Stilwell’s Sentinel Trees Bear Witness

A black and white picture of Fort Douglas and a flagpole with a flag flying.

This article by Io principal Susan Crook was published in the June 2014 Union Vedette, the newsletter of the Fort Douglas Military Museum.

Stilwell Field has played an essential role at Fort Douglas from the founding of the post on October 20, 1862 to the present stewardship of the Fort Douglas National Historic Landmark (NHL) by the University of Utah.  The parade ground is the core of the Fort Douglas NHL and a significant historic landscape in its own right within the context of the larger military reservation.  The trees along its perimeter are sentinels that bear witness to its history.

The parade ground was a desolate-looking place before the tough, fast-growing black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) planted at its perimeter in 1863 began to mature.  Five black locusts in fair to poor condition have survived from that original planting.  It’s amazing any are left.  They are susceptible to locust borer and a number of other health problems.  Black locusts typically live less than 100 years.  These five have stood guard over the parade ground for 151 years, but the record for longevity goes to a specimen in France that is over 400 years old.

Other species of trees that were planted as the locusts died are green ash, Siberian elm, western catalpa, American elm, and boxelder.  Most of these historic trees are listed as being in good condition on the University of Utah campus tree inventory.  The Siberian elms probably date from a planting of 500 elms done in cooperation with Utah State University during the Great Depression (Arrington, p. 342).  Several Japanese zelkovas have been planted recently to replace dead and declining trees.  Two of the Siberian elms on the south side of the parade ground that were in decline were removed on May 7, 2014.

The parade ground’s trees and lawn are watered by an underground piped irrigation system.  They were originally watered by a network of ditches with water diverted from the streams flowing from Red Butte Canyon.  The 19th century water network included an artificial lake near the officers’ quarters.  The first piped sprinkler system was installed in 1930 using water from the reservoir impounded behind the new Red Butte Dam built in 1928.

There are other gaps in the ranks of the sentinel trees besides the two spaces recently left vacant by their fallen boxelder comrades.  Black locusts, despite their cultural challenges, would be the historically correct sentinel trees to call into service