Another Worcester First: Independence Day 1776

John Hancock's DefianceAs we await the arrival of Hurricane Arthur on this dreary Independence Day, here’s my account of the very first community celebration of the newly signed Declaration of Independence—right here, in Worcester, Massachusetts. The document had been approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, but it took another week or more for broadsides with the text to reach communities throughout the colonies. News traveled slower in those days, and epithets were, by today’s standards, considerably milder. . . .

It was a day long remembered. On the Town Common, near the liberty pole, flags of the 13 colonies rippled in the breeze. Church bells chimed and drummers beat a rat-a-tat military cadence, enticing more Worcester patriots to join the festivities. Two days earlier, a sedate crowd had gathered near the green to hear Isaiah Thomas read the stirring words from the Old South Meeting House porch. But this Monday, July 15, 1776, was a day for celebrating—a day to rally for freedom and cheer for their new doctrine of liberty, so eloquently stated in the Declaration of Independence.

Joined by town selectmen and Worcester’s Committee of Correspondence—which for three years had been nurturing the seeds of rebellion—the crowd greeted the words of the Declaration with “repeated huzzas, firing of musketry and cannon, bonfires, and other demonstrations of joy,” according to an account that appeared the following week in Thomas’s newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy.

After incinerating the royal crest of arms that had “in former times decorated, but of late disgraced” the town courthouse, the crowd converged on a former Tory haven, the King’s Arms Tavern. There they drank two dozen toasts to their newfound freedom—including “[s]ore eyes to all tories, and a chestnut burr for an eye stone . . . [p]erpetual itching without the benefit of scratching” and defeat to all America’s enemies, and enduring freedom and independence for their new country “till the sun grows dim with age, and this earth returns to chaos.” Those incendiary words and deeds notwithstanding, the Spy reported, “The greatest decency and good order was observed, and at a suitable time each man returned to his respective home.”

—from Chapter Two of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest

Image Credit: “John Hancock’s Defiance: July 4, 1776,” by Currier & Ives, New York, c1876, Library of Congress Prints and Photography Division.

Evelyn Herwitz is the author of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest and blogs about ALB prevention and tree stewardship at She predicted the 2008 Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation of Worcester, Mass., in her book, published by Chandler House Press in 2001

Arbor Day Reminder: Protect Our Urban Forests

spring_trees_cropIt’s been one long, cold spring so far here in Worcester, but the trees are finally in bloom. The Norway and sugar maples that line so many miles of our city’s streets are bursting with pale green flowers. Cylindrical Callery pears shyly show their snowy petals. A few magnolias offer cream and purple blooms to the sky.

It’s an appropriate welcome for Arbor Day, marked in Massachusetts and in most states on the last Friday of April.

Proposed in 1872 by Nebraska newspaper journalist and editor J. Sterling Morton as a way to promote tree planting to create wind breaks, shade, fuel and building materials for the vast Nebraska Territory, Arbor Day soon caught on across the U.S. By 1885, it had become a legal holiday in Nebraska—the same year that Massachusetts first observed the tree planting celebration.

Worcester’s First Arbor Day Shadowed by Deforestation

Worcester marked the Commonwealth’s first Arbor Day on April 30, 1885, by planting nearly 500 trees, thanks largely to the efforts of the Worcester Grange: 413 shade trees (mostly maples), and 80 fruit trees and ornamentals, to be precise.

Standing on a stage bedecked with flowers and potted plants in Horticultural Hall, before a canvas inscribed “Our first Arbor Day—may it take as firm and lasting a hold on the hearts of the people as the trees take root in the soil,” State Grange Master James Draper urged an enthusiastic audience to plant trees. Draper’s concerns about dwindling timber resources and deforestation around Worcester were echoed by Stephen Salisbury III, a member of the city’s Parks Commission.

“It is a matter of common knowledge . . . that the timberlands of the country were disappearing,” reported the next day’s Worcester Daily Spy. “Something more than Arbor Day was needed to prevent utter desolation in New England. Those who participated in its observance, however, would always be honored and their service would be appreciated.”

