Some old trees.—number I

By Sara A. Stone
The full title of this paper should be ‘Old and Historic Trees in and about Boston,’ for some of the trees mentioned are simply old, and have no connection with history properly speaking; that is, they are not connected with events of importance in the nation's annals.

There are a number of trees now standing which date back as far as the Revolution, a time which is rich in ‘local color.’ The Washington elm is the first of these to occur to the mind. Of the trees simply ancient, the Waverley oaks and the Hemlock wood of the Arnold Arboretum are prominent examples. Around these trees there is an atmosphere which fires the imagination. We long for the genius and the pen of a John Muir to penetrate the mystery and interpret the charm which surrounds these patriarchs. The emotion they awake is akin to awe, and is like that which inspired the writers of some of the grandest psalms, the psalms of nature. It stirs the reverent side of our being, while the feeling with which we view a tree like the Washington elm, in addition to our respect for its age, is that of pride and patriotism.

When we think of the events which have happened since the time of the early settlers, when this tree was young, or in its prime,—their struggles with nature and the Indians, sometimes with each other, the events which led to the Revolution, the birth of the constitution, the rise of the anti-slavery movement, and the final triumph of its advocates, the progress of science, the inventions which contribute so much to our happiness, the birth of [2] literature and art in America,—when we think of what all this means, the thought of human achievement stimulates us to try to keep up to the high standard set by our predecessors, especially those who rocked the ‘cradle of Liberty’ in the troublous times preceding the Revolution.

On the first complete map of Boston, drafted by Captain John Bonner in 1722, is a record of three trees only, standing at the time the first settlers came. One of these, represented as the largest, was the ‘Old Elm’ on Boston Common, blown down in the great storm of 1876. The two others were near the middle of what is now Park street, both long since victims of the march of time. A chair made of the wood of the ‘Old Elm’ is now in the Boston Public Library. One of its descendants was planted on the hill where the Soldiers' Monument stands in 1889, but it is not marked.

Shawmut, as the new settlement was first named, thus presented a striking contrast to Charlestown, which is said to have been covered with timber at that time. Fuel was obtained from Deer Island. So the first duty of the new comers was to plant trees, and with an eye to domestic economy the first trees planted: were probably fruit trees.

There were large gardens on the summit of Beacon Hill, and also some belonging to the residences along Summer street. A quaint story of one of these old gardens is given in an article entitled, ‘A Colonial Boyhood,’ in a recent number of the Atlantic Monthly, and it runs as follows:—

Come with me out of the Subway station at Scollay Square. You will have been expecting to plunge at once into the bustle and hurly-burly of one of the busiest corners of Boston, a passing glance at Governor Winthrop's statue your only tribute to old times. But we have been traveling not only under the streets of the city, but through two centuries and a quarter of time, and emerge to find ourselves on the outskirts of Boston, on the hillside road which in the old days skirted the foot of Cotton Hill. We are higher up in the world than we had expected to be, and the water of the town cove comes in nearly to the foot of the hill on which we stand. [3]

A more distant outlook is over the roofs of houses and the masts of ships to the beautiful land-locked harbor and island studded bay. In another direction, where we had thought to see the massive pile of the new Court House, a steep, grassy knoll rises behind the scattered houses, which with their gardens lie between it and the road.

Let us enter the front gate of the nearest of these houses. An old gentle-woman and a child, perhaps five years of age, are walking in the South garden which lieth under it. They are none other than little Nathaniel Mather, Increase Mather's second son, and his grandmother, Mrs. Richard Mather, with whom he is spending the day. . . . They have a basket between them in which to gather fruit, and the grandam is telling her little charge that she picked the first apples that grew on that early tree, long ago when Grandfather Cotton lived there and was minister to the first church.

While we are in this hill garden, let us take a look across the basin of the Charles and see if we cannot perceive the outlines of another orchard lying in the edge of Watertown, which was planted about the same time on land which Simon Stone chose for his dwelling-place soon after his arrival in 1636. The old gardens on Beacon Hill have long ago made room for modern buildings, but one of the trees of the orchard in Watertown, a pear tree, is still standing in Old Cambridge Cemetery, twisted and gnarled by the storms of two hundred and sixty years. Until within a year or two, it has borne fruit, hard and knotty like its own trunk.

Tree vandalism is not a new thing, for in 1635 the town passed an order to ‘prevent the trees planted in the settlement from being spoiled.’ So tree-planting went merrily on, with as little conception of the great events which should take place under their branches a hundred years or more later as we have when we plant for the future on Arbor Day.

Of the other trees on Boston Common, the oldest are those in the Beacon street mall, set out in 1815 or 1816. This was the mall which Doctor Holmes so loved, where the Autocrat and the Schoolmistress were walking that famous morning when [4] they decided to take the ‘long path’ for life, together. This mall was also the scene of the farewell parade of the regiment which afterward covered itself and its young commander with glory at the siege of Fort Wagner, an event which is now fittingly commemorated by a magnificent bronze bas-relief.

