They are among the largest trees in the world, and they stand right here in our historic downtown area. Hillsboro, Oregon, residents from all walks of life have had the awe-inspiring experience of standing under the majestic and massive Courthouse Sequoias on Main Street. On the South entrance to the Washington County Courthouse stand a row of Sequoiadendron giganteum, which are some of the biggest trees in the United States. Their trunks are as wide as school buses, and their canopies are so large that a small city of people could live up there. The largest is close to 155 feet high and has a girth of 32 feet. But who planted them, and how did they get here?
The Hillsboro Historical Society (HHS) has worked on this issue in the past and the history of the trees. Recent research indicates that the trees are thought to have been planted there in 1880 by Tualatin Valley pioneer John R Porter. The HHS has been heading up a project to digitize the Hillsboro Argus onto the historical archives at the University of Oregon.
This past year the Hillsboro Argus from 1922 to 1932 was digitized. This effort took thousands of scans and millions of bits of data, but the result has been nothing short of a treasure trove. After the work was done, an HHS researcher found a statement from 1927 by the daughter of another Hillsboro native, Rebecca Goodin. Goodin explained that John R. Porter stopped by her home and gave her mother a beautiful rose on his way to the County to give them the Sequoias, which he called Calivarius. The year this happened was 1884 or 1885. She says Mr. Porter hoped to leave a legacy of his life to the people of our fine county.
Leave a legacy he did. Have a look at the five trees that remain from the original eight trees that were planted.
Now here is where the story expands a bit. You see, John R. Porter was the son of William and Susannah Porter, who came to our valley with his wife and family from Ohio in 1847, and he set up a Donation Land Claim Northeast of Forest Grove. John was born before the family came. He was in his early 20s when the wagons came West. The Donation Land Claim is seen below and was 640.60 acres. As John became a man, he filed for a claim of his own to the East of his parent’s claim. See below.
Here is where John Porter’s 160-plus acre claim was located. Modern-day Susabauer Road cuts across the property, and Hobbs Road and Long Road both run the centers of it. It was here and on his Father’s claim that Porter would earn his name in the history books.
John Porter developed an interest in trees and started a nursery on his farm. When word of the California Gold strike reached Oregon, John went to make his fortune. On the journey, John rode into a Sequoia forest in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Young Porter did not find the amount of gold he thought he could, but he loved the trees so much that he filled his saddlebags with cones and some seedlings and returned to his nursery in Oregon. When he headed North from California, he could not have known that he was bringing the mighty tree to the Pacific NW for the first time. When he came back, he planted the seeds and began to propagate them. His labors from that time until the day he took the 8 Sequoias to the courthouse are substantial. He had a successful nursery and ran ads in the Hillsboro Argus and around the NW. Our research has unearthed one of those ads. Jon is pushing the California BIG TREE – also note that the business is called John R . Porter and Son Nursery.
Porter was most certainly one of the first nurserymen in the Pacific NW and a visionary. He only could guess that the giant trees of California would be able not only to grow but flourish here. If he brought them here in the late 1840s and planted them, he may have lived to see some of them grow to 60 feet tall, but a tree of that age (30 years) may only be 1 to 2 feet across.
We can opine that John Porter knew what he was doing, and at the same time, he knew it would be a generation or more after his efforts that the realization of what he had done would manifest itself.
John died in 1886, only two years after his gift to Washington County was made. But by that time, he had already sold and planted his Sequoias around the Region, including Forest Grove where one of his trees was planted in the early 1850s.
The City of Forest Grove is home to many large Sequoias that Porter’s efforts made possible. Dozens of them plants before those at the Washington County Courthouse rise from the city which is known as “Tree City” here in Oregon. One of them is on the corner of Pacific Avenue and B Street and is the largest tree in Oregon. You can see a great episode of Grants Getaways’ story about Porter, the trees, and their impacts. Click here to watch and find out more.
How long can a Sequoia Tree live, and how big could those at the Courthouse in Hillsboro get? Would you believe they can grow another 120 feet and gain another 10-15 feet plus at the base in terms of circumference? These big boys can not only live decades and Centuries but Millenia. WOW!
If they get adequate water and nutrients, Giant Sequoias can live to be well over 3,000 years. They are the largest single-stem tree species in the world, with respect to wood volume and mass, and they grow best in a climate of snowy winters and dry summers. Read More here –
Given the fact that the wildwoods of California were a prehistoric forest when Porter went there, we know he was looking at trees 1,500 to 3,000 years old. A man would look like an ant standing under that, and no one back East would have ever seen a tree that large. Porter was right to dream that something that other-worldly could be worth more than gold. A man of vision brought those trees here, and the enjoyment is ours, and future generations will only enjoy them even more. Imagine that- something that keeps growing and getting better over time.
Climate change can most certainly threaten these trees as they need 500-800 gallons a day to survive. How that will look going ahead in Oregon remains to be seen. Many of the greatest Sequoia groves left in California have burned up in these horrible fires in the past decade. Many remain, and scientists are working to find ways to save them above and below the ground.
Thank you, Mr. Porter, for what you did and for your vision.
- The Courthouse Sequoias are protected as the Giant Sequoia Heritage Tree Site
- Here is an amazing article about the story of Porter and much much more history – Tree People Of Walla Walla wrote the story How the Giant Sequoia Cam To The Pacific NW, And Beyond
- The General Sherman Tree (Sequoia) is the world’s largest tree regardless of species. The General Grant Tree is the 2nd Largest Tree and is also a Sequoia.
- The Porter Road Sequoia Grove outside of Forest Grove is still growing and planted by Porter himself at the site of a nursery- could have been his nursery. Here is a historic photo we share with you provided by Tree People of Walla Walla-
The Porter Road Sequoia Grove is shown here decades ago.