Spokane's Champion and Historic Trees

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 2/07/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10030

The word “amateur” has acquired a somewhat pejorative connotation in recent times, implying a dabbler who lacks the knowledge or skills of the professional. Yet in earlier days, an amateur was often highly regarded as an expert in a subject outside of his or her profession. In fact some of the greatest scientific discoveries have been made by such amateurs. Spokane's Dr. Edward L. Lester (b. 1934) is a true amateur in this earlier sense of the word. His profession was medicine: his passionate avocation the study of trees, specifically Washington’s “champion” trees -- the largest of their type in the state -- as well as those with connections to local history. He has found that Spokane is home to a surprising number of such trees.

Washington's Ancient and Mighty Trees

The mightiest native giants of Washington state are the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), Douglas firs and red cedars in the coastal rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula. The Queets fir is the largest known living Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziessii), and the largest existing Alaska cedar grows above Quinault Lake in the Olympic National Park. It is 12 feet in diameter and possibly more than 2000 years old. After over 150 years of logging in the Northwest, many such trees are gone except where protected in national parks, wilderness, and scenic areas.

The Roosevelt Grove of Ancient Cedars in the northeast corner of the state is the closest such preserve to Spokane. It was designated a Scenic Area in 1943 and named for Theodore Roosevelt. Although a fire in 1926 destroyed almost 75 percent of the old growth, many examples of the Inland Northwest’s mightiest trees remain, ranging in diameter from 4 to 12 feet and reaching heights of 150 feet. The average age is 800 years, with some as old as 2000 to 3000 years.

Spokane's Urban Forest

Although native trees predominate in Washington’s forests, non-native trees from a wide variety of locales have been introduced in cities and towns. Large trees are important to an urban area for many reasons: They provide shade and lower summer temperatures; improve air quality; quiet traffic noise; reduce the amount of surface water running into rivers, lakes, and aquifers; offer habitat for birds; add to the beauty of neighborhoods, and increase property values. Spokane’s large trees, whether native or introduced, add immeasurably to the quality of the area for residents and visitors alike.

At first glance, Spokane is a city of ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa), the predominant native tree of the transitional region between the grasslands to the southwest and the mixed forests to the northeast. A more thorough look at the city, however, reveals a vast range, not only of evergreens but of deciduous trees, both native and introduced. Not counting trees on private property, Spokane has 50,000 street trees and 28,000 in city parks. Since 2003 Spokane has been designated a Tree City USA by the National Arbor Day Foundation in cooperation with the United States Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters.

Edward Lester and His Trees

Dr. Lester has definitely taken a more thorough look. He grew up in Port Angeles, received his undergraduate degree from Washington State University and his medical training at the University of Washington, where he specialized in orthopedic surgery. He practiced privately as an orthopedic surgeon in Spokane from 1969 to 1998. Concurrently, he cared for patients at the Shriners Hospital for Children from 1980 to 1998 as chief of the medical staff. He was a leader in his specialty, with many journal articles and presentations to his credit.

In 1987, Dr. Lester and his wife Kay purchased their first tree farm, since sold. In 1990 they bought a half section in southern Stevens County and a smaller parcel on the Olympic Peninsula, where they raise ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), western white pine (Pinus monticola), Douglasfir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), grand fir (Abies grandis), western larch (Larix occidentalis), western red cedar (Thuja plicata) and red alder (Alnus rubra) for lumber or pulp. Other trees on the property, such as lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta, var. latifolia), western yew (Taxus brevifolia), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), and aspen (Populus tremuloides), provide biodiversity.

Lester states: “The goal is to manage the land for sustainable forestry, allowing for periodic harvests, while maintaining sustainability by protecting the resources (water, soil, air) and providing wildlife habitat and even some recreational usage” (Lester email, November 29, 2011). Groups that have used the Lester tree farms for educational purposes include Master Gardeners, Native Plant Society, ecology students from Washington State University, and Washington Future Farmers of America. For about 10 years, Ed and Kay hosted annual dogsled rides for the young patients at Shriners Hospital in Spokane.  

Since retirement Lester has been involved with Master Gardeners and served on the boards of Friends of Manito Park and Fairmount Memorial Association. His work with Master Gardeners piqued his interest in the trees and shrubs growing in Spokane, both native and introduced. Lester discovered that no comprehensive list existed specifically for Spokane. As he began building an inventory database, he discovered:

"The results have provided a couple of surprises. First, there are many individual species, or varieties, which I would not have expected to find here at all. Secondly, as the database grew, there were an unexpected number of trees which were large for their species. On further research I found many which would rank in the top tier for the entire state of Washington. Exact rankings are never totally accurate because of limited comparative data available, but I have identified 77 regional trees which seem to rank near the top of their peer group" (Lester, Westerners presentation).

