 143. App., etc., 31st Sess., 1894, V. 2, pp. 125-9.
9. Note 3.
10. Von Mueller, Eucalyptographia. (No pagination).
11. Note 3.
12. San Diego Union, Weekly 9/14/1871.
13. World Almanac, 1970.
14. Note 10.
15. App., etc., 27th Sess., 1887, V. 4, Calif. State Board of Forestry, p. 55. Also, App. etc. 31st Sess., 1894, Transactions State Agricultural Society, pp. 125-9.
16. Scientific American, Supp. V. 55, p. 23910, 5/30/03.
17. Note 15.
18. Fowler, in Heilbron’s History of San Diego County, V. 1, p. 199.
19. Note 15. (Forestry, 1887).
20. MacMullen, Steamboats, p. 77.
21. Author’s personal inspection and inquiries.
22. Note 18.
23. Note 3.
24. Note 5.
25. Eucalyptus Timber Company (Pub. Lib. R583.4).
26. Note 3.
31. App., etc., 29th Sess., 1891, State Board of Forestry, p. 26. Also, Overland Monthly, N. S., V. 12, p. 454.
32. Note 3, p. 137.
33. App., etc., 23rd Sess., V. 6. Also 24th Sess., V. 2, pp. 85-157.
34. Note 3.
35. United Nations publication, 1955, “Eucalyptus for Planting,” p. 48.
36. San Diego Union, 12/18/1932.
37. Smythe, History of San Diego, p. 391 & B. Also notes 5 and 6.
38. San Diego Union, 5/25/1882. See Phillips, note 5.
39. Noie 6.
40. Phillips, note 5.
41. San Diego Union, 8/17/1906, and 2/21/1957.
42. San Diego Union, 9/16/1957, and 10/12/1947.
43. San Diego Union, 12/6/1959, and 4/25/1963.
44. App., etc., 27th Sess., V. 4, pp. 227-9.
45. Note 44.
46. App., etc., 28th Sess., 1889, V. 6, p. 226.
47. App., etc., 31st Sess., 1894, V. 2, pp. 125-9.
48. Note 3.
49. Note 46.
50. Bulletin 35, quoted in Cur. Lit., V. 34, pp. 331-2.
51. App., etc., 27th Sess., 1887, V. 4, pp. 228-9.
52. Note 3. Also papers in Appendices cited above.
53. Note 3.
54. Note 10.
55. San Diego Union, 11/13/1884.
56. San Diego Union, 9/14/1871.
57. Journal of San Diego History, V. 17, No. 2, p. 2.
58. Note 15, 31st Sess.
59. Kinney, Eucalyptus; illustrated, Los Angeles, 1895.
60. Note 46.
61. Note 35.
62. San Diego Union, 2/14/1949.
63. San Diego Union, 12/6/1959 (1856), Note 5 (’63); Wilson, “William Wolfskill,” p. 206 (’65 or shortly thereafter); App., etc., 30th Sess., V. 1, p. 40, State Board of Forestry (’66); 1869 is a frequently mentioned date, App., etc., 31st Sess., V. 2, pp. 125-9.
64. Note 47.
65. Sessions, in Heilbron, Note 18, pp. 280-6.
66. George White Marston, pp. 14-15. Eucalyptus first planted in Balboa Park, near present Cabrillo freeway, on July 4, 1903.
67. San Diego Union, Weekly, 9/14/1871, (walking sticks); Union, 12/6/1959 (viscose, cellulose, rayon manufacturing).
69. James, Exposition Memories, p. 14.
Leland G. Stanford first received public notice as a writer in the Panama-California Exposition which gave him official literary honors, and considerable publicity, as San Diego’s “Glad Boy Poet.” Thereafter he earned four collegiate degrees in law and government administration, and in 1936 an honorary LL.D., acknowledging his extensive legal writings. He founded Balboa University (now California Western), taught and practiced law, founded a law book company of national scope, and then accepted appointment as San Diego county law librarian. In recent years he has had published three books of San Diego legal history, and numerous articles about interesting facets of the local scene.