VIEWPOINT: Our tree heritage
by John Neiuber, president, Claremont Heritage
The spring equinox has passed and the days are growing longer as the summer solstice approaches. The sun has begun its trek northward and everywhere we look, trees are budding and spreading their canopies over streets, neighborhoods and parks. Spring is upon us, and one is hyperaware that “The City of Trees” is coming alive with the lush green foliage for which it is known.
Trees are one of the defining features of Claremont and its neighborhoods. They are loved for many reasons. They define the character and charm of a neighborhood and its homes; they offer a pleasant pedestrian experience; they absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen; they cool our homes; and they provide shade in our parks and public places. They are part of our way of life and have been so since the city was first settled. The history of tree planting in Claremont is long and storied.
Before the city was named in 1887, the site now known as Memorial Park was first a section of the Mission San Gabriel. It later became part of Rancho San Jose and was owned by Ricardo Vejar and Ygnacio Palomares. Palomares’ sister, Maria de Alvarado, and her family lived in an adobe house in what is now the park. The area was then known as “El Alisal.” A natural spring was adjacent to the home. This allowed for the planting of trees, creating a lush retreat and oasis for travelers in the middle of an arid landscape of rocks and sagebrush. On the property, one could find weeping willows, sycamores and live oaks.
The early settlers of the town were mostly from New England and the planting of trees was a natural step—it brought a touch of familiarity and a sense of comfort. During the first town meeting in 1889, citizens were invited to bring rosebushes, shrubs and trees to plant at Pomona College. In her book, Claremont: A Pictorial History, Judy Wright informs us:
“It was only 6 days after the first town meeting that a 3-member committee on sidewalks and shade trees reported a gift of 250 trees with the suggestion that the residents meet and decide what trees should be planted on each street.”
This was an important event for the city, because from this committee sprang the idea of lining selected streets with certain types of trees, many of which survive today. It was also emblematic of the early form of governance, the town meeting, another import from New England. Today, we still enjoy the town meeting approach—city government uses the town meeting to gather input on issues. From records, it is clear that the street tree committee was the most active, appearing in the archives of city minutes more often than any other committee.
College Avenue was planted with eucalyptus, and they grew so well—reaching a height of 15 feet—that they were featured on the cover of the 1898 college yearbook. The trees were planted by Henry A. Palmer, the president of the board of trustees of Pomona College, and his young assistant, teacher-surveyor, Frank Brackett. They planted the trees with wide spaces in between, not in rows as was the custom, to preserve the view of the mountains. They could be seen walking the avenue with a horse-drawn wagon, watering the trees.
The New England influence appeared again when a species found commonly in the east, the American Elm, was selected for planting. The decision was made to locate the majority of these elms along Alexander Avenue, what is now Indian Hill Boulevard. Although many of these trees have been taken by disease and age, many of them currently remain standing. The most notable of the surviving trees form a high canopy on Indian Hill Boulevard between 8th and 10th Streets at Memorial Park. It is the quintessential image of our tree heritage.
In 1944, the Postwar Planning Committee was created by the Chamber of Commerce to promote good city planning. One of the subcommittees was concerned with street trees. The guiding light of the street tree committee was Mary Ilsley. They raised over $3000 and struck a deal with the city that if they planted the trees and watered them the first year, then the city would take over the care and maintenance thereafter. The crepe myrtles on Berkeley Avenue were one of the first projects for the committee.
The tradition of tree planting has carried over from generation to generation and is part of the culture of the community and the city. Our trees are as deeply rooted in our heritage as the rest of our history.
So when you are walking the dog, or out for a leisurely stroll, and you find yourself gazing up at the elms on Indian Hill, or the crepe myrtles on Berkeley or admiring the height of the eucalyptus on College, give a nod to the Alvarado family, to Henry Palmer, to Frank Brackett, to Mary Ilsley, and, yes, to the trees.