The 600-Year Old "Lord Howe Chestnut" Tree that Once Stood in Pelham
The chestnut stood on the hill overlooking today's Friendship Field baseball complex behind the tennis courts near the southern end of the Glover Field complex. That hill, which today has a parking lot (from which steps descend to Friendship Field), is located between the Hutchinson River Parkway and Friendship Field. The chesnut tree was monumental. Late in its life, its circumference was between 35 to 40 feet. It stood 150 feet high -- the height of a 15-story building-- and had a spread of branches that was about 250 feet -- approaching the length of a modern football field.
1913. Source: Cook, Harry T., The Borough of the Bronx 1639 - 1913:
The Museum of the City of New York maintains in its collections a lovely gelatin silver print of the Lord Howe Chestnut photographed in about 1900. See Museum of the City of New York, Lord Howe Chestnut [Gelatin Silver Print] (visited Feb. 13, 2016).
The Lord Howe Chestnut was named after General William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe, who served as Commander-in-Chief of British forces during the Revolutionary War and who led British troops during the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776. General Howe's association with the American chestnut, though perhaps apocryphal, has been the focus of legend in Pelham for nearly two centuries and has been mentioned in books and articles. There are, however, multiple versions of the legend.
The most common variation of the legend of the Lord Howe Chestnut says that a few days after the October 18, 1776 Battle of Pelham, while British and German troops remained encamped on both sides of old Boston Post Road (today's Colonial Avenue), Lord Howe gathered his officers and Loyalist citizens from the area and dined with them beneath the branches of the giant American chestnut tree. According to tradition, on that occasion General Howe told his officers and Loyalist citizens that Loyalists should not be afraid because the American Rebels "were already beaten."
A second version of the legend says that Lord Howe and his officers actually paused during the Battle of Pelham to rest beneath the branches of the giant chestnut. During their rest, according to this version of the legend, they had a brief lunch. There is, however, a competing legend that claims that Howe and his officers invaded the David J. Pell home that still stands (and has been incorporated into the home known today as Pelhamdale, 45 Iden Avenue) and lunched on the Pell family's "last turkey" as the battle continued.
A third version of the legend of the Lord Howe Chestnut goes like this. After the conclusion of the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776 -- after British and German troops ended their pursuit of Colonel John Glover and his American troops when the Americans crossed the Hutchinson River where today's Colonial Avenue crosses the river -- the British and German troops set up camp on both sides of old Boston Post Road (today's Colonial Avenue) stretching from the Hutchinson River to the New Rochelle border. According to this tradition, Lord Howe camped beneath the spreading branches of the massive chestnut tree that, forever after, bore his name.
A fourth version of the legend was that General Howe and his officers conducted multiple conferences beneath the branches of the ancient American chestnut tree in the days following the Battle of Pelham while the British and German troops camped in the Manor of Pelham.
Such entertaining stories, told by and to Pelhamites for nearly two centuries, ensured that the giant chestnut remained a venerated part of Pelham's proud history. The Lord Howe Chestnut actually became a tourist attraction. There are many photographs showing the tree, at an advanced age, with visitors standing proudly at its massive base.
During the early years of the 20th century, however, the Lord Howe Chestnut died. Thereafter, like the so-called "Pell Treaty Oak" on the grounds of the Bartow-Pell Mansion at about the same time, the giant chestnut lost most of its branches and also suffered through several fires that left it a shell of its former self.
What killed the Lord Howe Chestnut? Though it had survived, until the time, for nearly 600 years, something seems to have changed. Sadly, the answer is readily apparent.
At the time, the American chestnut was susceptible to a devastating fungus known as "chestnut blight." The blight was caused by an Asian bark fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica, formerly Endothia parasitica). The fungus was accidentally introduced into North America on imported Asiatic chestnut trees.
The disease was first noticed near Pelham on American chestnut trees in what was then the "New York Zoological Park," known today as the Bronx Zoo. In 1904, right before the Lord Howe Chestnut first began to suffer, New York Zoological Park chief forester Hermann Merkel estimated that by 1906 the "blight" would infect 98% of the chestnut trees in the Bronx alone. Our massive, 600-year-old historic chestnut seems to have been infected at about the same time.
