Looking north from the intersection of St. Nicholas and Amsterdam Avenues toward 163rd Street in Washington Heights, you might notice what appears to be an exceedingly large tree. And as the August heat radiates off the surrounding pavement, you might say to yourself: WTF, is that a mirage? Because really, there’s nothing about the neighborhood-replete with liquor stores, decaying apartment palaces, abandoned lots and vacant storefronts-that would seem to lend itself to hosting such a magnificent specimen.
This is the English Elm of Washington Heights. Close to 200 feet tall and at least 300 years old, it was planted on the original Morris Estate, some remnants of which can be found a few blocks to the south between St. Nicholas and Edgecombe Avenue. (This is also the site of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the oldest house in New York City.)
As a New York Times blog post from 1901 informs us, Washington Heights was once home to many historic trees, including an aged willow ‘of enormous girth’ at St. Nicholas Place, 13 gum trees planted by Alexander Hamilton (one for each of the original colonies), and a large number of Egyptian cypress trees originally intended for the Tuilleries Gardens in Paris but purchased from Napoleon I-then about to get his ass kicked at Waterloo-by Stephen Jumel and planted ‘on his grounds and around his house.’
The English Elm is the last living member of this group. That it has survived is somewhat miraculous, given that-again quoting the 1901 Times blog-‘[c]ity life is not healthy for trees [and] their existence has been hampered continually and has been sacrificed to the advance of municipal improvements. Underground excavations can be as fatal to a tree as the woodman’s axe, by the unavoidable destruction of roots and the curtailment of space for them to grow in. The roots may also become asphyxiated by leaking gas and the result in time will be the death of the tree. Electric lights in close proximity to trees is said to be detrimental to their health.’ Not to mention high winds and lightning!
I walked past the tree recently and spent a few minutes discussing it with a man nearby sweeping the walk. ‘Did you know that George Washington slept under this tree?’ he asked.
‘I didn’t,’ I said, although the story seemed plausible, given that George is known to have watched Manhattan burn from the Morris-Jumel mansion, where he was headquartered during some portion of the Revolutionary War.