19th Century Forests Depleted by Centuries of Waste

Deforestation in Massachusetts—the result of centuries of wasteful timber harvesting for fuel, potash and building materials, as well as clear cutting for farmland—had become a serious problem by the mid-19th century. Writing in 1846, botanist George B. Emerson warned that the Commonwealth’s wood-based industries, such as ship building and furniture manufacturing, had so depleted native forests that the state was rapidly becoming depending on timber imported from Maine and New York.

In Massachusetts, deforestation peaked about 1860, when roughly two-thirds of the state was open land, compared to one-tenth in 1800; many Central Massachusetts hill towns had cleared more than 75 percent of upland area by midcentury.

Arbor Day was one step in a long process of reversing that trend. Today, Massachusetts in one of the most forested states in the U.S., with nearly 71 percent tree cover, compared to a national average of 34 percent. According to David Nowak of the U.S. Forest Service, there are about 273 million trees in Massachusetts, moderating climate, stabilizing soil, controlling storm run-off, improving air quality, sheltering animals and beautifying our world.

Urban Tree Canopy Threatened by Development

But that green canopy is once again in jeopardy. Here as throughout the country, development is chipping away at urban forests, replacing trees with buildings and impervious surfaces, such as roads and parking lots.

Nationally, according to Nowak, 17 out of 20 major cities have experienced a significant decline in tree cover during the first decade of the new millennium. On average, we’re losing 4 million trees annually.

It’s a trend we ignore at our peril. Just as deforestation surrounding Worcester in the mid-19th century caused observable changes in climate and growing conditions, so a loss of trees as we continue to expand cities and suburbs will degrade our natural environment.

This past year, Worcester intensified planting to help offset the many trees lost to the Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation. Our streets are lined with young saplings, still taking root after the cold, harsh winter. It will be decades before they shade streets like their aging sylvan neighbors. On this Arbor Day, our 128th, their future, and our city’s, is in our hands.

Evelyn Herwitz is the author of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest and blogs about ALB prevention and tree stewardship at She predicted the 2008 Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation of Worcester, Mass., in her book, published by Chandler House Press in 2001.

How Trees Make Our City Livable: Interview on WICN’s “Business Beat”

Thanks to Steve D’Agostino, host of The Business Beat on WICN 90.5FM, I recently joined with Peggy Middaugh, Executive Director of the Worcester Tree Initiative for a half-hour conversation about the importance of Worcester’s urban forest.

Our talk ranged from who planted the first trees in Worcester to why trees are so important to the urban environment, from the Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation and the newest threat, the Emerald Ash Borer, to Worcester’s model public-private partnership to replant the city’s urban forest.

The half-hour program aired Sunday night, February 3, 2013. Enjoy the podcast!

Evelyn Herwitz is the author of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest and blogs about ALB prevention and tree stewardship at She predicted the 2008 Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation of Worcester, Mass., in her book, published by Chandler House Press in 2001.

A Tale of Two Hurricanes

The images are stunning and sobering: water flooding New York City streets, beach houses ripped from their foundations, boats bashed by ferocious waves.

The footage is black-and-white. The storm is the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, nicknamed “The Long Island Express.” Without warning, at 2:30 p.m. on September 21, the Category 3 storm that forecasters thought would veer out to sea south of Nantucket smashed into Long Island’s southern shore, bringing 40-foot waves, death and destruction in a path that stretched across Long Island Sound, along the Connecticut coast and Narragansett Bay, then northward—straight over Worcester, Mass., and up the New Hampshire-Vermont border.

“Buildings were partially collapsed,” reported the Worcester Gazette, “roofs ripped off, church steeples toppled, store fronts blown out, trees uprooted, chimneys leveled, signs torn down and the streets littered with glass, tree branches and other debris. There were dangling live wires in many sections. Telephone and electric service, affecting lighting and radio went out of commission.”

With Worcester’s trees, the hurricane was ruthless. In just three hours, the storm downed 3,931 street trees and 11,189 trees in city parks and playgrounds—roughly a third of an estimated 50,000 public trees throughout the city. Thousands of others suffered torn and broken limbs. Working day and night, men from the federal Works Progress Administration helped clear homes and pubic buildings of dangerous branches and fallen trees, but the full repairs would take years. Overwhelmed by the arduous task of recovering from the storm’s damage, Parks and Recreation Executive Director Thomas E. Holland had a “breakdown” and took a six-month leave of absence.

