Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Tree Falls in Brookline: The Aspinwall Elm, 1863

In honor of Arbor Day, April 29th (officially proclaimed in Brookline by the Board of Selectmen last Friday), Muddy River Moments presents the story of the Aspinwall Elm, the most celebrated tree to grow—and fall—in Brookline.

Three generations of the Aspinwall family pose before the family home and the remains of the celebrated Aspinwall Elm after it came down in a gale in September 1863
Three generations of the Aspinwall family pose before the family home and the remains of the celebrated Aspinwall Elm after it came down in a gale in September 1863. (Brookline Historical Society photo)

When 19th century Bostonians talked about great elm trees, there were three that usually came to mind: the Great Elm on Boston Common; the Washington Elm on Cambridge Common; and the Aspinwall Elm, towering over the Aspinwall family home in Brookline Village.

The Aspinwall Elm was, by most accounts, the largest of these.  The circumference of its massive trunk (as reported in The North American Review in 1844) had been measured in 1837 at 26 feet 5 inches at ground level and 16 feet 8 inches five feet up. Its branches (according to the 1846 edition of Dr. George B. Emerson's report on the trees and shrubs of Massachusetts) at one time extended 104 feet from southeast to northwest, and 95 from northeast to southwest.

The tree stood on what is now Aspinwall Avenue alongside the home built by Peter Aspinwall in 1660.  (The site was opposite that of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, which was built nearly two centuries later, in 1851.) Tradition had it that Peter Aspinwall planted the tree in 1656, though other stories date it somewhat later than that and attribute its planting to Peter's son Samuel or to Samuel Clark, who lived with the Aspinwalls as a boy.

This photo of the Aspinwall House and the Aspinwall Elm was published in The Aspinwall Genealogy published by Algernon Aikin Aspinwall in 1901

Mary W. Poor, daughter of the Rev. John Pierce, recalled the tree in her 1903 recollection of Brookline in the 1820s.

Every one spoke of it as " Beautiful Brookl1ne." This was partly due to the rolling and well wooded surface and to the splendid elms of uncommon size and picturesque shape that fairly embowered the village and a great part of the town. The queen of these noble trees was the "Aspinwall elm," which stood at the southwest corner of the old "Aspinwall house" very near the site of the Episcopal church.

Half the tree fell in 1844.  Eleven years later, J.C. Warren, president of the Boston Society of Natural History, examined the Aspinwall Elm while writing a book about the Great Elm on Boston Common.

I have examined this tree [wrote Warren], and find that its annual foliage has been almost wholly devoured by the canker-worm, in common with many other trees in the low land of Brookline. It appears at this time like a frightful skeleton ; and there is a question whether it will ever recover from the shock it has received. In its death, we shall have to deplore the loss of one of the finest natural ornaments of this part of the country.

Warren was right to be concerned.  Eight years later, on September 18, 1863, the rest of the tree came down in a gale, crashing on top of the 200-year old house and punching a hole in the roof.  Three generations of the family posed in front of the house with the toppled tree.  (Click here for a larger view of the image above.)

The loss of the Aspinwall Elm was big news, and not just locally. Word of its demise was mentioned in newspapers as far away as Wisconsin.

The stump of the giant elm remained for some time after.  In 1873, in his speech dedicating Brookline's new Town Hall, Robert C. Winthrop paid tribute to the Aspinwall Elm:

Of the venerable elm, which overshadowed [the Aspinwall House] certainly for more than a hundred and fifty years, if indeed it was not coeval with Columbus, nothing remains but the antique roots, and a few feet of massive but mutilated trunk. They are almost the last relics of the old Muddy River Hamlet, and I wish they could be enclosed and inscribed as a monument of the remote past. What an inspiring stump that would be for an open-air speech on some historical anniversary ! If nothing else can be done, I trust that enough of it may be secured as a desk for this very platform. If it were here at this moment, my manuscript would have a most congenial resting place, — more precious than the most skillful carving or veneering of Oak, or Maple, or Satin-Wood.

The Aspinwall House, in poor shape at the time of Winthrop's speech, was itself torn down in 1891.  The land was acquired by the town in 1914 for a park.  Expanded in 1972, it is now the Billy Ward Playground.

BillyWard Playground
The Billy Ward Playground on the site of the Aspinwall House and the Aspinwall Elm.

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