John Kelly's Washington

In its early days, District grew into the 'City of Trees'

Trees shade a Washington street early in the 20th century, a time when the capital earned the nickname "City of Trees."
Trees shade a Washington street early in the 20th century, a time when the capital earned the nickname "City of Trees." (Courtesy Of Casey Trees)
By John Kelly
Sunday, August 1, 2010

Recently I came upon an old article that said Washington is (or was) known as "the City of Trees." I'm wondering if it still is or if that moniker is long gone?

-- Monica Servaites, Washington

Indeed it was. And if some dedicated tree-lovers have their way, so it shall be again.

Answer Man could not find the precise instant Washington went from being a city of trees to being the City of Trees. Suffice to say that the notion, if not the Chamber of Commerce-esque sobriquet, has deep roots. (Get it?)

"George Washington was a passionate tree lover," said Melanie Choukas-Bradley, a local author who literally wrote the book on the subject: "City of Trees: The Complete Field Guide to the Trees of Washington, D.C."

As Answer Man and Melanie recently emerged from Union Station and caught sight of the gleaming Capitol dome seemingly floating atop clouds of trees, she said: "The first thing you see is this beautiful green welcoming tree canopy. It's been part of our heritage since Day One."

Thomas Jefferson was responsible for the first recorded installation of street trees in Washington. He ordered Lombardy poplars planted along Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol. Not what Answer Man might have planted, perhaps (the tall, narrow trees must have looked like overgrown rosemary sprigs), but Tom's heart was in the right place.

At times, he may have felt like he was the only one who cared about trees. As development in the fledging capital lurched forward, Jefferson watched with despair as trees were felled to make way for development or to be used as firewood. He wrote: "I wish I was a despot that I might save the noble, the beautiful trees that are daily falling sacrifices to the cupidity of their owners, or the necessity of the poor. . . . The unnecessary felling of a tree, perhaps the growth of centuries, seems to me a crime little short of murder; it pains me to an unspeakable degree."

The early part of the 19th century was not a good time for Washington's trees, but, as we'll see, trees seem to rise and fall in people's favor. If any single person can be said to have created a Washington known for its trees, it was Alexander Shepherd, the city leader forever known as "Boss."

In the 1870s, Boss Shepherd planted 60,000 trees. He also oversaw improvements in things such as sewage and roads that made life a bit easier for D.C.'s trees. As with so many of Shepherd's projects, the city couldn't really afford it. He was fired in 1874, but he left a green legacy. By 1913, The Post was reporting: "Washington is a city of trees. No other city of twice the size can boast one-half so many."

How many? About 100,000, and that was just street trees, not those in parks. There were so many that "from the heights of the suburbs on either side of the river the town for the most part has the appearance of a forest rather than of a thickly populated modern city."

There were oaks, poplars, lindens, gingkos. American elms were especially impressive, their arching branches turning thoroughfares such as East Capitol Street into green tunnels. And because the city was home to so many Foreign Service veterans and peripatetic forestry officials, it was common to bump into species more at home in China, California or the Himalayas.

For much of the early 20th century, this urban forest was overseen by Clifford Lanham, superintendent of trees and parking. Street trees were propagated at a nursery at Fort Dupont. When that proved insufficient, a second was opened near Bolling Field.

Life is not easy for a city tree, and in his 1924 annual report, Lanham complained that the increasing number of automobiles on the streets was causing the destruction of many trees. Thousands of cubic feet of gas were being discharged daily, Lanham wrote. "Consider this and then do not ask why a tree is apparently failing, but why it lives at all."

Next week: Bad days for trees, but green shoots of hope are sprouting.

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