One of the Mightiest Oaks in city is no more
Storm fells pride of Wooded Island

To Doug Anderson's Memorial to the lost oak: "Lost Wooded Island" Tour (incl. another feature on Wooded Island). To Photo Gallery of the Tour.
See Doug Anderson's "Wooded Island: In Memoriam" in
or Hyde Park History, the publication of the Hyde Park Historical Society, 2002 No's. 2-3.
Columbian Exposition

"The one thing that's certain is that the Wooded Island that [we] used to know has been changed forever." Ross Petersen, JPAC Nature Committee Chair

Note: Anderson is now sure that the burr oak in Lincoln Park Zoo at the primate house was and is older than that felled on Wooded Island.

Various stories on the events and results follow.

By Gary Ossewaarde

On July 5, a storm with up to 88 mile an hour winds, torrential rains, and copious lightning concentrated its fury in the form of microbursts in certain sections of Chicago's South Side, most notably Back of the Yards (Davis Square Park-54 of 57 trees and much of the recently renovated field house), and parts of Olmsted-designed Washington Park, Midway Plaisance (mainly at the Metra tracks), and Jackson Park (especially on Wooded Island and other sections on a line with 59th-63rd Streets). In all, 755 trees were lost in the park system, 701 trees in the Olmsted parks. The most noteworthy Jackson Park losses (336 trees), especially in the savanna of ancient oaks, are described below. Wooded Island lost 75/77 directly and another 26 or so were so badly sheared or left with dangling branches that they had to be removed. More striking is the effect on the biodiversity of the Island, from 75 down to 66 tree species. ( The District removed almost all the damaged trees except a few remote from roadways and may remove more stumps. The Island will forever be different, but by far most of the trees survived unscathed and most of the shrubs survived once felled boughs and whole trees were removed from atop them. Many of the trees planted in the 2000 project were destroyed, as well as some of the new understory plants. Many mature trees are still standing but largely stripped bare. The Park District officers recognize their obligation to restore trees in situ and by species in this historic park. But funds- and trees-are in short supply; planting should start in spring, 2004 and may take up to 5 years. Even though it will take a very long time to trees to grow back, there is better survival success with smaller rather than somewhat larger-diameter (and more expensive) replacements. [P. S. Webster's gives "bur" and "burr" as alternative spellings.] The old oak has not been formally counted for age, but Doug Anderson aged it at 273 using a method developed and proved out at Morton Arboretum. It will be left in place as a memorial to itself and the other trees lost. Below, Brian Williquette, Park District chief arborist and forester, stands with the old oak. Photo: Chicago Tribune.

Locator map or felled oak, midle of Wooded Island Park District then Forester Brian Williquette with part of the snapped trunk of the oldest oak

Trees felled in recent storms
At a City Council committee hearing in August, 2003, a documentary album was passed around showing damage sustained in the winds of July 7 and 15. Worst was to Davis Square, where over all but 3 of the trees were destroyed, the roof of the recently-renovated fieldhouse was blown into the pool, and beams falling all the way into the basement's new seniors fitness center. Over 5 million dollars will be spent starting this fall to replace and enhance what was destroyed or damaged there; arrangements have been made to accommodate programs. (A similar micro burst event in October 2006 downed fewer trees on the island (among many spots in the park and neighborhood parks) than that of 2003 but contributed to the sense of canopy loss.

701 destroyed trees inventoried in Washington, Midway, and Jackson Parks will be replaced in three sets through fall 2004. Where there is a historic template (i.e. Olmsted’s) and/or forestry management plan in place (as in Jackson Park), these will be followed, consulting in Jackson with JPAC (which was highly praised.) Otherwise, the intent is to increase diversity, native species, and wildlife-friendliness of the trees in our parks. This will cost considerably over a million dollars. Emergency Agency funds are being sought but may be denied. Initial cleanup was finished, but more damaged trees will have to be removed from time to time. Wildlife seems not have been hurt.

By Gayle Worland
Tribune staff reporter
Published July 9, 2003

Wind accomplished what three centuries of drought, downpours, fire, urbanization and Victorian picnickers could not: It felled the old bur oak.

Known as the oldest living tree in the Chicago Park District and perhaps in the city, the unheralded, secluded tree was heaved to the ground Saturday in a predawn tempest that toppled or gouged the branches from more than 350 trees in Washington and Jackson Parks on the city's South Side.

But it was days before anyone realized that the trunk of the bur oak, some three feet in diameter, now rested on the earth instead of soaring above it.

Thousands of trees were damaged and destroyed that morning in communities across northern Illinois. None, perhaps, thrived as much in its own obscurity as the tree that stood at the heart of Wooded Island in Jackson Park.

