April 4: Saving the Elm City’s Elm Trees – The First Time


Today in 1909, the last in a series of “campaign documents” aimed at mobilizing citizens to save the trees that had given New Haven its reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful cities was published in the New Haven Sunday Union. Decades before the 1936 arrival of the devastating Dutch elm disease, the “City of Elms” historic tree stock faced what George Dudley Seymour, the civic leader behind the campaign, unhesitatingly called “complete destruction.” The problem wasn’t a disease or virus, but the trees’ nearly complete neglect and abuse by a population which firmly believed the elms, as part of nature, could take care of themselves.

A Mistreated Elm Street Elm, July 1908. Defoliated by beetles, bark rubbed and burned off by electric wires, girdled by guy-wires, and ruthlessly trimmed.(Photograph by M.W. Filley)

New Haven’s elms were as historic as they were endangered. The city’s first elm trees – two of them – were planted in 1686 at what is now Temple and Elm Streets. Seventy-three years later, a row of 250 sycamore and elm trees was planted around the town green. In the late-18th century, James Hillhouse supervised the “Great Planting” of elms from Temple to Grove Street and along what is now Hillhouse Avenue.

Even before the “Great Planting,’ the effect of the graceful elms and their cathedral-like over-street canopies had made New Haven, according to the invading British General Garth in 1779, “too pretty to burn.” A half-century later, the visiting aristocrat Lady Emmeline Stuart Wortley wrote “the exceeding profusion of [New Haven’s] stately elms render it not only one of the most charming, but one of the most unique cities I ever beheld.” The popular Dinsmore travel guide of 1859 called New Haven “the handsomest city in America.”

Hillhouse Avenue, part of the “Great Planting” of elms by James Hillhouse in the late 1700s.

But as early as 1883, the trees that were the “glory and pride of the city” were already suffering from what Seymour called “the grossest neglect.” Left without trunk guards to protect the bark, the trees had been bitten to death by tethered horses, burned and broken by electric lines and guy wires, poisoned by leaky gas lines, suffocated by poorly placed sidewalks and paving, deprived of water and fertilizer, and victimized by a host of natural calamities from the canker worm to the elm leaf beetle and from the Blizzard of 1888 to the Great Wind Storm of 1893. By 1909, the elms were in crisis, and unless immediate action was taken, Seymour’s report insisted, the City of Elms would become a city of dead and dangerous relics.

The only way to save the trees, Seymour asserted, was for citizens to demand the the city hire a professional forester charged specifically with the care, management, and preservation of the tree stock. To do this, Seymour, a first-rate and persuasive patent attorney in private life, effectively mobilized both citizenry and civic elites.

Within months, the state legislature had approved changes to New Haven’s city charter that would allow it to hire a city forester. George Alexander Crombie, a recent graduate of the Yale forestry school was given the job, and supported by ample annual appropriations, he revitalized the city’s arboreal resources. By 1921, some 5000 diseased or dead trees had been removed from city streets and 10,000 trees – elms, maples, sycamores and lindens – had been planted. New Haven once again seemed worthy of its nickname –which in the spirit of the times had been modernized to “The Elm City.”

Then, in 1936, the Dutch elm virus entered Connecticut and coupled with the disastrous hurricane of 1938, the effect on the elms was devastating. By 1953, only a few of New Haven’s venerable elms were still standing. The New Haven Garden Club stepped in then, and has continued its efforts up to today, to keep the elm a vital presence in the cityscape. Thanks to seed stock from area survivors, new disease-resistant elm varieties, ongoing biogenetic research, and a still-dedicated citizenry, prospects for the Elm City’s future as a city of elms, are much brighter.

Further Reading

Bruce Fellman, “The Elm City, Then and Now,” Yale Alumni Magazine

The New Haven Green, the City’s Elms, and the Garden Club of New Haven,Garden Club of New Haven

Thomas MacMillan, Elms Make a Comeback in the Elm City,” New Haven Independent