Sometime in the middle of the 1920s the Seattle Parks Department cuts down some of the biggest trees in the city. All of them grow in Ravenna Park and have been named over the years by the park's original owners and by others. These famous trees include the Paderewski, Roosevelt, and Robert E. Lee. Why, when, and how the trees disappear from the park is one of the abiding mysteries of Seattle.
Naming the Giant Trees
On February 4, 1908, about 20 woman gathered in Ravenna Park for a small ceremony. Louise C. Beck (1860-1928), who along with her husband William owned the wooded ravine of the then private park, had asked the women to join her in a christening of a “giant of the forest primeval.” Drinking a toast to the tree, she said it would now be called Paderewski, in honor of the famed Polish pianist, Jan Paderewski, who would have a recital in Seattle the following week. “These woodland monarchs sympathize with the classical music, while any other seemed to desecrate their habitation,” said Mrs. Beck (Interlaken, 1).
Nine months later, on November 21, Louise Beck did it again by christening another giant tree. This one was reported to be the largest fir tree in the state with enough wood to build five good sized cottages. Joined by Ruth Piles, daughter of United States Senator Samuel H. Piles, Beck named the tree Roosevelt for then president Theodore Roosevelt. It measured 44 feet in circumference and was called "the single most famous thing in Seattle" by a Chamber of Commerce publication (Seattle P-I).
The naming ceremonies continued the following year, when Clara Tilton Emory, daughter of the late Judge Meade Emory, bestowed the name Gen. Robert E. Lee on a Douglas fir that supposedly topped out at nearly 400 feet. The date was chosen to celebrate the anniversary of the Lee’s birth. By the time a promotional pamphlet for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition appeared, the park was rife with named trees including Adam, McDowell, Pan (“a freak of nature”), and the Siamese Twins (Ravenna, 1909).
Despite the fame and notoriety of the trees -- Roosevelt and Paderewski visited their namesakes -- by 1925 all of the designated trees were gone from Ravenna Park. Their disappearance is one of the abiding mysteries of Seattle.
Ravenna Park Beginnings
The story begins in 1887, when Reverend William W. and Louise Beck purchased 400 acres near Union Bay, including the property that previous owners George and Oltilde Dorffel had named Ravenna Spring Park. The Becks soon fenced off the ravine and began to charge people 25 cents to visit; an annual pass ran $5. Their park became a favored stomping grounds especially during the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held on the University of Washington campus, less than a mile away.
Recognizing the value of their land, the Becks made several attempts to sell their park to the city of Seattle but city officials deemed the price too steep. Eventually, officials condemned the land and acquired it for $$144,920. Within a few years, however, the parks department had begun to change the pristine nature of Ravenna by chopping down the famed forest.
Abuse of Park Funds and Park Trees?
The first to go was the Roosevelt, which Parks Superintendent J. W. Thompson assured a group of concerned citizens -- the women of the Federation of Women’s Clubs -- was rotten and a “threat to public safety” (Seattle P-I). Furthermore, no other trees would be cut. Not satisfied with Mr. Thompson’s explanation, the women sought out Hugo Winkenwerder, Dean of the University of Washington’s College of Forestry, and asked him to examine the park. He found numerous cut trees. He also concluded that the remaining trees were healthy and did not require any help from the park department. The Parks Board responded as it had before, promising no further desecration.
But reports continued to circulate of disappearing trees. In 1926, former owner William W. Beck condemned plans for further tree removal, specifically citing three that never should be cut: the Robert E. Lee, the Paderewski, and the McDowell. Park engineer L. Glenn Hall responded, however, that his department planned to remove all dead timber because of safety concerns and by the end of the decade none of the stately trees remained in Ravenna Park.
No one knows exactly what happened. Only a few years earlier, Dean Winkenwerder had declared the trees to be healthy. Some blamed the trees’ demise on auto pollution, some on a big storm in 1925, and some on chimney smoke from the growing neighborhood. Others looked more toward human capriciousness. Don Sherwood, park historian, said in a 1972 interview “It was common practice in those days to call a healthy tree diseased and cut it down” (Seattle P-I). Parks Department records also paint an unfavorable portrait of J. W. Thompson, who was asked to resign because of “abuse of equipment, abuse of personnel, abuse of funds, intoxication and unauthorized sale of department property” (Seattle P-I).
The mystery will probably never be solved because no records remain. Fortunately, tree removal in Ravenna Park finally ceased and it is still one of the fine forests of Seattle.