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Recycling Old Portsmouth Tree Tales

TREE_Middle_Street

Shade trees come and go

Giant trees once dominated New Hampshire. Portsmouth historian Bruce Ingmire suggested that, before the arrival of white settlers, a squirrel could walk from Portsmouth to the Hudson River without leaving the treetops.  But European settlers quickly clear-cut eastern New England, selling off the tall pines for lumber and ship masts, then farming in the rocky fields left behind.  But trees grow back. Today, many are surprised to learn, our region is more heavily forested than it has been for the last 300 years.

Urban trees are especially precious. Modern statistics suggest that the average downtown tree lives only seven years. You can tell a lot about a city by its ornamental trees. Nineteenth century Portsmouth historian Charles Brewster suggested that the first official city plantings were made haphazardly before the American Revolution.

Long after the war, around 1792, Brewster tells us, Governor John Langdon introduced the first Lombardy poplars in front of his mansion on Pleasant Street. The decorative trees caught on and within six years poplars lined most of the city’s best streets – Pleasant, Court, State, Islington, Deer streets and the North End.  The city government just sat back and let the private citizens do the work.

Brewster, the longtime editor of the Portsmouth Journal, recalled a massive elm on Pleasant Street. Planted when Portsmouth was a royal province, it had grown to a circumference of 16 feet by the 1850s.  But a tree in Northwood that marked the entrance to the state’s first toll road took the record measuring 26 feet around.

Even before the Civil War the first of the early Portsmouth urban plantings had gone awry.  Stately downtown trees were reduced to blackened trunks by a series of devastating fires. The elms had been carved away to accommodated the burgeoning cityscape and Gov. Langdon’s Lombardy poplars were a disappointment.

Brewster wrote: “But beauty soon faded. The trees ran up to an elegant taper for a time; but the frost or the lightning in a few years nipped their tops.  Their decapitated trunks, shorn of every vestige of beauty, sending out a seven-fold number of new shoots, had more the appearance of the fabled hydra than of the produce of Eden.”

Portsmouth’s poplars were replaced by sycamores and buttonwoods that lined the residential streets.  The smooth bark and lush shady leaves were all the rage. But the sycamores attracted caterpillars that chewed the leaves and hung by the thousands on invisible strands directly in the path of pedestrians.  So the sycamores were executed by public decree, Brewster tells us, faster than the French guillotined the aristocracy.  And in their place came the maples and the elms so popular around the middle of the 1800s.  Again the public did the planting, either as individuals, or as members of the Portsmouth Tree Society.

Henry Richards is often remembered as a great tree planter in Portsmouth. When he died, the tree-lined Richards Avenue was given his name. But in 1872 the Portsmouth Journal noted an even more prolific tree planter -- Mr. Joseph Fuller of Sagamore Road. The article details the location of over 2,000 trees that Fuller planted between 1812 and 1865. The earliest Portsmouth photographs and later colorized postcards show thick tree-lined streets all around the city, thanks to Richard and Fuller and other independent planters who provided what the city did not.

Local ale tycoon Frank Jones, though not known for his philanthropy, had a passion for ornamental trees and installed them near his many properties.  Since Jones owned much of the area -- from his Maplewood Farm to the Rockingham and Wentworth hotels, the public benefited, and Portsmouth became the beautiful “Old Town by the Sea.” But that beauty was often fleeting.

TREE_Richards_Ave

It’s not easy being green

Nature and nurture continued to conspire against the city’s ornamental trees. Those grand trees not destroyed by Dutch elm disease, were often manicured to death by man.  Trimmed back by new sidewalks, carved around telegraph and telephone wires, gouged by horse carts, smothered by automobiles, and sacrificed to new buildings and parking lots. Portsmouth’s shade tree population declined again in the 20th century.  By World War II the city had adopted an industrial look. In 1954 Hurricane Carol took three hundred trees just in the area around the Wentworth Hotel in New Castle. A popular elm on the golf course was uprooted by the storm, but four days later, miraculously, Hurricane Diane pushed it back upright.

