Knowing what he knows now, Brian Griffin gets a warm feeling when he drives by the row of aging elms along South State Street where it overlooks South Bay Trail and Boulevard Park.
Such smoothleaf elms are common in Bellingham, but the ones on State Street have an uncommon origin.
In 1896, seven years before the bayside communities of Fairhaven and Whatcom merged to become “Bellingham,” those elms were among nearly 300 street trees planted by the city of Fairhaven as part of an Arbor Day project. Street trees were needed at the time because much of Fairhaven and South Hill had been logged to clear space for homes and businesses.
“They wanted to beautify the city and cover up the stumps,” said Griffin, a Bellingham historian who came upon the Arbor Day story in old newspapers while researching Fairhaven’s history.
Much of the country will celebrate Arbor Day this year on Friday, April 24. Bellingham usually celebrates it in September.
Fairhaven’s springtime Arbor Day campaign 119 years ago included planting 117 elms at 25-foot intervals along what was then called Front Street (now State Street), even then a main link between Fairhaven and Whatcom. While only about 34 of those elms survive along State Street, other Arbor Day trees survive in south Bellingham.
“I can drive by the trees and feel a sense of those people living here 150 years ago caring for their community,” Griffin said.
Other smoothleaf elms from that era can be found on 14th Street adjacent to Lowell Elementary School. In 1896, students at 14th Street School planted those elms for Arbor Day.
Their school was built in 1890, the first public grade school in Fairhaven. Lowell Elementary was built in 1914 just up the hill from the 14th Street School. Once Lowell was completed, the 14th Street School was demolished, but the elms remain standing just west of Lowell’s lower playground.
The Arbor Day saplings were surrounded by slatted wooden guards, possibly, Griffin said, to protect the young trees from cows, which were allowed to roam freely in Fairhaven, provided they wore a cowbell.
Electricity, not cows, proved to be the greater threat to the elms along South State. To separate the trees from power lines overhead, utility crews have kept the trees cut short.
Bellingham tree expert John Wesselink lamented that the elms have been “hideously top-pruned.” However, smoothleaf elms are prolific, so the stunted elms have numerous progeny a few yards to the west, where, free of overhead power lines, some have grown as tall as the power poles looming over their parents.
The 1896 newspaper articles called the State Street trees “cork bark elms,” but that’s incorrect, Wesselink said. Cork bark elms are a rare Japanese species that didn’t show up in the United States until just a few years before Fairhaven decided to spruce itself up on Arbor Day, he said.
To confuse matters more, an East Coast elm called a rock elm is also sometimes called a cork elm, and cork elm is also a common name for a smoothleaf elm.
“It’s a good lesson in how confusing common names can be,” Wesselink said.
FAIRHAVEN TREE RARELY FOUND IN NORTH AMERICA
The sprawling, long-limbed, flag-bedecked tree in the open yard behind Firehouse Performing Arts Center, 1314 Harris Ave., is not only eye-catching, it’s seldom seen in this part of the world.
It’s an Oriental plane tree, a shade tree native to Europe and western Asia; the kind of tree, so it’s said, under which Plato taught his students.
“It’s a very rare tree in North America,” said Bellingham tree expert John Wesselink.
The London plane tree, a hybrid offspring of the Oriental plane tree, is a common street tree in many countries. The London name harkens back to a botanical garden in 17th century England where an American sycamore brought back to England from the North American colonies hybridized with an Oriental plane tree at the nursery.
It’s not clear how the Oriental plane tree came to Fairhaven long ago, but the tree sits on land once owned by Bellingham businessman and civic leader J.J. Donovan. Donovan was chairman of the commission that raised money in 1896 to plant several hundred street trees to beautify the city of Fairhaven. A man of means, perhaps Donovan decided to splurge for a hard-to-find tree that grew into a stunner.