With its black corky bark, its craggy, far-flung limbs, the bur oak has been--for those who knew of it--a steadfast presence in a constantly changing city.

When Doug Anderson and his family moved to Hyde Park in the 1940s, the bur oak held an inviting arm down near the ground, just low enough for a 9-year-old boy to scramble up. Anderson, now 69 and the past president of the Chicago Audubon Society and the Chicago Ornithological Society, leads twice-weekly bird-watching tours that went past the tree, a favorite nesting spot for robins, red-eyed vireos, warbler vireos and, nearing its 60-foot crown, feisty crows.

"I know every tree on that island," said Anderson. But the oak, with its 90-foot spread and its silken, fingered leaves the size of a hand, stood apart.

Literally. Squat and wide, the bur oak thrived in a savanna ecosystem, where broad open space gave it sunshine. Unlike trees that grow straight up in a dense forest, stretching for every available inch of light, the bur oak grows outward, with a broad canopy for the ducks and squirrels that feast on the thousands of acorns--whose tops are "burry," giving the tree its name--that it sheds each year.

Using a species-based formula devised by arborists at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Anderson estimated the oak's age at 273. "That means it started from an acorn in 1730," he said.

The bur oak is one of about 20 old-growth, or pre-European settlement, trees remaining on the island, said Brian Williquette, forester with the Park District. The root systems of Quercus macrocarpa are often twice the size of its canopy, he said, meaning the roots of the tree could have burrowed some 180 feet into the ground.

The true marvel of the bur oak, though, is its branches. With their gangly, animated arms, "bur oaks always look to me like those Disney trees," said Williquette.

The healthy tree was protected from centuries of roaring prairie fires by its rough bark, which is nearly two inches thick. Now exposed, the oak's gashed, raw heartwood took on a golden-reddish glow in a slow rain Tuesday.

"This was a really significant tree," said Ross Peterson, chairman of the nature committee of the Jackson Park Advisory Council. And that makes its destruction all the more astounding--especially because even with winds clocked at 88 miles per hour, many younger, more slender trees nearby went unscathed.

"Bear in mind, this [species] is what the English made their sailing masts out of," said Peterson, a woodworker and a Hyde Park native. "This tree was snapped like a toothpick."

The market value of such a tree, based on a calculations from the International Society of Herboriculture, might be $30,000 to $50,000, said Williquette. "But that doesn't take into consideration how special it was to people," he said. "There's something about going up and touching something that's 200 years old [and] that's a living organism. And this is definitely the oldest living organism in this community," he said.

Originally a peninsula, Wooded Island was named the Paul H. Douglas Nature Sanctuary after the late U.S. senator whose ashes are buried there. Frederick Law Olmsted, the "father of American landscape architecture," converted it to an island surrounded by two lagoons for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.

Olmsted planted imported trees along the perimeter of the island, but left the native stands of oaks, including those often referred to as "burr" oaks, intact.

The weekend storms also ripped the roof off the fieldhouse at Davis Square, which had just been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Up to 200 trees were destroyed in Libertyville. Storms knocked out electricity to 433,000 northern Illinois residents, and 3,000 Chicago-area households are still waiting for power to be restored, a ComEd spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The Chicago Park District's in-house crew of 45 workers and six crews of private contractors are combing the parks for "widow makers," or broken branches that could fall from trees. The downed limbs and trunks will be transported to a central spot in Washington Park where they will be thrown into a "tub grinder," or chipper, the size of two double-deck buses.

All of the wood will be turned into mulch--except the bur oak. Williquette said that the stump of the tree will be left in hopes that "suckers," or new growth, will sprout from the roots.

Wood from the tree might be sold to support the Parkways Foundation.

"If somebody gets a kitchen cabinet out of it, that's better than it being mulched," said Williquette. "I'm speaking off the top of my head here, but maybe someone will come up with a proposal to make a Park District bench out of it.

"This tree needs to be memorialized somehow."


From the Hyde Park Herald, July 16, 2003 [excerpts]. By Maurice Lee

..."It was just horrible," said park district forester Brian Williquette. "I've never seen anything like this before. Usually when you have a bad storm, the damage is spread out over a wide area. This was a whole lot more focused."

Nearly 450 trees were knocked flat or snapped in half within the historic Olmsted park campus ....Washington Park suffered the greatest losses, accounting for 218, or nearly half, of the trees lost.

Jackson Park fared better, losing only 144 trees, but many of those were lost on Wooded Island. According to Jackson Park Advisory Council nature committee chair Ross Petersen, as many as 100...The island also suffered the loss of what may have been the oldest resident in the city.

A 90-foot burr oak on the island, which was thought to have grown there since about 1730, was toppled during the storm.

