Washington Elm is a campus landmark with a storied history

One of the most historic trees on campus is the Washington Elm. Growing between Clark Hall and the Communications Building, the huge American elm started from a cutting from a majestic tree in Cambridge, Mass., under which Gen. George Washington took command of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775.

At least, that is what History Professor Edmund Meany, Dean of Men Herbert Condon and other campus luminaries believed in 1902, when they planted a scion from the original Washington Elm in front of Lewis Hall. Condon once described the tree as “destined … to be revered in the hearts of its countrymen and to become the shrine of millions.”

By that date, the original in Cambridge was already a shrine, but 21 years later that city’s elm died. Some blamed that tree’s demise on improper care or neglect by the Cambridge city fathers. During the uproar, the UW came to the rescue, promising to make an offspring from the “son” growing on our campus.

Campus Gardener Ludwig Metzger made scars in two branches of the UW’s tree and wrapped them in moss and burlap. After two years of almost daily watering, he removed the burlap to find a healthy set of roots. A year later, on April 6, 1931, then UW President Lyle Spencer participated in the ceremonial planting of the “grandson” in Cambridge Commons, where it still grows today just off Concord Avenue near son was also doomed. On Aug. 11, 1963 it was struck by lightning and, although arborists thought they could nurse it back to health, it slowly died and was finally removed on Dec. 28, 1966. Its wood was treated like a religious relic; one piece was made into a gavel for President Charles Odegaard.

Meanwhile, the scramble was on to find a living replacement. Campus groundskeepers remembered that Metzger kept other cuttings from his original harvest. One went to the U.S. Capitol grounds, a second was planted in the Arboretum, a third was planted near the state capitol in Olympia and a fourth was found growing near Bagley Hall. In 1967 this fourth tree was moved to a better location—between Clark Hall and the Communications Building, to become the UW’s official Washington Elm.

Once in its new setting, the tree was pampered. Because elm branches sometimes break off from the main trunk, arborists installed cables to prevent any splitting. It’s had its own automatic irrigation system since 1995 and is dosed periodically with a fungicide to prevent Dutch elm disease.

Now about 65 years old, the grandson of the original elm is thriving; its branches form a huge green canopy that spans about 40 yards between the two buildings. A plaque presented by the local chapter of Sons of the American Revolution notes that it is a scion of “the tree under which Gen. George Washington first took command of the American Army.”

But this century of arbor adoration may be misplaced. According to the Cambridge Historical Commission, there is no proof that Washington ever took his army oath under an elm tree in Cambridge Commons. “We do know what day it happened, but not exactly where it took place,” says Sarah Burks, the commission’s preservation administrator.

A large elm tree was growing on the commons in the early part of the 19th century and a legend started that Washington took his oath under its branches. The myth was perpetuated by a fictitious “eye-witness” journal published in 1876. According to traditional American history books, Washington took command of a ragtag army under the elm, inspiring the men to become a professional fighting machine. In fact, by reading the diaries of the soldiers on that day, historians have found boredom rather than inspiration. “Nothing remarkable today,” wrote soldier Samuel Hewes on July 3. And nowhere is there any mention of an elm.

That the UW’s living link to Washington may be a fraud does not disturb campus landscape architect Bill Talley. “While it can’t be proved, it can’t be disproved,” he declares. The UW will continue to take special care of this Ulmus americana no matter what the historians may say, he adds. “We are not going to change the plaque.”