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Antonio Ravalli: a renaissance man in ponderosa country

Renaissance man: Father Antonio Ravalli

I have been reading a wonderful little book called “Ponderosa - people, fire and the West's most iconic tree” by Carl Fiedler and Stephen Arno. It's a book no forester or natural historian could resist, covering the history, botany, silviculture, ecology, utilisation and management of one of the world's greatest trees: the ponderosa pine (botanical name Pinus ponderosa).

More of the ponderosa pine tree in a moment, but first an historical digression.

Early in Fiedler and Arno’s book there is a throw-away anecdote from the mid-19th Century about one of the first Europeans to move into ponderosa country, in what were then known as ‘the new territories’ of western north America (today the US states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho). This European was Father Antonio Ravalli, a Jesuit priest from one of the great Italian families of the Renaissance, and a classic 'renaissance man'. In addition to being a priest and missionary, he was trained as a physician, pharmacist, philosopher, architect, builder, sculptor and engineer.

There is some controversy these days about the role and zeal of early missionaries in their interactions with indigenous populations, and this includes the Jesuits in north America, but it would appear that Ravalli must have been a good man as well as a brilliant intellectual and technical all-rounder. He was described by a contemporary who knew him as “intensely affectionate [and] … sincere and constant in his affection.”

Ravalli was recruited to missionary work by Father Pierre-John De Smet. De Smet was a "Black Robe" as the native Americans called the Jesuit missionaries. In 1841 De Smet and his fellow priests established the first mission station in the valley of the Bitterroot River. De Smet recruited Ravalli (aged then in his early 30s), who travelled out from Italy, crossed the American hinterland, and eventually reached the St Mary’s mission In 1845.

Ravalli immediately saw the potential of the region's magnificent ponderosa pine forests. Here, basically untouched by the human hand, was a matchless resource of lumber for construction of dwellings, churches and settlements.

Ponderosa pine grows into a huge tree (it is the tallest of all the pines, reaching to over 70m in height), and has strong, straight-grained timber. I once knew the tree quite well, as I used to walk past a superb specimen every day in the grounds of the Forestry School in Canberra, where I was a student in 1961 and 1962.

Ponderosa pine at the Forestry School in Canberra in 1961 (photo by Ian Bevege)

Ravalli had brought with him from Italy a basic tool chest, and this survives in a Montana museum. It is a fine set of carpenter’s tools, but wholly inadequate for felling, crosscutting and sawing a huge forest tree into lumber.

Father Ravalli's tool chest, complete with broadaxe, adze, saw, hammers, measuring callipers and carpenter’s plane

Inadequate it might have been, but this did not daunt Father Ravalli. As Fiedler and Arno tell us:

... the resourceful Ravalli then set out to design a sawmill, complete with circular saw. He heated and pounded flat the iron rim of a wagon wheel, cut teeth into it, and then fashioned a means to turn the blade with water from a nearby stream ....

The imagination boggles at the extent and complexity of the difficulties overcome in this operation, and to this moment I cannot imagine how he accomplished the cutting out, setting and sharpening of the saw teeth. Among all his other accomplishments, Ravalli must also have been a blacksmith and a saw-doctor, and been able to fabricate a forge and anvil, and tools for cutting and filing iron.

Nevertheless, he did it. As a result, an Italian priest became the first timber cutter, the first millwright, the first sawmill operator and the first to design and build with manufactured timber in the great pineries of the western USA.

Amongst Ravalli’s early constructions was a cabin for the missionaries and this still exists today, completely restored. This photograph captures the original late in the 19th century when it was still in use, probably fifty years after he built it, although not by Father Ravalli who died (in Montana) in 1884 at the age of 72:

Ravalli's first building at the St Mary's mission station, constructed entirely of ponderosa pine

Ravalli also constructed the region's first grist and flour mills. He lived at the mission for 12 years, learning the language and establishing a school. He had a reputation amongst the Bitterroot Salish people as a great healer, having inoculated them against smallpox (at a time when this was scarcely known about outside pioneering medicos in Europe, and when the disease was ravaging the North American native people).

The interior of the church that he built and furnished was described as an "Italian Renaissance Cathedral in miniature".

Father Antonio Ravalli in his black robe, his church at St. Mary’s in the foreground and pine-clad mountains beyond. A painting by Ace Powell

Returning to ponderosa pine tree, I can still remember my discovery of the beautiful forests in which it grows. In 1965 I was living in the Pacific Northwest city of Seattle, and loved exploring the glorious forests of western Washington and Oregon along the Olympic and Cascade Mountains. This was Douglas-fir country, but there were numerous other coniferous tree species to enjoy: western red cedar, hemlock, Sitka spruce, silver fir and so on, all species that thrived on high rainfall and misty mountains. Then one day I journeyed across the Cascade Mountains into eastern Washington and for the first time encountered the native pine forests of that vast hinterland between the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains. At the higher and cooler elevations, the dominant tree was lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta); this graded into ponderosa pine lower down the mountains, as the climate became warmer and drier.

I was already familiar with pine forests at that time - but only as man-made plantations of Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) and maritime pine (Pinus pinaster) in Western Australia, and of southern pines in Queensland.

I love pine plantations with the soft bed of needles (perfect for a nap after lunch on a hot day), the resinous aromas, the wind sighing in the needles, and the black cockatoos cackling and calling as they tear the cones apart. But these were forester-made forests, where the trees grew in lines and were tightly packed together. The native pineries of eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana were a revelation. They were open, sunny and grassy, and beckoned irresistibly to the bushwalker and camper.

Ponderosa pine country, east of the Cascade Mountains – native forest, but almost a savanna,

with its grassy understory

Fiedler and Arno's book does justice to this wonderful tree and the beautiful forests, while at the same time they highlight the many contemporary challenges. Most of the ponderosa forest today is second or third-growth, and nearly all of it is overstocked and carrying heavy bushfire fuels (unlike the area pictured above, which has been subject to mild-intensity prescribed burning). Residential communities have sprung up everywhere - people and ponderosa trees like the same sort of climate and scenery. But with the people have come all those problems familiar to Australian foresters. Opposition to thinning and prescribed burning is the foremost difficulty, and the consequences are serious wildfires and insect plagues.

But the thing that has captured my imagination is the interaction of the ponderosa pine tree with pioneering priests and timbermen … not the insoluble and intractable problems facing modern forest managers. These are too familiar and depressing to spend more time sorrowing over them.

I conclude with a final photograph, taken from Fiedler and Arno's book. This is the Secret Town Trestle on the Central Pacific Railroad, constructed entirely from ponderosa pine, in about 1865.

Father Ravalli, I think, would have regarded this construction as "a piece of cake".


Fiedler Carl, E. and Stephen E. Arno (2015): Ponderosa - people, fire and the West's most iconic tree. Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula Montana

The pictures of F Ravalli that heads this story and those of his tools and his cottage are taken from the website of the Historic St Mary's Mission and Museum: the internet reference is

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