It began as a sapling along an old Indian trading trail. It ended as a rotted tree trunk lying alongside a six-lane overpass leading to a mattress store and a pawnshop.

In between, Gaithersburg's famed Forest Oak became the landmark of the city, providing, at least in legend, shelter to George Washington and inspiring the Gaithersburg city logo.

The story ended during the powerful storm Thursday evening, when the 295-year-old tree, weakened by rot and buffeted by heavy winds, came crashing down on a Bell Atlantic building.

"It's a very sad thing, because this tree presided over all our important events -- even our prehistory," said Judy Christensen, of the Gaithersburg Historical Association.

All day yesterday, Gaithersburg residents drove to the site, on the east side of the Frederick Avenue overpass crossing Diamond Avenue, to take pictures, gape and grab oak souvenirs.

The great hollow trunk lay on its side on the Bell Atlantic lot, surrounded by fallen branches and several homeless squirrels. A tree crew began cutting the oak at 9 a.m and did not finish until nearly 5 p.m.

"I'm here to scrounge up a piece of the old oak tree," said Becky Abrahams, 53, a native and lifelong resident of Gaithersburg. "It's a landmark of Gaithersburg, it truly is. I'd like to have a piece."

For a time, the city posted a police officer to guard the remains but soon gave up.

Solid wood from portions of the trunk and larger limbs has been collected by the city and likely will be used for plaques and other mementos, assistant city manager Paul Folkers said.

"It's a big loss," he said. "We've gotten a lot of calls."

Most of the Bell Atlantic employees did not realize the tree had come down Thursday until a supervisor announced it on the intercom. "We were devastated," employee Dawn Samen said. "We'd have picnics out here and feed the squirrels. Being a landmark, it was special to us."

The two-story brick phone company building, which serves as a central office and relay station, had windows broken and bricks gouged by the falling tree, but there were no injuries. The tract of land on which the tree stood has been owned by the phone company since 1959.

Rick Brindley, manager of the nearby Roy's Place restaurant, heard the storm outside shortly before 4 p.m. Thursday and saw branches and leaves flying. But he did not realize the oak had come down until stunned customers walked in with the news.

"It was a huge tree," Brindley said. "When people gave tours of Gaithersburg, that was one of the stops."

The tree shaded the lot where Benjamin Gaither, the city's namesake, had his home.

For a time in the mid-19th century, the town was known as Forest Oak, before being incorporated as Gaithersburg, Christensen said.

The tree's bough of leaves served as the logo for Gaithersburg, adorning stationery, uniforms and vehicles. "I guess Gaithersburg will have to come up with a new logo," said Samen.

George Washington more than likely did not sleep underneath the tree, as local legend claims. "There wasn't much to sleep under when George Washington came through," Christensen said.

But he almost certainly would have passed by or underneath it while journeying toward Frederick, Md., during the French and Indian War. "You had to go by the tree to get to Rockville or Frederick," said Abrahams, who said the tree served as a beacon for travelers past and present.

A plaque erected in 1974 informed passersby that the tree had been "witness to the passing of the great and humble, including Gen. Geo. Washington and Gen. Edw. Braddock."

Said Samen, "We'll miss her dearly." CAPTION: Gen. George Washington, city legend holds, passed by or under Forest Oak en route to Frederick, Md., during the French and Indian War. CAPTION: Gaithersburg's 295-year-old Forest Oak crashed into a Bell Atlantic building on Thursday during a powerful storm, breaking windows and damaging bricks. There were no injuries.