Moab Happenings Archive
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The Big Tree
by Vicki Barker

Moab's old cottonwood tree
The biggest cottowood tree in Moab just about the time it turned 100. Photo by Dwain C. Barker  

Protesting developed as a popular pastime in Moab in the final three decades of the 20th century. One of the first protests in the 1970s and one of the last that drew attention from the big media in Salt Lake City -- on the eve of the Millenium -- were scuffles over the fate of the oldest cottonwood tree in the valley. 

The “Big Tree” won the first battles in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was given the right-of-way in road-paving and sidewalk installation projects. But late in the fall of 1999, the tree was downed in three days -- despite the lady who climbed the tree and refused to leave in an attempt to save it; and in spite of several teenagers who chained themselves to the tree to delay its destruction. 

By the winter of 2000, the Big Tree on 100 South was a collective memory 110 years old.

It was a sad day Sept. 28, 1999 when the tree came down, recalled Brent Williams, Moab City public works director. Just as its branches had spread far and wide across the rooftops and road, word that it was coming under the axe spread far and wide in the Mountain West. “I had people from Salt Lake City calling, calls from Denver, calls from Grand Junction,” Williams said. “There were a lot of sad people.”

“Just everyone loved that tree, and everyone hated to see it go, when it started tipping,” added Dave Olsen, Moab community development director.

What killed the tree in the end was not “progress,” but a rotten system. The roots of the giant Fremont poplar -- commonly called a cottonwood -- had rotted and only one large root was sustaining the tree by the time the Public Works Dept. uprooted it. Jim Davis, who later incorporated the stump into the playground at Rotary Park, first topped the tree, then “we pulled it down with a loader,” said Williams. 

As he directed the toppling of the old tree, Williams remembered the many times he’d played in the cottonwood as a child, stealing away from his grandmother “Maid” Johnson’s house near the tree, to go climbing. “I’d go as far up as I could and scare my mom.”

Kyle and Carrie Bailey, former owners of an apartment complex on 100 South they named “The Cottonwoods” after the tree, remember that branches had started breaking off and falling into the road. Williams said the lean of the tree was gaining as much as four inches a day. It had become unsafe.

Ring dating placed the planting of the big cottonwood in the late 1880s or as late as 1890. Bailey said he’s been told his great-great grandfather, Randolph H. Stewart, planted the tree along with many others on his property, which later comprised most of the Moab townsite. Stewart arrived around 1880 and in 1881 became bishop of the first organized ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to “Grand Memories,” a history of Moab by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers.

It was definitely a Stewart who is credited with planting the tree, Olsen said. Another source cited a Fred Stewart as planting the cottonwood in 1880 as part of a block square of trees surrounding his property.

Williams said the old cottonwood measured 75 feet tall, its trunk nine feet in diameter in its last days. It took three days to haul the hulk away in pieces, and a number of people showed up at the city shop to salvage a piece of old Moab flora. Nick Eason, now retired from the National Park Service, recalls being gifted by then-Mayor Karla Hancock with a chunk of the tree. Eason pursued a hobby of carving, and Hancock admired his work. Eason said he has yet to decide what form the wood will take, but it’s a piece he cherishes.

Olsen composed an informational sign along with photographs of the tree to put up by the tree’s remains at Rotary Park. However, at least two children were injured in falls from the stump at the playground in recent years, and though no one sued over the accidents, Williams questioned the wisdom of leaving such a temptation there, especially when his own four-year-old grandson climbed up, triumphantly unattended, and sent visions of broken bones through his grandpa’s head.

Williams hauled the stump off to the dump. Olsen followed. They agreed to return two pieces to the park that had broken apart in transport, and now they are pondering what to make of the remnants. Wood furniture? Some type of wooden musical instruments? Olsen is open to ideas.

Meantime, one of two branches that Brig Larsen and Olsen saved and transplanted from the tree when it was downed appears to be thriving at its new homesite on 300 South 100 East. Olsen said cottonwood branches often survive when planted in the ground, especially if they are planted with rooting chemicals and tended -- and if they come from a tough, gnarly old tree like the Big Tree of 100 South.

“The genetics of that tree could produce another whopper. Who knows?” 

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