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The passing of some Southern giants

Posted: October 24, 2013 8:34 a.m.
Updated: October 25, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Pioneer Tree Service Company crew works between the utility wires, sidewalk and house in dismantling a dead oak tree on Campbell Street. The tree was too rotten to estimate its age, but two other trees -- on Mill and Lyttleton streets that also had to be removed -- were 200 and 175 years old, respectively. The city determined the trees need to be removed for various reasons, including public safety.


They are known by many different names: historic, significant, heritage and living legacy. No matter what we call them, they are unique and have persevered for over a century in the face of civil war, storms, droughts and human encroachment. They have also been witnesses to the everyday occurrences that surround them. “They” are some of Camden’s giant trees. A giant tree, in my opinion, is one that measures 40 inches or more in diameter or 10 feet in circumference. Camden is fortunate to have trees of this size still in existence as they are long gone in most other historic communities. There are about a dozen such trees remaining in our parks and along our streets, but their numbers are dwindling. Unfortunately, like all living things, time takes its toll and thus they pass away.

Consequently, the city has contracted with Pioneer Tree Service Company to remove about four of these giants. It saddens me to be the decider of which ones to remove and it is not a part of my job that I relish. First, because I know that these giants, if nothing else but by their sheer size and presence in the landscape, are special; second, because I know it will take a long time to re-grow more giants; and third, because I know it causes anguish to those who have an extraordinary affinity for trees. 

For those who may say we are destroying Camden’s heritage, I am empathetic, but we are managing, in part, a continuously aging and over-mature resource. Folks, we can’t make trees live forever, no one can, especially after a century or more of existence. This is the reality of life. However, my job as a public tree manager is to balance the tree resource we have for aesthetics, function in the landscape, diversity of age class, species diversity and to sustain the canopy cover as best we can; but above all, to help make sure that our parks and streets are safe places to work, live and play.

You may be wondering why the city has contracted this tree removal work to an outside company instead of handling it in-house. The bottom line is these trees are too tall, too heavy and too wide for the equipment we have on hand and too dangerous for the normal day-to-day work our tree crews perform. Furthermore, this is what Pioneer Tree Service Company does: they are equipped with a collection of big-tree equipment including a 70-foot boom bucket truck, dump truck, front-end loader and crane -- yes, a crane. Their experience and expertise in handling giant trees is a necessary component to safely removing them.

The three trees removed as of this writing include a 38-inch diameter water oak on Campbell Street which had severe root and lower trunk rot and contained deadwood which was dropping branches onto the sidewalk and was at high risk for falling onto a nearby house; a 43-inch diameter post oak on Lyttleton Street which was dead after years of declining health; and a 54-inch diameter Southern red oak on Mill Street which had lost a major branch this summer taking with it more than 40 percent of the canopy and revealing an extensive decay column within the tree. In the months following the branch failure, the remaining tree canopy declined and was deemed a hazard. Know that the city does not take tree removal lightly and we don’t take these actions without a thorough assessment of the tree’s health, structural soundness and long-term viability.

To provide you with a sense of the mass of these trees, the lower 12-foot long section of the Lyttleton Street oak tree weighed in at 11,500 pounds and the lower 13-foot section of the Mill Street oak tree weighed in at 12,100 pounds. This equates to more than 950 pounds and 930 pounds, respectively, per 1 foot of trunk height, putting the crane to the test as the trunks were lifted off of the stump!

After the last trunk sections were cut, the growth rings were counted to determine the approximate tree age. The Campbell Street tree was too rotten to get an estimated age but the Mill and Lyttleton Street oak trees revealed illuminating answers.

It was approximately 1813, 200 years ago, when the Mill Street red oak germinated and set root in the ground. At that time in U.S. history, the Star Spangled Banner contained 15 stars and 15 stripes, James Madison was president, the War of 1812 was raging, and Congress authorized the use of steamboats to transport mail. Here in Camden, the two main town squares burned, including the original town market.

In 1838, 175 years ago, the Lyttleton Street post oak set root. The Star Spangled Banner then contained 26 stars and 13 stripes, Martin Van Buren was president, Samuel Morse first publicly demonstrated the telegraph (he later invented Morse Code), and the infamous Trail of Tears march occurred which forced the relocation of the Cherokee Native American tribe and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Indians. Closer to home, the second bridge was built over the Wateree River and the DeKalb Cotton Factory was established.

By the beginning of the Civil War the trees were 48 and 23 years old respectively. Clearly, these were historic trees and in the wake of their removal, we are facilitating the repurposing of them to the best of our ability. Some of the wood is being cut into movable sections so residents can use it for firewood for home-heating, some is being brought to Historic Camden for firewood use during battle re-enactments, some is being brought to the county landfill to be chipped and used as mulch and a few pieces are now on display in Rectory Square for playing on.

While it’s sad to see these giants go, there is also anticipation in looking towards the future as we will plant the next generation of trees this winter in the hope that in the next 100 years, they will also be known as historic, significant, heritage and a living legacy.



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