The loss of the tree was the greatest ecological disaster in the history of North America. As for size, they were colossus called “the redwood of the East.” They grew to be as tall as 150 feet (15 stories), towering over the other trees — 100 feet was common. Their width was sometimes 17 feet.
In one old photo, three men sit in a wedge of the tree, two with their legs capaciously spread out. In another, five children with plenty of room between them, stand before the tree as the tree dwarfs them.
(BELOW: Range of the American Chestnut–it was said an enterprising squirrel could go from George to Main on chestnut trees without touching the ground.)
At one time, the tree constituted nearly one in four trees in Eastern America. They dominated from Georgia to Maine in the forest of the Appalachian Mountains. There were four billion of them, and constituted 30-40 percent of the forest canopy. When they flowered in late June or early July, it looked like it was snowing.
As for fruit, its loss was a cataclysmic blow to forest and economy. It produced a sweet nut that was a major stable for humans, and the “mast” covered the forest bottom in abundance. All manner of wild animals — wild turkey, deer, and bear ate it. While a beech tree or acorn tree may only produce a bumper crop once every five to eight years, its consistently bountiful mast supported not only wild life, but subsistence farmers in Appalachia.
(BELOW: Chestnut mast covers the ground.)
The tree’s wood was also an important part of the economy. The wood grew very straight, and it was perfect for fences, houses, furniture and railroad ties. While it was not as hard as oak, it was particularly lightweight, strong enough, was cut readily straight down the grain, and easily worked with by tools. Its resistance to rot was legendary. Though the last tree died more than 60 years ago, in the forest, you can still find huge stump rings, rings of rotten wood that outline where the base used to be, seven or eight feet apart; this from trees that died 70 to 90 years ago.
That tree I describe is the American Chestnut. And its downfall started of all places at the Bronx Zoo, or at least it was first observed there in 1904. In the late 19th and early 20th century, introducing foreign trees was all the rage, and the Bronx zoo had an arboretum that had Asian chestnuts. The Asian chestnuts bore a fungus to which they had resistance, but to which the American chestnut had none. It was literally a pandemic waiting to happen.
(ABOVE: This stump is 70 years old about–the trees resistance to rot was legendary.)
The blight grew at an alarming rate of 50 miles per year. On May 21, 1908, the New York Times ran a story, “Chestnut Trees Face Destruction.” The blight removed valuable resources just as the Great Depression struck. By 1940, most mature American chestnuts were gone. In the early ’50s, save for the root system that pushed up small trees that never reached maturity (which are still around today, even in Berkshire County), the tree was virtually gone.
ABOVE: An American Chestnut forest after the blight took its toll.
According to Jim McGrath, Director of Parks and Open Spaces for Pittsfield, “we’ve planted over 1,000 (with 1,000 more to come) chestnut seeds at Springside Park, up beyond the old zoo in the big field. Seeds have sprouted, huge success rate, many are almost one-foot tall. Wait until next year, they’ll be five feet tall or more. We’re on the cutting edge of achieving a blight resistant seed right here in Pittsfield.” Bill Presutti, the volunteer certified arborist who is in charge of the project, says of the 1,000 trees planted, they will be culled down to 20 hardy trees.
Laurie Norton Moffatt, wife of Craig Moffat (Craig being lost in the wilderness for a few weeks) told me at the Stockbridge Nursery they have about 400 to 500 American chestnut trees planted, with individual trees plotted in a grid. It is a joint venture of the Stockbridge Land Trust and Laurel Hill Association. The grove is just south of Stockbridge on Route 7, just pass the old train station, with a wooden sign the shape and color of an American Chestnut tree leaf.