The historic Arbutus Oak, a tree that stood for three centuries, hosted Gen. Marquis de Lafayette and rerouted a highway, cracked over the summer and fell.
The majestic white oak stood in the median between Interstate 95, I-695 and the ramp for exit 11A off I-695 onto I-95, in a triangular patch of wilderness cut off from nearby Arbutus by the stream of overlapping highways. Estimates in 1990 put the tree’s age at 300 years, meaning it would have been about 329 years old when it fell earlier this summer.
In mid-August, Del. Eric Ebersole, who represents parts of Arbutus and Catonsville, said the tree was “pretty much done for” after “clinging” to life.
A Maryland Department of Transportation forester investigated after learning what happened to the tree and determined that the base of its trunk had become unstable because of internal decay, which led to its split in storm winds.
The tree now appears as if it were split in two, with some limbs spreading to the west and another, larger group of limbs stretching to the east. Part of the wrought-iron fencing around the tree appears damaged, according to a photo of the tree posted online.
Various community groups, including the Arbutus Lions Club and the Arbutus Community Association, cared for the tree until the early 2000s, according to archived Baltimore Sun coverage. The Lions Club took care of the tree in the early 1970s and gave it up some time in the mid-1980s.
Before it toppled, the tree stood nearly 70 feet tall and had a trunk about 5 feet in diameter. It was protected by the fence erected by the Lions. A grave marker for Emmanuel Wade, whose family owned the property on which the oak stood, was at one point moved from its original spot nearby to inside the fenced-in area.
According to local legend, the French Gen. Lafayette, while marching to Elkridge during the Revolutionary War, stopped by the tree in 1781.
And when the interstate system was being built, the original plans for the roads in the Arbutus area were shifted to protect the mighty oak, a State Highway Administration spokesperson told The Baltimore Sun in 2002.
Now that the tree has cracked and fallen, community groups are thinking up ways to preserve part of its legacy.
The Halethorpe Improvement Association wants to “make something out of the tree,” said association president Mike McAuliffe.
“We haven’t discussed it in detail. But we would maybe like to get a slice of the oak, and maybe get a plaque and put some history on it," he said.
The Morning Sun
Ebersole said he thinks people would like “a few slabs” from the tree’s base at the very least.
“You can carve something from it, you can do a timeline with the rings, like what happened in Arbutus at various times," he said. "People have a lot of good ideas.”
And while the original tree may have fallen, there’s a real chance its legacy is already growing — literally.
Nearby the trunk of the fallen tree is another white oak tree, with a trunk that’s already 30-some inches in diameter, according to Jim Himel, a local forester who runs the Catonsville Tree Canopy Project.
He said that “without doing a DNA test” he’s still fairly certain the tree is an offspring of the original Arbutus Oak.
“This is pretty easy,” Himel said. “If there’s only one oak tree around, and another white oak tree springs up, chances are that’s where it came from.”
Baltimore Sun Librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
An previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Arbutus Community Association no longer existed.