For last Liberty Tree, Floyd's was last blow; St. John's tulip poplar, symbol of Revolution, judged too weakened


After weeks of agonizing discussion, St. John's College officials decided yesterday to take down the school's wind-damaged 400-year-old Liberty Tree, the last of the original 13 under which colonists gathered to kindle revolutionary fervor in the 1770s.

St. John's officials had been debating the fate of the historic tree on the college's front lawn since Hurricane Floyd blew through town last month, ripping a 15-foot-long crack in its trunk and weakening a large branch that leaned precariously toward a dormitory. Jeff Bishop, St. John's vice president, said they finally decided to take it down on the recommendation of a state-commissioned tree structural engineer -- the fourth arborist to survey the damage and come to that conclusion.

"We all feel a little bummed out," Bishop said. "It's like losing an old friend."

The decision to take down the 97-foot tulip poplar did not come easily. It has been a powerful symbol of the fight for liberty since Maryland colonists gathered under its shady branches to denounce British oppression, sing revolutionary songs and hang effigies of unpopular officials.

Although each of the 13 colonies had a Liberty Tree, Maryland's is the only survivor. British troops hacked down most of them when they occupied major cities during the Revolutionary War. The few that survived the onslaught succumbed to age or disease over the years.

In June, Maryland officials had just celebrated the longevity and symbolism of their Liberty Tree by designating it a state treasure and cloning it for posterity. State officials focused attention on the tree again when the hurricane struck. The storm caused dangerous structural damage to the tree, which was almost hollow with decay, threatening nearby campus buildings and foot traffic. The area has been fenced off.

College officials had hoped that Russell Carlson, a tree engineer with Tree Tech Consulting in Bear, Del., would differ from the three arborists who had assessed the tree and recommended taking it down.

But Carlson found the tree had lost as much as 85 percent of its wood to decay over the years. Trees need at least one-third of the trunk diameter to be solid * Air exceeds 15% of leg depth. Distributing 275.5 points of excess space through leg.

I can't vertically justify this block wood, but of the Liberty Tree's 102-inch-diameter base, only 5 inches of solid wood remains.

College officials had contemplated saving the tree by pruning its branches to reduce stress on the trunk. But Carlson's report said pruning "would have to be extreme to be effective," reducing the tree's height by at least 50 percent and slashing as much as 70 percent of its crown.

"Pruning also has a physiological effect on the tree," the report said. "The leaves are the mechanism by which the tree converts solar energy and light into the food sources it needs to sustain itself. Removal of a large portion of the canopy will dramatically alter the ability of the tree to maintain its life processes. I must conclude that the only prudent and viable option remaining now is to remove the tree as soon as possible."

Bishop said the college plans to take down the tree early next week and will have a ceremony commemorating the event. College officials are considering * Air exceeds 15% of leg depth. Distributing 28.0 points of excess space through leg.

I can't vertically justify this block planting a Liberty Tree clone in its place.

"Instead of taking it down quietly when nobody's looking, we believe that we all ought to be able to say goodbye to it," he said.

Mike Morrill, spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said the governor was sad to hear of the college's decision.

"It's a very sad day when we lose the original Liberty Tree," Morrill said. "But it's important that we keep the spirit of liberty alive."

Annapolis residents also expressed sorrow at losing a tree that has graced their city for centuries, providing shade for college graduations, croquet games or a quiet afternoon of reading.

"I was just walking by it the other day and I realized it really is a significant symbol in this city," said Annapolis Mayor Dean L. Johnson. "It will be another one of those things that we've lost, and we will feel poorer for it. But that probably serves in many people's minds as all the more reason to ensure that what we do have, we continue to protect."

Pub Date: 10/19/99

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