What Is a Large Tree?

At this point, the word “large” needs to be defined as it applies to trees. The American Forest Association has developed an exacting formula for the accumulation of points based on trunk circumference, height, and crown spread. (In the case of some large trees, an educated estimate of volume can also apply.) The convention is to award one point for each inch in circumference, one point for each foot in height, and one point for every four feet of average crown spread.

The American Forest Association (AFA) formula is also very specific about how to measure a tree, by no means a simple procedure. The trunk circumference can be determined by using a long measuring tape above ground level, but accurate measurement of height requires sophisticated equipment and mathematical calculations. The crown is the average between the widest and narrowest spread of branches. A tree might be the tallest but not the largest, based on the accumulated AFA points. Furthermore, the oldest tree of its kind is not necessarily the largest. For commercial purposes, board feet are more important than AFA points.

The most inveterate measurer of Washington trees has been Dr. Robert Van Pelt, author of Champion Trees of Washington State. At the time, Van Pelt was a research associate in forest ecology at the University of Washington and state coordinator for the national Big Tree Program. Dr. Lester uses the lists and AFA points in Van Pelt’s book as the basis for his study of Spokane trees. According to Van Pelt, as of 1996, Spokane ranked fifth out of 10 Washington cities in the number of champion trees, with 32 examples. Dr. Lester’s count for Spokane is now (2012) up to 77.

Early Spokane and its Trees

Early photographs of Spokane show mostly barren land with a scattering of ponderosas: sawmills had claimed most of the harvestable trees for construction. The first was erected in 1871 by Seth B. Scranton and James J. Downing. James N. Glover (1837-1921), the “Father of Spokane,” bought it in 1873, and seven successive sawmills have operated on the site, the later ones much expanded and upgraded. But soon the settlers began to adorn their property with introduced varieties of evergreen and deciduous trees. Eventually a second growth of ponderosas reestablished itself.  

In 1907 the Olmsted Brothers, renowned landscape architects of Brookline, Massachusetts, were engaged to suggest improvements to Spokane’s existing parks and plans for additional ones as well as the layout of boulevards for what would become some of Spokane’s more prestigious neighborhoods. The city of Spokane, with impetus from the Olmsted visit, was quick to realize the importance of street trees.

Nothing gave more of a boost to the planting of trees in Spokane than the nation-wide City Beautiful Movement and the influence of Aubrey Lee White (1869-1948), called “the Father of Spokane parks.” Already president of the Spokane Board of Park Commissioners, a position he held for 15 years from its instigation in 1907, he soon persuaded Spokane business and civic leaders to form a local City Beautiful committee, of which he became chairman. Its initial project was to sponsor the planting of new trees, eventually adding 80,000. White remained a lifelong advocate for Spokane’s urban forest.   

Dr. Lester’s research involves identifying Spokane trees that rank in the top four or five of their variety in size. When all the facts are known, of the 77 that he has found, as many as 48 might lay claim to first place as the largest in the state. Today Spokane’s champion trees can be seen on private and commercial property, in parks, in cemeteries, on college campuses, and on parking strips and other city property.  

The Finch Arboretum

Not surprisingly, the city arboretum holds more champion trees than any other single location in Spokane. The Finch Arboretum occupies a mile-long strip just west of town between the Sunset Highway and present Interstate 90. The 1907 Olmsted report identified the area as worthy of a park. Spokane purchased most of the land in 1912 with funds from a 1910 bond issue that established many of the city parks. In 1947 a donation of $250,000 from the estate of mining magnate and philanthropist, John Aylard Finch (1854-1915), financed the beginnings of an arboretum on the property, which was further expanded by a gift from his executor, William A. Corey (1880-1963). Planting began in 1949, first with seedlings from Manito Park. Today the arboretum boasts more than 2,000 labeled trees and shrubs representing over 600 species. The trees there that rank possibly in first place either for their species or variety include:

  • American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)
  • Goldbark cherry (Prunus padus)
  • Four varieties of crabapple (Malus)
  • Balsam fir (Abies balsamea)
  • Manchurian fir (Abies holophylla)
  • Columbia hawthorn (Crataegus columbiana)
  • Dotted hawthorn (Crataegus punctata)
  • Japanese honeylocust (Gleditsia japonica)
  • Temple juniper (Juniperus rigida)
  • Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi)
  • Hungarian linden (Tilia x juranyana)
  • Miyabe maple (Acer miyabei)
  • Sugar maple cultivar (Acer saccharum, ‘Newton Sentry’)
  • White willow (Salix alba)

One of the above, the rare Hungarian linden, is also a historic tree, documented to have been planted by one of Spokane’s important pioneers, businessman Daniel H. Dwight (1862-1950). Before the city purchased it in 1912, Dwight owned land that became the arboretum and built a summer cottage, Brookside, on Garden Springs Creek that flows through it. According to Dr. Lester, 10-12 trees Dwight planted still survive at Finch Arboretum.