By the weekend, the hurricane’s death toll neared 700, many from Long Island and southern New England. Another 700 were injured. Thousands of homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed, as well as ships, railroads and farms. Damages totaled $306 million, the equivalent of $18 billion today.

The full impact of this week’s devastation from Hurricane Sandy has yet to be determined. Images of flooded subway stations in Manhattan, decimated homes in New Jersey, pulverized beachfronts, roofs caved by fallen trees and fires sparked by downed wires crowd the airwaves and the Internet. Millions are without power in the nation’s most concentrated population center. Thousands of businesses are shuttered. The NYC Transit system is out of commission.

Bloomberg Businessweek estimates the cost of physical damage from Sandy will exceed $20 billion. Then there is all the speculation about lost output, perhaps a $25 billion loss for the U.S. economy in the fourth quarter.

By all those measures, as well as the superstorm’s sheer scope and size, Sandy seems to have lived up to predictions that it would outdo its 1938 predecessor—until this week, the worst storm ever to hit the East Coast.

But there is one very important difference. As of Wednesday morning, at least 46 people have died in the storm—46 people too many, but nowhere near the death toll from the ’38 Hurricane. Modern weather forecasting, advanced crisis planning, improved communications, better emergency response—all contributed to preventing Sandy from becoming an even more overwhelming disaster. With extreme weather becoming the new normal, that is something deserving our civic support and deep gratitude.

Evelyn Herwitz is the author of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest and blogs about ALB prevention and tree stewardship at She predicted the 2008 Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation of Worcester, Mass., in her book, published by Chandler House Press in 2001.

Tornado Season: Remembering 1953 and 2011

It’s a beautiful, sunny day as I write. Our seemingly endless stretch of rainy days that have been great for trees but dreary for humans has finally broken, and it looks like a fine weekend ahead.

On a beautiful June day like this, it’s hard to imagine a tornado striking Central Massachusetts. But on a muggy June 9, 1953, a devastating EF-4 tornado dropped out of a roiling black cloud near the Quabbin reservoir and hurtled southeast toward Worcester on a 46 mile, 84-minute course of utter destruction.

The Worst Tornado in New England History
Packing winds of up to 338 miles per hour, the mushroom-cloud-shaped funnel exploded homes, pulverized stores, scattered cars like playing cards and sucked out trees by the roots. It ripped off the roof of Norton Company’s brand new machine tool division, crushed half of Assumption College and leveled its convent.

When the storm finally lost force, 94 people were dead, hundreds were injured and thousands, homeless. In Worcester alone, the twister caused more than $37 million in property damage, including more than $285,000 in damage to the city water system, streets and trees.

To help rebuild, the Parks and Recreation Department replanted 1,000 street trees that had been tossed and shredded by one of the most powerful tornadoes in U.S. history. You can see a slide show of the storm here.

Below is an excerpt from a ‘50s documentary about the storm:

10,000 Acres of Woodlands Destroyed by 2011 Western Mass Tornado
June also marks the one-year anniversary of the violent tornado that struck Western Massachusetts. On June 1, 2011, a day of unstable weather caused a supercell thunderstorm that spawned the EF-3 twister, which travelled 39 miles, from Westfield to Charlton, blasting everything in its path.

Three people were killed and 200 injured; 1,400 homes and at least 78 businesses were either damaged or destroyed. Property insurance claims throughout Western and Central Massachusetts exceeded $200 million. The tornado tore through the Brimfield State Forest, reaching its maximum width of a half mile. Almost 10,000 acres of woodlands were destroyed in the storm’s path, as well as 7,500 mature trees in Springfield, alone. Here’s a report from Springfield’s WSHN CBS3 TV:

Springfield and surrounding towns are still rebuilding, and massive reforestation efforts are underway. Still, the memories are jarring. Even today, 59 years after the great Worcester tornado, people who lived through it recall the panic and horror.

In New England, peak tornado season lasts from late spring through early summer. We have a few weeks to go. Here’s hoping the sun keeps shining and we won’t be making more tornado history any time soon.

Evelyn Herwitz is the author of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest and blogs about ALB prevention and tree stewardship at She predicted the 2008 Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation of Worcester, Mass., in her book, published by Chandler House Press in 2001.

