Full Chisel Blog

May 28, 2010

High Adventure in search of a mythical tree

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Uncategorized,Wood — Stephen Shepherd @ 6:34 am


In search of the mythical Western Red Pine continued yesterday with an excursion down south to the Manti La Sal National Forest to find the tree that everyone but me today seems to think is a myth.  Well that is not quite true all of the authorities that I have talked to as well as historians of the West believe that what the pioneers referred to as Red Pine was Douglas fir and the pioneers didn’t know the difference.  Hogwash.

I have worked on old pieces of pioneer furniture that was made of red pine, and after 40 years I know the difference between pine and fir.  I know most of the conifers, in wood and in tree form.  I even have corroborating evidence that the pioneers knew the difference as well.  Printed newspaper ads requesting white pine, for the flooring, fir and red pine for the supporting structures of a bridge built in Great Salt Lake City in the early 1850’s.

Botanical references have not included red pine since the late 1890’s, and this is not to be confused with the red pine [Pinus rubra] found in the eastern United States.  Form a dated chair ‘Public Works, GSL City, 1856’ shows sylvan characteristics unlike any other tree, the seat of a Windsor arm chair, painted and grained to imitate mahogany with gold stripes had the traditional bevels to the side of the seat to make it look thinner was actually the wane of the tree and included bark that was smoothed down and painted.  The underside of the chair was not painted, except for the stencil and had 22 sapwood rings and 88 heartwood rings.

So what happened to the red pine?  Good question, perhaps it met the fate of the Western White Pine which was destroyed by a blight, all of the white pine trees left in Utah were imported from the Black Hills about 60 years ago.  Brigham Young told the Pioneers ‘not to cut red pine for firewood, that it should only be used for furniture and building’.  There are several ‘Red Pine Canyons’ in the state but no red pine.  All of the Red Pine Canyons are on the north sides of mountain ranges with southern exposures.

Two years ago I did some consulting for the Museum of Church History and Art for the Mormon Church on the proper construction of a couple of large bents that were reconstructed in the museum to keynote the restoration project of the LDS Tabernacle.  Some of the scissor trusses [Israel Town’s patent called the Remington truss] and long beams needed to be replaced.  Some of the wood was used in the recreation of the structure of the roof in the museum exhibit.  As a result I was given a piece from the tabernacle’s original wood, it measured 3 inches thick by 12 inches wide and 36 inches long.  I got to select the piece and of course I took the red one, there were some of Douglas fir pieces as well, easy to tell the difference.  This piece also has a knot with some included bark [a dark red color].  The red pine is named for its bark but the wood is also a strong red color.

I have made a couple of walking sticks [canes], writing pens, knitting needles and tatting shuttles from the wood, I keep even the smallest of pieces of this precious wood.  It is a real pleasure to work and doesn’t behave like modern pines although it works like sugar pine but is harder.

This will have to be in two parts because the discussion I had with the National Forest Service Forester during this adventure made the trip a success, although I didn’t think the area would be inaccessible due to weather.  The place where I wanted to go will not be free of snow and open until July 4th.  Another trip is already in the planning stages.

 These aspen trees are on the open part of the Skyline Loop road at about 9000 feet and you can see how the winter snow has effected how these threes grow.

This is Sir George trying to get a reading on his camera at 9400 feet, and yes the wind was howling.


Here is one of my walking sticks made of Red pine.

More on the adventure later.



  1. Great story. With some bark, would it be possible to do a genetic test? That should be possible to distinguish it from Douglas Fir.

    Comment by Ken Pollard — May 28, 2010 @ 8:38 am

  2. Ken,

    That is a possibility, however with a thin microscopic slice of endgrain and a 10 power microscope, I should be able to make the distinction between fir and pine.

    I should have taken my walking stick with me to show the Forester. On our next visit I will take a copy of my book and a piece of red pine wood for her.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — May 31, 2010 @ 8:15 am

  3. Ok — first you have to convince yourself, but then, you might want to convince others. I don’t know anything about the Red pine, but it seems just from your two blog entries that there is already an established concept that it’s not a distinct species, that it is Douglas fir, and that fact is established to the satisfaction of people who read about it. To debunk a “fact” is a fun, worthwhile thing, but requires solid evidence.

    Comment by Ken Pollard — June 1, 2010 @ 6:49 am

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