The Lives of Trees

The ranking by size of Washington trees is by no means fixed for all time. A tree that was once the largest may be overtaken by another. Trees live for their normal life span and die. Because of more favorable conditions, some outgrow their competition. Others are uprooted or truncated by storms. The weather event most devastating to Spokane trees was the ice storm of November 19, 1996, during which thousands of trees were damaged or destroyed by freezing rain that left up to an inch of ice on their branches. Among the casualties was Washington’s largest bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata), at the Finch Arboretum. Spokane received a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant of $1.5 million to help remove as many as 2000 damaged street and park trees. Even those that could be salvaged had to be expertly pruned.

Disease may take other trees. Dutch elm disease was first detected in the United States in Ohio in 1930 and gradually marched across the East and Midwest killing the majestic American white elms (Ulmus americana) that provided a beautiful shade canopy for streets in thousands of cities and towns. The U.S. Forest Service reported that Dutch elm disease had killed 56 percent of the elms in the United States by 1977. According to the Washington State University Extension, it was first detected in this state in Walla Walla in 1977 and reached Spokane in 1990. Because elms have not traditionally been the major street tree in Spokane, there has been less impact here than in some cities. The sugar maples that now ring the perimeter of Corbin Park on Spokane’s north side are replacements for an outstanding row of old elms that had to be removed due to the fungal disease.

Spokane still has several outstanding elms, including a Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila) at 4800 E 3rd Avenue that is the largest in the state. A Dutch elm (Ulmus x hollandica ‘Major’) at 1124 S Oak is the second largest of those varieties. A tree identified by Van Pelt as a European, or Russian, white elm (Ulmus laevis) at the Moore-Turner Heritage Gardens is the third largest in the state of that species. Fine examples of rock elm (Ulmus thomasii) and Chinese lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia) at the Finch Arboretum are believed to be the second largest of their respective species in the state.

Depredation and Restoration

Other majestic city trees fall victim to the demolition of old homes and their grounds, often to make way for new construction or even parking lots. Although many earlier mansions and their large, mature trees still stand, such demolitions have occurred in Browne’s Addition, where Spokane’s early rich first settled. A notable example was the Browne/Strahorn property at 2216 W 1st Avenue. In 1885, John J. Browne (1843-1912) built a Second Empire/French style mansion, which he sold in 1902 to railroad man Robert E. Strahorn, who completely remodeled it in the Tudor style. He named it Strahorn Pines, although elms were also present. As was the fate of several other Browne’s Addition mansions, it was later broken up into apartments. The grand house became so badly deteriorated that in 1974 it was demolished, along with its trees, to make room for a parking lot for the Cheney Cowles Museum, now the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

Other fine homes and their trees have been sacrificed to new housing development or to the expansion of streets and highways. Some large black walnuts (Juglans nigra) were removed for the construction of Interstate 90. Furthermore, many developers totally strip a site of its native trees prior to construction, replacing them with new, sometimes inappropriate, plantings. The Spokane area has lost some of its lofty ponderosa cover to this practice.

On the South Hill overlooking downtown, a number of stately houses with impressive trees were cleared out to make room for the expanding Sacred Heart Hospital complex. Others on the South Hill remain. One such property was that of railroad magnate Daniel C. Corbin (1832-1918). His mansion is now the Corbin Art Center. Next door, to the west, was the 1889 home of F. Rockwood Moore (1852-1895), later owned by United States Senator, Judge George Turner (1850-1932). That house was demolished during the Depression, and the overgrown gardens were largely forgotten until exposed by the damage of the ice storm of 1996. The grounds of this historic property have now been restored as the historic Moore-Turner Heritage Gardens.

Champion and Historic Trees

Some Spokane trees are not only champions in size but are significant because of their association with historic Spokane figures or events. Spokane established a program for designating and preserving historic and heritage trees in 1998, although procedures to implement it were not in place until 2009. To qualify, among other criteria, a tree must have a historical connection to an important person, place, or event, or significant size for its age and species. The owner of such a tree must submit a nomination and agree to the tree’s preservation. To date (2012), only three trees are on the Spokane Historic and Heritage Tree Registry: the previously mentioned white elm, a double-flowered horse-chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum, 'Baumannii') believed to be the largest or second largest in the state, and a 100-year-old apricot (Prunus armeniaca). They are all at Edwidge Woldson Park (formerly Pioneer Park), which includes the Moore-Turner Heritage Gardens and the Corbin Art Center.

A sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus f. variegatum), at the Browne’s Addition former estate of Amasa B. Campbell (1845-1912), is the largest example of the variegated form of sycamore maple in the state, even though the standard species form is often much larger. Campbell, who made his fortune in the mines of North Idaho, is one of Spokane’s best known pioneers. His meticulously restored home has been for many years the house museum on the campus of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

The state champion common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) still stands on the grounds of the former home of investment banker and civic leader Joel E. Ferris (1874-1960) at 515 E 16th Avenue. It is significant that the Ferris property holds such an important tree. Ferris was very involved in the planting decisions when the arboretum was being developed during the early 1950s and was the Park Board member who oversaw the progress under the supervision of park superintendent Harold T. Abbott. The perennial garden at Manito Park is named for Ferris.

Other impressive Spokane trees, although not the largest of their type, are nonetheless important because of their association with historic people or events A fine black walnut guards the gravesite of early missionary Father Joseph Cataldo, founder of Gonzaga University, in the Jesuit Cemetery at Mount St. Michael’s, the former seminary on a bluff overlooking Hillyard.

On Peone Prairie just north of Spokane, a ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa) variously called the “Treaty Tree”, “Weeping Tree” or “Surrender Tree” commemorates the signing of one of two Indian treaties in 1887 or 1888 (sources differ) by Baptiste Peone (1820-1902?). A fur trader and son of a French Canadian father and an Indian mother, Peone was the adopted chief of the Northern Spokanes, who had little involvement in the previous Indian wars.

The “Accolade elm” at the northwest corner of Spokane Falls Boulevard and Washington Street honors the work of woman suffragist May Arkwright Hutton (1860-1914). Planted in 2010 to celebrate the centennial of women gaining of the vote in Washington State, this hybrid of two Japanese elms seems to hold great promise for resistance to the Dutch elm fungus.

Lord Walpole's Spokane Maple

One historic Spokane tree is far from its place of origin: in fact it adorns the sweeping park of an English estate. In 1888 Louise Corbin (d. 1909), daughter of railroad magnate Daniel C. Corbin (1832-1918), married Lord Walpole, the Earl of Orford, eventually becoming Lady Walpole and mistress of the adjoining Walpole estates of Wolterton and Mannington in Norfolk. Like many of the English aristocracy of the time, Lord Walpole, with 10,000 acres, was land rich but cash poor. In addition, before he inherited his country homes, they had been badly neglected and needed restoration.

A typical solution to such a problem was to marry an American heiress. (As it turned out, D. C. Corbin outlived his daughter by many years, and whatever hopes Lord Walpole may have entertained of a fortune from that quarter were disappointed.) While Louise was still living, the couple made a number of trips to Spokane. After one such visit, Lord Walpole recorded in his 1903 diary that he “planted some maples that I grew from seed brought from Spokane, USA.” (Arksey, 14) One of these trees, known on the estate as the “Spokane Maple,” still occupies a commanding position on the grounds of Wolterton Hall. 

Sources: Laura Arksey, “Spokane’s English Connection,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Fall, 1998) 7-14; Tony and Suzanne Bamonte, Spokane: Our Early History (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 2011); Robert Van Pelt, Champion Trees of Washington State (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996); Report of the Board of Park Commissioners, 1892-1913 (Revised in 2007 by the Spokane Parks Foundation and the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 2007); Kathy Mulady, “Tree removal seems to focus on black locust,” Spokesman-Review, October 31, 1998, p. A-1; Jim Kershner, “Olmsteds’ Legacy as Close as Nearest City Park,” Spokesman-Review, May 27, 2007; “Dutch Elm Disease Comes to Washington,” The Gardener, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Autumn 1995); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “White, Aubrey Lee (1869-1948)” (by Laura Arksey), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed December 8, 2011); “Gift to fund establishment of Finch Arboretum (Spokane) is announced on February 9, 1947” (by Laura Arksey), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 1, 2012); “About Urban Forestry,” Earthday Spokane website accessed January 2012 (http://www.earthdaySpokane.org/news); “Heritage Tree Program,” City of Spokane Urban Forestry Official website accessed January 2012 (http://spokaneurbanforestry.org/index.php/Parks/page/338/); Laurie Brown, “Spokane Heritage Tree Program,” Examiner.com (http://www.examiner.com/gardening-in-spokane/spokane-heritage-tree-program); Vertical file, Spokane -- Trees, Northwest Room, Spokane Public Library; Edward Lester, emails to Laura Arksey, November 19 and 22, December 6, 2011, in possession of Laura Arksey, Spokane Washington; Laurel Walpole, email to Laura Arksey, January 5, 2012, in possession of Laura Arksey, Spokane, Washington; Edward Lester, “Outstanding regional trees, based on size or on historical associations,” handout from talk given to Spokane Corral of Westerners, November 17, 2011.

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