The tourism renaissance in Portsmouth was a boon for its trees. From 1968 until the early 1990s the city set aside as much as $10,000 in its annual budget for city landscaping. Long-time city arborist Clotilde Strauss volunteered countless hours to oversee the city’s trees. The late mayor Evelyn Sirrell set up a Blue Ribbon Committee now known as the Trees and Greenery Committee, to pick up where Strauss left off. The group meets monthly under the direction of former city attorney Peter J. Loughlin. According to Loughlin the all-volunteer committee has recommended that Portsmouth appoint an official “tree warden” as is common in other local cities like Newburyport.

In the 1940s and 50s, Loughlin says, “there was hostility toward anything green” among city officials. That changed, he says, with the redesigned downtown streetscape in the 1970s that fostered the modern attitude that urban trees are an essential part of the aesthetic of the city.

Loughlin’s committee meets monthly to oversee new plantings and respond to citizen requests to cut down trees on city-owned land. “We turn down a fair number of requests to remove trees,” Loughlin says. “If it’s a healthy tree, we don’t allow it to be removed.”

“We take it one tree at a time,” he says. “It’s a balancing act. There’s a constant tension between the tree roots, the sidewalks, the wires, the shade, the light, the parking spaces, Every time we plant a tree in urban Portsmouth, it’s a plus. You just have to be vigilant.”

Loughlin commends the city for its work in recent years and for providing “adequate funding” to every request by the volunteer committee for new plantings. The city looks better than any time in the 20th century, he says. Keeping greenery part of the cityscape, mean constantly replacing dead and dying trees with new ones that, when carefully managed, Laughlin believes can live for at least 25 years.

“They are not going to live forever,” says Loughlin, who has been called a modern day Johnny Appleseed for his private work both growing and planting trees across the city.  He wraps up by reciting a quotation printed on his office stationery that comes from landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852). Downing wrote:

“There is not a village in America…that may not be redeemed, in great measure, by the aid of shade trees in the streets…and it is never too early or too late to project improvements of this kind.”

 

Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. Robinson is the author of America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812. His new e-book novella, Kill All the Vampire Writers, is available instantly on Amazon.com.

READER RESPONSE:

Dennis Robinson's otherwise thoughtful column on trees in Portsmouth history took a nose dive into the hopper in the first sentence when he called the cutting of the South Church European copper beech an "assassination." Was he just trying to be clever, or was he that ignorant of the years the congregation spent looking for alternatives to cutting the tree? Later in the column Robinson described the Moffatt-Ladd House's efforts to save an ash tree that was undermining a corner of their building. They eventually had to cut down the ash tree. Was that an assassination? A ritual slaughter? Horticultural euthanasia? The world will never know, because Robinson didn't treat us to any colorful descriptions of that event. Nor should he have. The Moffatt-Ladd house staff and trustees studied every feasible alternative to removing their tree. So did South Church. Assassins were not part of the process.

MY REPLY: To Everything There is a Season

Just as the South Church members carefully considered the fate of the copper beech that has been recently removed from their churchyard, I also carefully considered the choice of words in my follow-up feature on the history of shade trees in Portsmouth last Monday. The choice to use the word “assassination” was not random. While my article was largely supportive and indeed, written in defense of the church’s decision to remove the tree, it was necessary to take into account the response of others in the community. Summarizing other views, I think, is far from the “yellow journalism” that a recent church member claimed in these pages. The fact is that, while interviewing people during my research, a number of  knowledgeable “tree people” were “on the fence” about the decision. While newspapers all too often hyperbolize public reaction, community response is also news. The phrase used in my article does not say that the decision by the church was wrong, but only acknowledges that there are those who question it. The church’s painstaking decision was also reported and, I believe, honored in the reporting. What is clear is that trees are mortal and that a great many of the city’s oldest downtown trees are located on non-city property and their fate is in the hands of their owners. My wife and I recently “assassinated” the one and only tree on our home property (less than a tenth of an acre) at significant cost because we were told by tree professionals that its days were numbered and our house and visitors were in potential jeopardy. Not all our neighbors agreed and it was a sad day for us all. The first take-home lesson of this incident for the public, I hope, is that if citizens want to preserve old city trees, they need to actively work with and support the organizations on whose properties the trees now live. The second lesson is that, no matter what we do, all things must pass. The message for the property-owners where these great trees live is that, even when you do your best, it’s still “arborcide” and the community will mourn loudly, as is their right. And when they do, the papers will report it, as is their mission. -- JDR

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