On November 24, 1950, officials at the newly built Northgate Center light the world's tallest Christmas tree. For years during the twentieth century, community boosters had hosted "world's largest" contests where anything local that was grown or could be made in an extra-large size was billed as the biggest. This included Christmas trees, and in 1949 Bellingham proudly displayed what it claimed was the world's tallest Christmas tree. The following spring, Northgate Center (later called Northgate Mall) opened just north of the Seattle city limits. As Christmas approached that year, it was only natural for the new mall (one of the first of its kind in the United States) to want to hoist its own tallest tree -- and it does, putting up and lighting a 212-foot-tall marvel. As of 2021, it still holds the record as the world's tallest cut Christmas tree.
World's Tallest Christmas Tree
As the new Northgate shopping center prepared to celebrate its first Christmas in 1950, both the Northgate Company, which owned the mall, and the Bon Marche, the mall's anchor tenant, wanted to mark the occasion with a feat that would permanently put Northgate on the map. "World's tallest" Christmas tree contests had been in vogue for several years, and as Jim Douglas (1909-2005), president of the Northgate Company in 1950, later recalled in a People's History for HistoryLink: "The suggestion was made that Northgate should put an end to this contest for the world's tallest Christmas tree. We were to put up a Christmas tree so tall that no one would ever again attempt to beat the record that would be established by Northgate" ("Northgate Beginnings…).
Charles Beech of Auburn was hired as the lead contractor, and was said to have inspected 1,000 trees before selecting a 212-foot-tall Douglas fir tree located on Weyerhaeuser holdings about 30 miles east of Enumclaw. The evergreen was estimated to weigh approximately 50,000 pounds, and was calculated to be either 286 or 287 years old. Felling the tree took most of a day. It was carefully cut on Friday, November 10, and lowered with cables guided by a 23-ton tractor onto log skids, where it was then loaded onto a truck with a tongue trailer behind it for the journey to Northgate.
Led by a police escort, the 70-mile trek started at dawn the next day. The tree passed through Enumclaw, Kent, and Renton during the weekend. Sharp turns were especially difficult to navigate, while hills with pronounced humps in the road were also a challenge: As the truck would crest the hill and begin to drop on the other side, the trailing log would smack the pavement behind it and drag the ground. This made it necessary for a crane that was following the convoy to step in and lift the log or, in some cases, the truck and trailer themselves. As the truck and trailer traveled farther down the hill, the tip of the trailing tree would then soar up high enough to threaten powerlines overhead.
Nevertheless, the tree reached Seattle largely without incident by Monday, November 13, but it encountered two obstacles as it neared Northgate. The first came when a traffic patrolman refused to let the caravan make a planned turn from Bothell Way (now Lake City Way NE) onto E 125th Street because of heavy traffic. After a lengthy detour, the tree reached the mall at dusk, where it encountered its biggest obstacle yet: It could not make the turn from 1st Avenue NE into Northgate without hitting nearby houses or utility poles. Once again, the crane was called into use. At one point, the trailer holding up the top of the tree came within a hair's breadth of flipping. But after a three-to-four-hour struggle in a cold rain, tired workers finally secured the tree in the mall.
A Record for the Ages
Then came the task of preparing the tree. To make it easier to transport, it had been shorn of all its branches (save a small tuft at its top) before being brought to Seattle, making it look rather like a giant toothpick. The original plan had been to wire about 200 to 300 limbs to the tree, but zealous workers kept adding more limbs. They eventually appropriated limbs from another six or so trees before finishing the job. The finished evergreen featured nearly 2,000 limbs and 3,600 multi-colored lights, as well as two flashing red blinkers on the top to warn away errant airplanes. Secured by 3,600 feet of three-quarter inch cable, the tree was hoisted next to the Bon Marche near the northeast corner of the mall shortly before Thanksgiving.
Jim Douglas later recalled that the total cost was $27,000 (equal to $300,000 in 2021), which exceeded the $3,000 budget by nearly ten times. But no one complained, at least not publicly, because aside from civic pride, there was another reason to get it right. Someone at Northgate had contacted Life magazine to suggest it cover the Christmas tree story. In 1950 Life was considered one of the top magazines in the country, and in a time when print media held more sway with the public than it would even a decade later, coverage by Life was a big deal indeed. Sure enough, the magazine ran the story -- a one-paragraph, two-picture piece in its issue two weeks before Christmas.
The tree was lit in front of a happy crowd on Friday, November 24. During December, the novel new mall and its world's tallest Christmas tree brought shoppers and revelers far and wide to Northgate and helped the mall enjoy a successful Christmas, one that Douglas later wrote "... was the turning point for Northgate. Thereafter, no one questioned the future success of the project" ("Northgate Beginnings ..."). The tree remained lit each night through New Year's Day 1951, and it was taken down a few days later. Though there was some talk of trying to save it to display the following Christmas, this proved impractical.
The Northgate tree put an end to the contest for the world's tallest Christmas tree, though one suspects it wasn't so much because someone could not find a taller one as much as changing tastes which eventually made such contests passe. More than 70 years later, the Northgate tree is still recognized in the Guinness Book of World's Records as the world's largest cut Christmas tree, though its height is incorrectly cited as 221 feet.