Annapolis's famed Liberty Tree is no more.
In a brief ceremony on the campus of St. John's College yesterday morning, several hundred people bid a fond farewell to the majestic tulip poplar that in 1775 served as a meeting place for rebellious Maryland colonists dreaming of a new nation.
"Here the seeds of revolution were planted for this country and the world," Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) said. "We say farewell to an old friend."
Its trunk hollowed by age, the 400-year-old Liberty Tree was badly damaged last month when Hurricane Floyd left a 15-foot fracture in its main trunk. A succession of experts advised St. John's that it was in danger of collapsing and should be cut down for safety reasons.
So yesterday, a Marine Corps color guard marched up. The campus bell tolled 13 times, one for each of the original American colonies. Then the baritone of St. John's professor Peter Kalkazage singing the national anthem a cappella filled the air. A wreath was placed on the tree's massive trunk, and soon the chain saws started to whine.
A crane lifted a workman, Daniel Bruce Miller, to the tree's crown. He went to work, and at 9:10 a.m. the mighty branches of the Liberty Tree began falling to earth. By afternoon, only the bare trunk remained.
The taking down of the nation's last surviving Liberty Tree attracted Annapolis retirees, undergraduates, schoolchildren, uniformed military officers, history buffs and sightseers. As the crowd sipped hot cider and snapped photos, Glendening said the tree symbolized the growth of the country.
"This tree has seen the expansion of freedom within our nation as we have moved from a society open only to the privileged few to a society that is one of the most open in the world," he said.
But the mood of the crowd was more contemplative than celebratory. Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens (D) called it "a bittersweet day."
Douglas Bowers, a retired high school English teacher from Annapolis paying his last respects to the tree, said, "It's very sad."
Volunteers from the college manned tables where they handed out leaves from the tree. St. John's also plans to make mementos from the tree's wood for students, faculty and the public.
Ernest Smith, a barber at the Naval Academy, strolled in the crowd with a video camera, recording the event "for my grandchildren."
Others emphasized that the Liberty Tree lives on. St. John's officials used the occasion to announce that commencement ceremonies and other campus traditions connected with the tree will take place under the so-called Son of the Liberty Tree. The tree, a 100-foot-tall tulip poplar on the other side of the campus, grew out of a cutting from the original tree more than a century ago.
The second tree might not be the only offspring. University of Maryland biotechnology researchers have been trying to clone the tree using genetic material taken from the original this year. Yesterday, they said they remained cautiously optimistic about the procedure's success.
As the original tree was about to come down, however, many fell silent. The clatter of the news helicopter circling overhead was the only sound as Frank Tippet, a 10th-generation Marylander and an amateur historian, talked about another meeting at the tree, one that took place 224 years ago, on Sept. 27, 1775.
"They came to the tree to talk about throwing all the British royalists out of town," he said. "Here we are, still gathering around the same tree.'
At that time, every large city in the American colonies had a Liberty Tree or Liberty Pole. Celebrated in a popular song of the day written by Tom Paine, these were symbols and meeting places for the radicals who sought to defy British rule.
During the war for independence, the British chopped down the Liberty Trees in many colonies. In others, the trees survived the war but succumbed to disease and age. The tulip poplar in Annapolis was the nation's last survivor, until yesterday.
The removal of the tree is expected to be completed today.
CAPTION: A tree surgeon rises 96 feet into the branches of the 400-year-old Liberty Tree at St. John's College in Annapolis.
CAPTION: Jesse Hayes, 13, sketches the tree in its final moments. Her parents let her miss school to attend the event.