Elm Park’s Claims to Fame: The Real Story

Originally a swamp and site for traveling carnivals and circuses, Elm Park today is Worcester’s best known and loved green space. It’s also in dire need of restoration. Heavy public use combined with decades of tight maintenance budgets have left the once elegant public park looking tattered and neglected.

That situation will begin to be remedied this summer, when the city commences the first phase of Worcester Mayor Joe Petty’s plan for Elm Park’s restoration. Work is slated to begin around July 1 to improve lighting, the popular playground, and the restroom and skating building. With a $500,000 state grant plus other funding, the city has more than $1 million to begin work. Total renovations are estimated to cost as much as $5 to $6 million.

Maybe Not the First, but Among the First Purchases for a Public Park
It’s a significant undertaking, and much needed, because Elm Park is not only a Worcester treasure, but also national landmark. Purchased by the city from Governor Levi Lincoln and John Hammond for $11,257.50 on March 20, 1854, the park is distinguished as one of the first, if not the first, pieces of land purchased by a municipality for the explicit purpose of creating a public park.

Worcester used to assert that Elm Park was the first such land purchase for a public park in the nation. When I researched Trees at Risk, however, I found some evidence that called that claim into question.

In particular, citizens in Hartford, Conn., voted to approve a plan by the Reverend Horace Bushnell to create a park in the center of town on January 5, 1854, and the contracts for land purchase were executed shortly after. I did not dig further into this research to find the exact date of the contracts, but it’s clear that Worcester and Hartford were within months, if not weeks of each other in buying public park land.

Other public parks predate Elm Park and Bushnell Park, such as Brooklyn’s Washington Park, established in 1847. However, Washington Park was built on land that was already publicly owned, the site of Fort Greene, a Revolutionary War fortification.

New York City began acquiring land for Central Park by eminent domain in 1856, two years after a contentious legislative and legal dispute was settled over the park’s location. It took eight years of power struggles, political skirmishes and $4 million in cost overruns before Central Park’s major landscaping and construction was completed in 1866—seven years before serious work finally began on Elm Park.

Frederick Law Olmsted, along with Calvert Vaux, designed and guided the creation of Central Park.  Which brings me to the next clarification of Elm Park’s history. Elm Park has an Olmsted legacy, but not involving Frederick, as is often assumed.

Who Really Built Elm Park
Elm Park’s main architect was Edward Winslow Lincoln, Governor Lincoln’s youngest child and Worcester’s first parks commissioner. A curmudgeon who railed against vandals, utility companies and trollies for damaging newly planted city trees, Lincoln urged, cajoled and shamed Worcester’s city politicians, business leaders and tax payers into parting with enough money to develop the land that had lain fallow for nearly 20 years.

Work on the park began in earnest in 1873, and included the creation of a drainage system and ponds to manage the natural swamp, extensive plantings and pathways. Lincoln made certain that the ponds were shallow enough so a child would only fall up to his knees if he broke through ice in the winter, and he sheltered tender plants in his own home during the coldest months. Completed in 1882, Elm Park was a showcase arboretum and the most popular place to stroll and be seen in Worcester.

The Olmsteds Behind Elm Park’s Olmsted Legacy
Though Frederick Law Olmsted was never directly involved with Elm Park, his sons were. The Olmsted Firm of Brookline, Mass., was first engaged by the city in 1910 to assess Worcester’s recreational spaces. From 1910 to 1918, the firm consulted extensively on Elm Park and guided improvements, including refinements to the shape of what was then the South Mere and islands, new curbing for the ponds, modifications of bridges and rhododendron plantings, a new location for the playground and creation of paths for newly acquired Newton Hill.

At the end of the Great Depression, the Olmsted Firm was again involved with Elm Park’s design. From 1939 to 1941, they landscaped the triangular plot at the base of Newton Hill, bordered by Highland Street and Park Avenue, that surrounded what became the site of the Rogers-Kennedy Memorial.

So far, Elm Park’s restoration task force reportedly hopes to retain much of the park’s original design, to preserve its Olmsted legacy. I certainly would agree, and I look forward to seeing this green treasure treated once again with the care and respect it deserves.

Evelyn Herwitz is the author of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest and blogs about ALB prevention and tree stewardship at She predicted the 2008 Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation of Worcester, Mass., in her book, published by Chandler House Press in 2001.