The mammoth Christmas tree that towered over downtown Bellingham in 1949 has justly earned a solid niche in Whatcom County history.
Standing nearly 153 feet tall, the Douglas fir was deemed the tallest Christmas tree in the world at the time. Adding to its sparkle, famous newsman Edward R. Murrow, who spent much of his youth in nearby Skagit County, said kind remarks about the tree during a radio broadcast from New York and pushed a button to turn on the tree’s 1,000-plus colored lights.
However the tree’s back story — the tale of where and how it was cut down and transported to Bellingham — has received much less attention over time. If it weren’t for the many members of the Bellingham Junior Chamber of Commerce, and many other people, who handled those details, Murrow wouldn’t have had the chance to talk glowingly about the tree.
“They all wanted to be involved,” Abner Ludtke of Bellingham, whose trucks hauled the tree, said of the gung-ho Jaycees who took on the project. “We weren’t short of help.”
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Ludtke, now 97, grew up in North Dakota. He moved to Washington as a young man in the mid-1930s when his fathered traveled west in search of a job during the Great Depression. His father found work in Port Angeles, and it was there that Abner delivered milk and ice cream for a creamery.
While on the job, Ludtke saw countless logging trucks on the road and decided he wanted to drive one of those. He moved to Whatcom County in 1941 and convinced Glen Corning, a big-time logger in the area, that he could drive one of Corning’s rigs.
Five years later, Ludtke started his own company with 15 logging trucks in his fleet. As a Jaycee member, he hauled the group’s 134-foot-tall Christmas tree to Bellingham, where it was topped with an illuminated star and won widespread notice for being the world’s tallest at that time.
Not ones to sit on their laurels, the Jaycees decided to find a taller tree for the 1949 holiday season, and found one in Sumas on mostly cleared farmland owned by Jack Gillis, deputy county sheriff.
Felling the tree in a way that didn’t leave it battered was a major task of its own. It took two days of preparation with a crane and cables to secure the tree before it was taken down under the guidance of lead logger Glen Corning. Chilly winds up to 25 mph didn’t deter a sizable crowd from watching the operation on a Sunday afternoon, Dec. 4.
People who helped consumed 175 sandwiches and seven gallons of coffee, one figure among many numbers and names provided in extensive coverage by The Bellingham Herald.
The butt of the tree measured four and a half feet in diameter. It was 152 and a half feet tall, and would have been at least a foot taller but the tip had broken off. The tree was later estimated to be 145 years old.
The ancient giant was so large that one logging truck couldn’t handle it, so two of Ludtke’s trucks were used. He drove the lead truck and Frank Aubel drove the rear one. The trucks weren’t physically connected, but were joined, in a sense, by the tree, which was chained to the trucks, with netting to control its limbs.
The butt of the tree faced forward, just behind the cab of Ludtke’s lead truck. Aubel, in the second truck, was virtually buried under the foliage, so he and Ludtke used two-way radio to communicate during their 35-mile journey from Sumas to Bellingham.
It was a slow trip. They left that Sunday afternoon and didn’t arrive in the outskirts of Bellingham until Monday evening. Their route included square corners and a like number of rounded curves. According to the Herald, they traveled through Ferndale because the city had the only bridge across the Nooksack River that could handle the trucks and tree.
A state trooper led the way, and telephone and power utility workers moved any wires that could hinder the trucks.
“There were so many people involved,” Ludtke said. “Whatever needed to be done, they did it.”
On Tuesday, the tree, with Santa Claus standing on the trunk, was paraded up Holly Street toward its final resting place in the middle of Railroad Avenue between Holly and Chestnut Street. Later that week, on Thursday and Friday evening, people draped Christmas lights on the tree and topped it with 10-foot illuminated cross.
To help stand the tree up, five cables were attached to it and a backhoe was brought in to dig a hole in the middle of Railroad to hold it in place. On Saturday, Dec. 10, two cranes, 14 logging trucks and a handful of smaller trucks were ready to help maneuver the tree upright.
“Glen (Corning) wanted to be sure that nothing happened,” Ludtke said. “There was no room for error.”
The lighting ceremony was held Tuesday, Dec. 13, with Murrow’s comments broadcast to the large local crowd via amplifiers. After Christmas, the tree was taken down and sold to a lumber company.
Decades later, Ludtke sold his trucking company to his younger brother Lloyd. Ludtke Pacific Trucking continues to operate from its base on Bakerview Valley Road.
Looking back, Ludtke said hauling the 1949 tree was the most difficult job he ever handled.
“It was a pretty big thing,” he said.