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Langdon seeded urban forestry
here soon after the Revolution

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By Charles W. Brewster

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.

Three generations of trees - Lombardy Poplar - Sycamore - Elm and Maple.

THE thrifty trees which line our walks in every direction, some of noble dimensions, we are prone to look upon as stationary, while the lives of the passers-by may be fleeting like their shadows. But the experience of Portsmouth has shown that the durability of most of our ornamental trees scarcely equals that of the age of man.

A century since, a few elms were put out here and there, nearly all of which have been thrifty and are now falling,--prematurely in most cases, from trimming their cumbrous trunks to the ideas of the public taste in the accommodation of our side-walks. It is with great regret that we behold the departure of these giants of a century. The elms once extending from the Market along in front of what are now Exchange Buildings, were very thrifty, affording a continuous shade to the walk and to the dwellings. The fire of 1813 destroyed them. The mournful appearance of their charred limbs among the standing chimnies on the morning after the fire, will not soon be forgotten.

More than twenty years elapsed after the Revolution before there was any systematic effort made for planting ornamental trees in our streets. In 1792 or 1793, Gov. Langdon introduced the first Lombardy poplars, and put them in front of his residence. They were so thrifty and elegant that they became very popular with the public, and not only did they find place in front yards, but the citizens were stirred up to give them place in all of our most public streets. Before six years had expired, rows of them were seen on both sides of Pleasant street,--on the east side from what is now Court street to the old South Church; a row on the south side of Jaffrey (now Court) street, east from the then new mansion of John Peirce; also on Broad (now State) street, east from where the Rockingham house is located; a row nearly the whole extent of Deer street on the north side,--and in front of some of the residences on Islington street. These trees were generally purchased in Boston at a high price, put out with care and well boxed. Portsmouth for some years was indeed a popular place, verdant and thrifty.

But beauty soon fades. 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 product of Eden. In twenty years they gradually, as by common consent, began to disappear, except in the borders of grave yards, where they seemed left to show the downward progress of beauty.

In their places the more hardy sycamore or button wood were seen springing up in long extended rows in the peaceful thoroughfares of Portsmouth. These for some years were all the rage; the smooth bark, the grateful shade, the lively green, all made the change highly prized. But there is no rose without its thorn. It was found in a few years that the sycamore had other than human lovers. When passed under in the evening, myriads of caterpillars, attached by gossamer cords to the leaves above, would light upon the shoulder or meet directly the face of the traveller. By day they returned again to their verdant retreat, and revelled around the leaves, making such network of them as to put human skill at defiance. The sycamore, thus losing its reputation by its bad company, and then its foliage and life by the like means, in twenty years received sentence of death, which was speedily executed. The French guillotine was scarcely more speedy. Street after street was swept, until hundreds of sycamores with noble and apparently healthy stocks, were corded up as if of no account. And now, with the Lombardy poplar, has the sycamore almost entirely disappeared.

But shade trees the public must have, and past experience has led to more care in the last selection. The elm and the maple have been extensively planted in all our principal streets in the course of the last twenty-five years, by the public spirit of individuals in some cases, but more generally by the Portsmouth Tree Society, of which our late lamented townsman, Samuel R. Cleaves, was the projector, and a most efficient and useful member.

Among the oldest elms now standing is that on Pleasant street, at the head of Gates street, in front of the residence of Mrs. E. W. Haven. Its age is about four score. A young school boy picked up the little twig as he went from his house to Major Hale's school, one morning; he placed it carefully away till school was dismissed at noon, and then planted it on the spot where it now stands. The tree is now of gigantic size, its branches completely over-shadowing the street. He who planted it was more than eighty years among us, and, doubtless, as he looked on its increasing branches year by year, was reminded often of the early associations of its history, as he was when a few years since he related the circumstance to us. That gentleman was the venerable William Haven, son of Rev. Dr. Haven.

Early postcard of Middle Street courtesy of Margaret Fish.
Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network. Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall History Hypertext project by
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