A tree that experts believe is the oldest white oak tree in North America is being removed from its central New Jersey home, beginning today. The tree, which sits in the cemetery of the Presbyterian Church in Basking Ridge, has been in failing health for about a year; pastor Daniel Jones said in 2016, "It’s about knowing when to let go."
The tree's trunk has a circumference of 18 feet, and it was once 100 feet tall with limbs spanning 156 feet. The tree is situated in the heart of the bucolic little suburb about 40 miles away from New York City and has a strong connection to the town's history. The NY Times wrote in October, "The locals say that George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette — the Frenchman who bankrolled the American patriots with cold, hard cash — picnicked in the shade it provided. Rank-and-file soldiers are said to have rested under it, gathering strength before going on to beat the redcoats."
The tree has been affected by rot—in the 1920s, part of its decaying trunk was replaced with concrete—and wire cables and supports were added to carry the weight of its limbs. A resident told CBS News, "No one thought about the tree dying... it was one of those things that was gonna go on forever."
There's a live Facebook video of the tree removal, along with an informal FAQ here. For instance, the tree removal will take two or three days and will cost $50,000 (the church is paying for it, not the town). Also, the tree "essentially died of natural old age. The experts are not able to identify any specific cause. Over the recent decades the weather has changed with droughts, long wet periods, extreme heat, and other natural factors that caused stress and weakened it. As with any living thing, the older they become the harder it is for them to recover from an 'illness'. The church has always taken great care with the best knowledge available at the time in nurturing and caring for the tree. It is treasured by the community and will be greatly missed and long remembered."
A 16-year old offspring of the old oak was planted behind the church on the Finely Avenue side of cemetery. It was donated by Union County College; U.C.C. professor Dr. Thomas M. Ombrello had collected acorns from the tree and grew a sapling in Cranford, N.J.
Here's some more history of the tree, from the Bernardsville News:
The tree predates the area’s first European settlement and goes back to the days when the Lenni-Lenape Indians were the main inhabitants.
In 1717, a small group of Scottish Presbyterian settlers built a log church - the township’s first church - next to the oak tree. That structure was replaced by a frame church in 1749, and was in turn replaced by the present brick building in 1839.
By 1736, burials began in the surrounding cemetery. Among those interred are 35 veterans of the Revolutionary War.
In the meantime, the oak tree came to epitomize history. In 1740, during the religious movement known as “The Great Awakening,” famed English evangelist George Whitefield spoke under the tree to a gathering of 3,000 people.
During the American Revolution, Gen. George Washington and soldiers from the Continental Army are said to have rested under the tree. Washington’s headquarters were in Morristown in early 1777 and again in the winter of 1779-80, and there was a wartime log hospital just down the slope on North Maple Avenue.
In August 1781, allied French troops under Gen. Jean Baptist de Rochambeau marched on North Maple past the tree en route to the decisive Battle of Yorktown, Va.