Several old trees once stood :close about the Common, planted probably soon after those first ordinances for the purpose. ‘The finest English elm in town’ stood alone in its glory in what was known as Phillips pasture on Fort Hill, and dated probably from 1700. There was also a very tall English elm on Sudbury street, on the old Storer estate; and on the edge of High street, in what was then Quincy place, stood three handsome English elms, supposed to have been set out early in 1700.

Opposite the Old Granary Burying Ground stood a row of fine trees, which originally formed an avenue known as Paddock's Mall, which were planted in 1762. As Paddock was coach-builder to the Tory gentry, these were spared by the British during their occupation of Boston, but the trees suffered, later, from the hands of the patriots. Some of them survived until 1874, when they were removed, an act which excited the indignation of Longfellow, and doubtless others, when he read in the morning paper the news of the felling of the last of the Paddock elms. An elm, believed to have been one of the Paddock elms transplanted, was sacrificed in the location of the Congregational building. Had it been within the Granary Burying Ground, perhaps it might have been saved. ‘The Listener’ has this to say about the Paddock elms and the Old Granary Burying Ground:—

‘The missing foliage of the majestic collection of British elms that Major Adino Paddock, the London coach-maker, planted and guarded through his life against all indignities more vigilantly than the city forester of our times did, is made good to some extent by the Granary Burying Ground's trees, which go to form one of the most important and characteristic features of the old town. Seen from Washington street, as one turns into Bromfield street, this high bank of massed frondage is crowned in just the right place by a segment of the dome, that in the sunlight [5] is itself a sun-burst, and tree-tops land the dome's pure arc together lead the mind along to the green and gold of the common, whose “contiguity of shade” is only separated from the Granary's by the beautiful spire of Park-street church. As one faces the solid and glorious greenery of the common, shot underneath with streaks of yellow sunshine on the slants of the hillsides, one agrees with Professor Sargent that the room in the Subway was well lost to save every rood of this oasis, magnificent heritage from the old Boston of our pride, when sentiment was ever first and the material considerations second.’

Perhaps the most famous of all the Boston trees no longer in existence was the old ‘Liberty tree,’ near the tavern of the same name, the latter still standing in 1883. The junction of Essex and Washington streets, which was in Revolutionary days known as Hanover square, was marked by a number of splendid elms, the largest of which was first called the ‘great tree.’ It was not till 1765 that the name ‘Liberty tree’ was given it, at a patriotic celebration in honor of the expected repeal of the Stamp Act. It had already figured in many demonstrations of revolutionary feeling. On the repeal of the Stamp Act, in 1766, all the trees in Hanover square were decorated to assist in the jubilant celebration which followed; and at that time a plate was affixed to the ‘Liberty tree’; it read, ‘This tree was planted in 1646, and pruned by order of the Sons of Liberty, February 14, 1766.’ This would prove the tree was one of the very earliest in Boston. The grand old patriarch witnessed and inspired many stirring scenes after that, during Revolutionary times, for the anti-tea party was organized here November 3, 1773, and the Sons of Liberty always met beneath its branches, or in the tavern close by, until it was cut down by a party of roistering British in 1775, when it supplied the Tories with fourteen cords of wood. The trees in the Granary Burying Ground were planted in 1830; those on Copp's Hill in 1843.

Leaving Boston, our first thought turns naturally toward historic Cambridge, where we shall find many old trees. The first of these to pass before our mind's eye is the Washington elm. A monument set at its base bears this inscription, written [6] by Longfellow: ‘Under this tree Washington first took command of the American army, July 3, 1775.’ This is perhaps the best known of all living American trees, the most honored, and certainly one of our oldest trees. It is said that Washington had a platform built in its branches. One writer on old trees says that in 1850 ‘it still retained its graceful proportions, its great limbs were intact, and it showed few signs of age.’

From the Washington elm imagination takes a short step to the ‘spreading chestnut tree,’ dearly loved by Longfellow, and made famous by him in two poems. In the poem of ‘The Village Blacksmith,’ the most familiar of these, he has endeared to us that homely vocation and exalted the dignity of labor thereby. Blessed is he who can truthfully say:—

Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night's repose.

The graceful act of the children of Cambridge in presenting him with a chair made of the wood of the tree was as gracefully recognized by Longfellow in his poem, ‘From My Armchair.’ The chestnut tree grew at the corner of what is now Story street and Brattle street, opposite the Washington school. A fine elm is standing now on the opposite corner, and the branches of the two trees must have formerly arched together. A fine elm grows beside Craigie House, far over-topping it.

The group of willows on Holmes' field, originally a marshy lowland, are supposed to be a relic of the first palisado built to protect the infant town from Indians and wild beasts.

Harvard College yard can boast of a liberty tree and a rebellion tree, though they are not known by these names. The first stood south of Harvard Hall, and witnessed many gatherings of students in revolt against unpopular tutors. The name was afterward transferred to the Class Day tree. The rebellion tree, standing at the eastern front of Hollis Hall, was planted in 1792, and was the centre of patriotic meetings, and also meetings for the purpose of protesting against what they considered college injustice and tyranny.

The father of Colonel T. W. Higginson set out many of the [7] trees in the yard about 1818. To President Josiah Quincy, also, we owe much of the beauty of the college yard.

