Once-living history: Ode to a great Elm Tree

Brittney Hooper works in Midtown, and since 2018 she often takes her lunch breaks walking through the neighborhood. In 2019, she noticed a plaque on a 153-year-old elm tree at 3651 Prospect Ave. The tree, planted around 1868, was even awarded a plaque and listed as a national historic landmark with the American Elm Institute of Harrisville, New Hampshire. 

The city of Cleveland removed the tree in January, citing severe decay and safety concerns as the reason for its removal. Hooper just recently noticed the tree was gone. “I just fell in love with that little stretch of Prospect, and especially the tree,” she says. “It was like losing a friend to see it gone.”
Hooper wrote this letter to FreshWater Cleveland in memory of the great Elm tree:

<span class="content-image-text">The Prospect Ave Historic Elm in all it's glory in 2006</span>The Prospect Ave Historic Elm in all it's glory in 2006Condolences are too mild of a sentiment to express my sorrow at your loss. Not many sentinels still stand who can bear witness to your birth, rise, fall, and rebirth.  One who stood, tall and steady, when your sons and brothers left to bear arms in Europe not once, but twice.  Perhaps if the wind was just right, one of his leaves may have flown all the way to Camp Cleveland, where your men trained for combat before fighting their brethren down South.

When the sound of passersby on the street was accompanied by the click-clack of horse hooves, your friend shared his shade and perhaps a minute of respite while travelers dismounted their horses and carriages. Later, when streetcars rolled down the streets of progress, and you were full of pride from the prosperity your men and women brought you, the scent of coal smoke drifted through the branches of your ever steady friend.  Perhaps a young woman, tired from her long day fashioning clothes at [H. Black Company] Wooltex, may have rested a minute and placed her hand upon the trunk of this Elm.

Dear Cleveland, it seems a miracle that through all these years; through 150-plus winters, storms, summers, and short, sweet springs, your bastion of time stood tall and proud through it all.  It seems a cruel joke that having lived so long and witnessed so much, your mighty elm was felled in the blink of an eye. 

So many of your people, who loved and were loved in turn by this beautiful living beacon of our past and future, never had the chance to say goodbye. I remember the first time I saw his mighty trunk and roots, so huge the bricks of sidewalks long gone were still embedded in the wood.  A more fitting metaphor of your tumultuous past there never has been.

<span class="content-image-text">The plaque on the 153-year-old elm tree at 3651 Prospect Ave.</span>The plaque on the 153-year-old elm tree at 3651 Prospect Ave.I looked up to see a plaque mounted in the bark:

“Historic Elm Planted in the 1800s this tree is hereby designated a historic landmark to be honored and preserved for future generations.”

I am so very sorry this promise to you was not honored.  Now when I walk along Prospect there is gaping torn patch of dirt.  Ugly traffic barrels, far too many for one patch of sidewalk, seem to mock the grave of your beautiful Elm.  I passed by and reached down into the torn dirt, hoping to see some part of your mighty friend that had miraculously survived—a branch with a leaf, or dare I hope, a seed. But all that remained was crumbled wood, bark, and cruelly twisted roots.

All we have now are the photos and memories, dear Cleveland. You have lost a living witness to all that you ever were, so rare and precious a thing. Hold tight to the murmurs of memory living within you, Cleveland, and know that your people share your sadness and recognition of your late beautiful “Prospect Elm.”

Brittney Hooper
Brittney Hooper

About the Author: Brittney Hooper

Brittney Hooper is a lifelong Clevelander who resides in Old Brooklyn with her husband, two young sons, and a house full of animals (she thinks living near the zoo equates to needing a zoo yourself). A passionate environmentalist, Hooper works by day as a research associate at a biotech company and in her free time writes, colors, explores, cooks, and otherwise enjoys the many jewels her city has to offer.