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The White Oak Tree with a Hidden Past

On the morning of August 27, 2011, Hurricane Irene blew through Newport News with high winds and rain. The Mariners’ Museum Park fared quite well with only 40 trees down, compared to 3,000 downed trees from Hurricane Isabel in 2003. However, once the storm had passed and the damage assessed, we discovered that the oldest known tree in the Park was one of the 40. A 355-year-old white oak tree in Williams Field. To say that Park staff was devastated is an understatement!

Luckily, the story doesn’t stop there! Upon closer inspection, we discovered a hidden history beyond its impressive age! There was concrete running through a majority of the tree, stabilized with what appeared to be handmade nails. Who put it there? How long ago was it put in? WHY was it put in? It was obvious that it had been there for a while. And we assumed that an injury of some sort had occurred to the tree and it was “fixed” with concrete. But for years, that’s all we had.

Fast forward to 2018, I was preparing for a presentation on the history of the Park. In my office, was a random stack of correspondence from the 1930s about the Park from our institutional archives. The last letter in the stack was from December 27, 1933. Our Museum Forester, George C. Mason, was informing executives of clean-up efforts.

Tree surgery work was also started on the large white oak back of the old Williams house site, by cleaning out a long narrow cavity resulting from a lightning strike, this will also be filled.

THIS WAS THE TREE! Mason had filled it! So we now had proof of the damage, the lightning strike, and the repair to fix it. Then, I wondered, what happened in 1933? In other sections of the same letter, Mason details that he had to repair or fix other trees in the Park as well. It so happens that 1933 was a pretty active hurricane season. Two hurricanes passed through Newport News in less than a month. The first was in late August, the 1933 Chesapeake-Potomac hurricane, and the second was in mid-September, the 1933 Outer Banks hurricane. Hurricanes will not have names until about 20 years later until then, names consist of the year they occurred and their landfall location. Both caused high winds, substantial flooding, and large damage costs.

Filling a wounded tree with concrete was standard practice in the 1930s. As you can see in the image below, arborists learned this was the correct procedure for saving a tree. This is from a 1918 guide entitled, A Shade Tree Guide, and developed by the New Jersey Department of Conservation and Development. Within the section Injuries, instructions are as follows:

If the cavity cannot be drained, if it is unsightly, or if the tree needs support, a concrete filling may be placed…so that moisture will drain from it…set with nails or wires to hold the concrete in place.

Image from A Shade Tree Guide by the New Jersey Department of Conservation and Development, 1918.

At the time, arborists thought filling openings in trees with concrete would protect them from further damage and make them stronger. Anything is sturdier with a rod of concrete in it, right? Over time, however, arborists learned that concrete is not ideal for sealing a wound in a tree. Trees sway with the wind, but with a column of concrete in the middle, they aren’t able to do so. Therefore, they are more susceptible to breaking and injury. Also, concrete holds in moisture making the tree rot on the inside. Overall, this is pretty damaging to a tree.

Our beloved white oak lived for another 78 years after undergoing tree surgery! That’s an amazing feat. Think of all the things that tree saw in its 355 years of life. Today, that mighty white oak is returning back to the Earth. But, who knows, another one could grow in its place! Do you have an interesting story about a tree in The Mariners’ Museum Park or your neighborhood?

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