Inseparably connected with Harvard College and Cambridge is the thought of Lowell and his beloved Elmwood. Among its noble trees are two sturdy elms brought from England before the Revolution. Lowell's fondness for these and, other trees near his home often crops out in his letters and poems. The group of willows on the bank of the Charles river near the Longfellow park are especially notable. Three of them are included in the River Front park.

‘These willows, doubtless of an older date than the town of Cambridge itself, apart from their romantic association with a poet's nook of inspiration, should certainly be cherished for their own beauty and venerable dignity, which cannot fail to impress one gazing up at their gnarled and time-worn branches.’ This spot is called one of the most sacred in all sacred Cambridge. The neighborhood of the common may be called one of the most beautiful, from the profusion of elm and other trees which adorn it, many of them in their prime.

A short distance over the Cambridge line, in Arlington, stands the great Whittemore elm, which is said to have been set out by Samuel Whittemore in 1724. Not very long ago there were two trees, standing on opposite sides of the street, which together formed a most imposing entrance to the pleasant town of Arlington.

In an article on historic trees in the New England Magazine for July, 1900, from which many of the statements in this paper are taken, we note that the elm outranks all others in the number of times it is mentioned. Elms, singly or in groups, are mentioned thirty-five times, while oaks are mentioned only six times, fruit trees nine times, willows and pines three times, other common trees only once. Elms brought from England are mentioned eight times. The reasons for choosing the elm as a shade tree might be given as follows: It is comparatively rapid in growth, is safely transplanted, requires little care, admits of severe pruning, and combines in a remarkable degree, when old, size and beauty. Oaks, having a long tap root, thrive best on the spot where the acorn is planted. [8]

While the Waverley oaks are not as large nor as old as the big Redwoods of California, they are the largest and oldest trees we have, and we are correspondingly proud of them. Doubtless there is not another group of such notable trees in the eastern states. There are twenty-five of them, the largest sending up its trunk eighty feet into the air, and measuring eighteen and one-half feet, five feet above the ground. In 1845, one of the smaller trees was cut down. Lowell counted the rings and found they numbered seven hundred and fifty. So that Agassiz' estimate that they must be in the neighborhood of a thousand years of age was not far wrong. The distinguishing mark of the oak is its horizontal branching. Dr. Holmes has spoken of this and says: ‘All the rest of the trees shirk the work of resisting gravity; the oak alone defies it. It chooses the horizontal direction for its limbs, so that their whole weight may tell, and stretches them out fifty or sixty feet, so that the strain may be mighty enough to be worth resisting.’ Here is an object lesson from nature, illustrating the strenuous life advocated by President Roosevelt.

Here also is the repose which comes from native strength and endurance working in harmony with the laws which underlie all nature. For eight hundred years or more these trees have braved the storms of winter and thrived under the sun and rain of summer. Like the Redwoods of California, they are our ‘emblems of permanence.’

‘There needs no crown to mark the forest's king.’

In their patient strength they seem to tower above all petty human concerns, and yet—is not the human mind and soul greater still?

The Waverley elm, near Beaver Brook, must be at least one hundred and fifty years old.

Closely associated with the oaks in point of age are the trees of the Hemlock wood in the Arnold Arboretum. One writer calls it as primeval as those forests described by Longfellow in ‘Evangeline.’ An atmosphere of mystery and solemnity pervades these woods; the very earth is carpeted in order that the silence may be more profound. The height of the trees, [9] some of which rise a hundred feet, their straight trunks relieved by glints of sunlight, is ever an inspiring sight. On a quiet Sunday morning we may

Find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything,

while sitting on the slope of this hill. The silence is, relieved by frequent bird-songs, and the sombre hues of the evergreens by the flash of the tanager's wing as he flits to and fro.

Many of the towns around Boston are the proud possessors of single trees of noble dimensions, and it is hoped they may long be landmarks. Milton, Dedham, and Quincy all boast of trees worth mention on the point of age and beauty. In Dedham and Quincy are trees which figure on the seals of those towns, and there is a tradition that a large pine tree in Malden served as the model for the tree on the seal of the state of Maine. The Dexter elm, in Malden, on the corner of Elm and Dexter streets, must be at least two hundred years old. The Stone elm, East Watertown, stands near the corner of Washington and Grove streets. It is said to have been brought from Fresh Pond in 1763.

On the Brooks estate, at West Medford, are several old trees, and some of them, the hickories, if tradition may be believed, were in their prime at the time of the Revolution. A black walnut was planted on the estate some time previous to 1768. Mr. Peter C. Brooks set out a horse-chestnut in 1810, and an elm tree at a later time.

On Main street, Medford, are three elm trees which are of interest, not so much from their age, which is said to be fifty or sixty years, but from the fact that their immediate ancestor was brought from England in a bandbox at an early date.

Until within ten or fifteen years a row of fine elm trees could be seen over-topping the houses along Inman street, Cambridge. They marked the line of an old road, which is shown on all Revolutionary maps, which led from Charlestown to that part of Cambridge where the City Hall now is. A very few of these trees are still standing.

(To be continued.)

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