According to Williquette, the tree was the oldest living organism in the Park District and possibly the city. [ed. note—according to Doug Anderson, there is a rival in Lincoln Park which he thinks may be just a little younger and which he would like to re-age.] It was part of what Petersen called an "ancient" oak grove on the island, with some trees that predated Jean Point Baptiste DuSable's founding of the [settlement that would become the] City of Chicago.

"That burr oak tree was three and a half feet in diameter. I thought it got blown down, but it was snapped off. The oak is what they made the masts of sailing ships out of, its a pretty strong material," said Petersen. "That seems like hurricane force winds."

According to Petersen, while the island will survive, the loss of those trees leaves an indelible mark on the park.

"The one thing that's certain is that the Wooded Island that [we] used to know has been changed forever," said Petersen.

According to Williquette, the park district will memorialize the fallen burr oak and is looking for suggestions. Williquette added that the park district would allow the stump to remain in the hope of encouraging new trees called "shooters" to grow from the old tree's extensive root system." [Council nature committee members think the damage is too great and shooters will not appear or last if they do.]

...As for replanting, Williquette promised any new plan would fit within the"historical template" of Frederick Law [Olmsted's] plan for the parks.

As for wildlife in the area, the park district is confident that much of the fauna that inhabits the parks will be fine.

The effects of the storm are probably more traumatic, according to Mary Van Haaften, natural resources manager for the park district, for the people who use the park than the animals who make their homes there. She said while the changes in the park may cause some difficulties for the park wildlife, they will adapt.

"New nests will have to be built in different trees on the island," said Van Haaften, "but , bottom line, nature will find a way."

Park district plans to replace trees felled by storms

Hyde Park Herald, August 27, 2003. By Maurice Lee

As park clean-up operations conclude in the wake of the savage storms that mauled Hyde Park last month, the Chicago Park District is looking to the future with plans to replace what was lost.

At last week's Chicago City Council Committee on Parks and rEcreation meeting, the park district tallied up its losses and presented its plans to rebound. Parks suffered heavy losses in July when pair of storms wreaked havoc through four parks on the mid-South side. The worst damage was concentrated in a tightly focused swath which began a Davis Square Park, 430 S. March St., and tore across the parks o the historic Olmsted campus—Washington and Jackson Parks and the Midway Plaisance.

According to park district Chief of Staff Drew Becher, the park district lost 755 trees to storms in July. While Davis Square Park fared the worst, losing all but three of its 57 trees and suffering more than $5 million dollars in damages to its recently renovated fieldhouse, the Olmsted camps parks combined for a loss of 701 trees.

"We've never seen anything like this before," Becher told the eight aldermen gathered at hearing at city H all last Tuesday. Jackson Park lost 336 trees, including what may be the park district's oldest tree, a 90-foot burr oak estimated to be more than 270 years old. Washington Park lost 288 trees and 77 trees were downed along the Midway.

According to Becher, the park district recently completed clean up efforts in the four parks. Park district crews, supported by independent contractors, removed the fallen trees and damaged limbs left behind by the storms, grinding the debris into a massive mulch pile in Washington Park, which it intends to sell through the city to landscapers and anyone else who needs it.

With the clean up finished, the park district will now turn to replanting. The park district plans to replace the fallen trees. According to Becher, the reforestation will take place in three plantings to ensure the best odds of survival for the most trees. The park district will plant the trees in fall 2003 and the spring and fall 2004 planting seasons. [Note, the program has been stretched out to start in 2004; FEMA may say the tree damage does not qualify for federal assistance.]

According to Becher, reforestation will conform to the original Olmsted plan for the campus parks and will only include those trees specified in those plans. Among the varieties of trees the park district intend to plant are oak, elm, walnut and crabapple. Becher said the "silver lining" in the major tree loss is that it gives the park district the opportunity to introduce a greater variety of trees into its parks.

"We lost a lot of honey locust [trees]," said Becher. "And people in the city are really "honey-locusted out", so that's a good thing." On another bright note, the park district reported that while tree cover in the parks took a beating, wildlife did not seem affected. "The Wooded Isle has something of a savanna running through it right now, but this was a natural occurrence," said Becher. "We don't think there is going to be much effect on wildlife. I think the birds will find other homes, hopefully, but this was more of a visual thing."

As plans to reforest Jackson Park firm up, Fifth Ward Ald. Leslie Hairston confirmed that the park district would include the Jackson Park Advisory Council in the planning process. "[JPAC] is the community component that oversees Jackson Park and they bring to it expertise and knowledge about Jackson Park," said Hairston. Becher agreed, adding, "They are great tree keepers down there."