J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Cambridge Celebrates the Washington Elm

When Edward Everett designed a seal for the city of Cambridge in 1846, he included the Washington Elm alongside a Harvard building (now gone) built with a bequest from Christopher Gore.

As Thomas J. Campanella discusses in Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm (2003), those images had particular appeal in the middle of the nineteenth century because they represented Cambridge’s past more than its present.

Cambridge was no longer a rural college town, but an industrial city with a growing immigrant population. Streets were getting crowded; in fact, the Washington Elm had ended up on what we’d now call a traffic island in the middle of a broadening road.

In 1864, the city of Cambridge honored the Washington Elm in another way, installing a granite monument at its side to proclaim its place in the nation’s history. That was, of course, in the middle of a very big, deadly fight over the meaning of that history.

According to tradition reported as early as 1884 (in the Bay State Monthly), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed the line on that monument:

Under This Tree
WASHINGTON
First Took Command
OF THE
AMERICAN ARMY,
July 30, 1775.
I can’t say I recognize Longfellow’s poetic touch in those words. But he was quite aware of the tree, and appears to have had strong feelings for it. In April 1871 Longfellow transplanted a seedling from the elm on his property, and in March 1875 the city forester brought him some items made from branches that had been pruned off the big tree.

In between those events Longfellow lobbied the mayor to preserve the Whitefield Elm (discussed yesterday). When it came down anyway, he wrote in his diary, “Cambridge has an ill renown for destroying trees.” All the more reason to memorialize them.

TOMORROW: So where’s the historical evidence?

1 comment:

Charles Bahne said...

It's interesting that the diary entry -- "an ill renown for destroying trees" -- was written in the early 1870s. It was in 1870, I think, that Brattle Street was widened in front of the poet's house, causing removal of many trees, in order to add a second streetcar track. While researching another subject, I once found a letter that Longfellow had written, bemoaning the loss of those trees.

One casualty of the street widening was the "spreading chestnut tree" mentioned in "The Village Blacksmith". Because of its fame, the chestnut was left standing in the middle of the road, with pavement all around it. It soon succumbed, however.