Redwood Trees--the Ultimate Drive-In : Tourism: Travelers come from around the world to drive through the giants with tunnels drilled through their trunks.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nature is indeed a wonderful thing.

Consider the roar of Niagara Falls, the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, the majesty of Yosemite.

If that's not enough, consider this: Nature chose car-mad California--home of drive-through diners and banks, drive-through churches and mortuaries--as the one place on Earth to locate trees that are big enough to, well, to drive through.

And Californians have responded as Californians ought to. For more than 100 years they have bored holes and driven through, first with stagecoaches in the 1880s and continuing with automobiles into the 1990s.

What began as a crude effort to promote private toll roads and sell railroad tickets has now evolved into a whimsical tourist trade that includes such other redwood oddities as the One-Log Cabin, the Chimney Tree and the Trees of Mystery.

As they shuttle among such attractions along a stretch of U.S. 101 on the Northern California coast called Redwood Highway, most tourists are probably unaware of three drive-through redwood trees. All are privately owned and none is as awesome as the original drive-through, a Sequoia in Yosemite that fell in 1969.

But people do come from across the country and around the world, eagerly paying from $2 a carload to 50 cents a head to drive through, bicycle through, walk through and, in many cases, to bring their sons and daughters to see what they so vividly recall from their own childhoods.

"Some people consider this a religious experience; others just say we are exploiting Mother Nature," said Harold del Ponte, the owner of the Tour-Thru Tree in Klamath, about 35 miles south of the Oregon border.

"Of course, Mother Nature didn't cut the hole or build the road."

Del Ponte did--or at least he asked his nephew and a fellow tree faller to do it, back in 1976. Using a special seven-foot-long chain saw, they whacked an 8-by-7-foot hole through the 15-foot-wide tree in a little over 20 hours. When the tourists started coming--60,000 a year, del Ponte figures--the Air Force pensioner sold his nearby trailer park and became a full-time tree-tender.

Other trees have a little more history. The Chandelier Tree in Leggett, Calif., 180 miles north of San Francisco, was carved out in the early 1930s by Charles Underwood, a dairy farmer who took advantage of the new breed of motor tourists by converting his property to a campground and tourist attraction.

The tree is still in the hands of the aptly named Underwood clan. Underwood's grandson, also named Charles, now runs the attraction, along with an adjoining gift shop that sells an impressive array of redwood products--16 varieties of salt and pepper shakers, toothpick holders, boxes and banks, vases and plates, clocks and candlesticks, cribbage boards and key chains, lamps and sculptures, as well as redwood seedlings and living redwood burl.

"If it weren't for the so-called commercialization of the Chandelier Tree, this grove wouldn't be here," said Underwood, noting that admission fees keep the family from selling off its 250 acres of old-growth trees to loggers.

Underwood's sister, Barbara Stoddard of Pleasanton, Calif., said Chandelier Tree--which derives its name from its shape, that of an overturned chandelier--was not the first drive-through tree in Leggett, an old sawmill town that is now little more than a diner, grocery store, motel and drive-through tree. But the original, named for the local Coolidge family, was too tiny to accommodate any vehicle larger than a Ford Model T, so it was cut down in 1961.

The third drive-through tree, the Shrine Tree in Myers Flat, about 40 miles north of Leggett, is the result of an ancient lightning strike that blasted a car-sized tunnel in its massive trunk. But despite its non-human origins, or maybe because of them, it is as popular as the others.

Del Ponte said people from 135 countries have taken the time to sign little guest books he makes available in a small nook inside his tree.

The power of redwoods to draw a crowd--especially when the crowd can drive through them--was recognized by some of the first Europeans to settle. Alfred Runte, in his book "National Parks: The American Experience," documented how settlers "costumed the spectacular" as far back as 1878.

Then, he noted, a British visitor to the Tuolumne Big Trees in Yosemite wrote excitedly of a tunnel chiseled through the stump of the largest tree in the grove. Three years later, the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Co. promoted the completion of one of its roads by tunneling through the magnificent Wawona Tree.

That 26-foot-wide drive-through tree, perhaps the most famous of all, stood until 1969, when it finally was toppled by heavy winter snows. But before it fell, it was used extensively by the Southern Pacific Railroad to plug tourism, thereby helping to spread word of drive-through trees around the globe.

"It is probably no less absurd than what brings people to Disneyland--and it's certainly a lot cheaper," said Harry Terrill of Monrovia, during a recent visit to the Chandelier Tree. "It's much better than a bad movie and it's half the cost."

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