Article from The Star-Ledger
February 22, 2000
Page 43 of the TODAY Section

Survivor of the Revolution


Charles Wilder, manager of
Newark's Division of Parks and
Grounds, holds a piece of the
decaying old tree.

Sydney Greenfield, professor emeritus of botany at Rutgers in Newark, is on hand to supervise the pruning of the old sycamore tree at Military Park.

The sycamore named for George Washington, gets pruned by James Greenway of the Almstead Tree Co.


A tree that stood in Newark in
Washington's day is now in peril
By William Gorden

     When Newark's Millitary Park was stripped of most of it's trees to build an underground garage in 1958, workmen with earthmovers took pains to spare a large and ancient sycamore with a crown of crooked branches overlooking Broad street.

     Luckily, the tree's location on the edge of the park did not interfere greatly with the garage project, so an effort was made not to unduly disturb its root system.

     The tree amply deserved all the consideration.  It predated the Revolutionary War and was on hand to witness the bedraggled troops of George Washington parade into town in freezing rain on their painful path of retreat across New Jersey.

     And smoke is said to have curled through it's branches from a campfire where Thomas Paine, using a drumhead as a desk, scribbled the first words of his "The American Crisis" - "These are times that try men's souls..."

     Today, the colonial plane tree, or "Washington Tree", as it has come to be known, is in as much trouble as was Washington himself in late November of 1776, when General (Lord) Charles Cornwallis was hot on his heels, and rebellious soldiers were leaving ranks to go home.

     Lightning strikes, pollution, internal decay and plain old age have combined to put the historic tree in jeopardy, and city officials concerned with maintaining Newark's rich shade tree heritage are not optimistic about it's survival.

     An arborist called in by the city last week to prune the tree and assay its health found a core of rot extending downward for about 10 feet through it's heartwood from an opening at the top of it's lightning-damaged trunk.  Found inside the cavity were chunks of very old mortar mixed with stone that may have been an attempt to plug the hole years ago.

     A gloomy forecast was given by James Greenway, anarborist with the Almstead Tree Co. of New Rochelle, N.Y., under contract with the city.

     "It has time on it, but how much time I can't say," said Greenway, climbing out of his cherry picker after chainsawing segments from the peak of the rotted trunk.

     The hollowed out sections were examined by Charles Wilder, manager of Newark's Division of Parks and Grounds, and Sydney S. Greenfield, professor emeritus of botany at Rutgers University-Newark.

     "The tree has been there a long time, over two centuries, but it continues to put out leaves each summer, so there's some life in it," said Wilder.  "It  could have another 10 years or so, maybe 15."

     Wilder said the city would await the Almstead Co.'s full evaluation of the tree's condition and then determine what steps can be taken to prolong it's life.

     Greenfield identified the tree as an American sycamore and estimated it might be as old as 300 years, or even more.

     "The only way to tell for sure is to put a drill through it, and you wouldn't want to do that," he said, adding that if it truly has "heart rot, that would ultimately kill it."

     "Washington's Tree" stands 10 feet from the sidewalk bordering Broad Street, but few passersby are aware of history, despite a small, hard-to-notice bronze plaque flush with the earth at the base.

     The plaque, installed in 1938 by the Nova Caesarea Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, reads: "Historic Plane tree having been on this spot before the Revolutionary War is the oldest now standing in Newark."

     City historian Charles Cummings says while there may be older trees in town, "the Washington plane is certainly the most visible.

     "Wars, disease and neglect have taken their toll on this old tree," he said, "but it survives, as does the city, with a lot of luck, some love and help from the city and friends."

     Cummings observed that Newark's affinity for trees, and plenty of them, goes back to it's origins as a tiny village in the 17th century.  The town's Puritan forbears on Feb. 6, 1676, passed an ordinance to prevent the wasting of great trees.

     The edict declared, "The town has agreed that no green trees within the town as marked with an 'N' shall be barked or felled, or otherwise killed under the penalty of Ten Shillings..."

     In 1784, Elkana Watson, visiting in Newark, described "The Elms in the parks ... and the rows of Lombardy poplars (that) lined the streets."  Continuing, he wrote: "High Street (now Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard) was a lovely country lane called 'Lovers Walk' with fields and wood beyond.

     A few years later, in 1798, Thomas Twining, a British citizen associated with the colonization of India, wrote that Newark was one of the "neatest and prettiest towns I had ever seen.   I told my companion that if I settled in America, I should be induced to prefer that spot to any I had seen."

     By the late 19th century, a forest of giant elms stood in Military Park, as well as other parks and streets throughout the city.  Most were wiped out by Dutch elm disease.

     To help save Newark's remaining trees, in 1904 a Shade Tree Commission was established, with authority to enact ordinances for "the protection, regulation, and control of the city parks and shade trees.

     The following year Carl Bannwart was made commission secretary.  He is credited with raising public support for trees.  In it's first decade, the commission planted 27,000 trees along 180 miles of city streets.

     Today, there are an estimated 80,000 trees in the city, and more to come.  In 1990, Mayor Sharpe James inaugurated a plan to plant 2,500 trees annaully until 2005.

     But the vulnerable sycamore named for George Washington in Military Park remains king of them all, having been seen and appreciated by a distinguished  roster of visitors to Newark, including the Marquis de Lafayette, Andrew Jackson, Abraham lincoln and Ulysses Grant.