Despite the blight that led to its death, the Lord Howe Chestnut already had become so stitched within the fabric of Pelham legend that during the 1920s, when the local Boy Scout program decided to design and construct a cabin to be used by Pelham Boy Scouts, the site selected for the cabin was within a few feet of the 25-feet tall remnants of the chestnut.
I have written about the Pelham Boy Scout cabin on a number of occasions. See, e.g.:
Tue., Jul. 19, 2005: Pelham's Boy Scout Cabin Near The Hutchinson River Parkway.
Mon., Oct. 31, 2005: Remnants of Pelham's Boy Scout Cabin Near The Hutchinson River Parkway.
Fri., Nov. 25, 2005: The End of Pelham's Boy Scout Cabin Near The Hutchinson River Parkway.
Built in 1925, the Pelham Boy Scout cabin once stood with the Lord Howe Chestnut on pristine and beautiful lands. Even with the Hutchinson River Parkway nearby, the cabin was still in an idyllic location unmolested by the barrage of traffic that flows constantly on the Parkway today. For about twenty years, the Boy Scout cabin was a meeting place for Pelham's Boy Scouts and was a source of pride for the entire Town of Pelham. Standing next to the cabin, of course, were the ever diminishing remnants of the once massive chestnut known as the Lord Howe Chestnut.
By August 1928, it was clear that the remnants of the chestnut that were 25 feet tall and continued to tower above the Boy Scout Cabin were a risk to the safety of the young scouts. A decision was made to cut down the remnants. According to a report in the local newspaper: "The stump was cut off five feet from the ground, leaving a suitable place for the Boy Scout organization of the Pelhams to affix a marker which will permanently establish it as a memento of the early history of the Pelhams."
During the mid- to late 1940s, as traffic continued to increase on the Hutchinson River Parkway, the Boy Scout cabin was used with less frequency and was repeatedly vandalized. By 1948, it had burned to the ground. Neither it nor any remnants of the Lord Howe Chestnut remained. Indeed, all that is visible at the site today is the massive stone chimney of the Boy Scout cabin, covered with vines and vegetation, near the spot where Lord Howe and his officers reputedly dined nearly 240 years ago in the Manor of Pelham.
Below is the transcribed text of a couple of brief references to legends of the Lord Howe Chestnut. Each is followed by a citation and link to its source.
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"In the woods not far from the large stone Pell mansion is the 'Lord Howe chestnut' beneath whose unbrageous branches Lord Howe and his officers lunched with a number of Westchester loyalists whom he had invited for the occasion."
Source: Cook, Harry T., The Borough of the Bronx 1639 - 1913: Its Marvelous Development and Historical Surroundings, p. 177 (NY, NY: Published by the Author, 1913).
"Lord Howe Chestnut, where Howe and his generals lunched on Oct. 18, 1776, while resting during their pursuit of the Americans. Some say that they lunched at the Pell House [i.e., the David J. Pell home that still stands and is incorporated into the home known as Pelhamdale at 45 Iden Avenue], taking the old lady's last turkey."
Source: Comfort, Randall & Nash, George W., Excursion Planned for the City History Club of New York by Randall Comfort and Dr. George W. Nash: No. IX -- Historic Bronx, p. 25 (NY, NY: City History Club of New York, 1906). See also Historical Guide to the City of New York Compiled by Frank Bergen Kelley From Original Observations and Contributions Made by Members and Friends of The City History Club of New York, p. 211 (NY, NY: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1909) (same text).
"General Howe's Tree Lowered For Safety To Scouts At Cabin
Marker To Be Placed On Low Stump Remaining As Memento Of Revolutionary Days In Pelham
For the safety of the lads of the Pelhams, who frequent the Boy Scout cabin on the Hutchinson River Parkway, it was necessary last week to cut down the stump of the famous General Howe's Tree, in the shadow of which the cabin was built. James Reburn, superintendent of the Pelham division of the parkway, supervised the removal of the burned out stump which stood twenty-five feet high. The stump was cut off five feet from the ground, leaving a suitable place for the Boy Scout organization of the Pelhams to affix a marker which will permanently establish it as a memento of the early history of the Pelhams. Tradition has it that the English General Howe and his officers held any conferences under the spreading branches of the huge chestnut tree.
William R. Montgomery, who is well versed in the history of the Pelhams, estimates the tree to have been 600 years old when it died several years ago. Since its death the tree has caught fire several times and branches were broken off until there was only a high stump left.
Some idea of its size at its full growth can be gained from Mr. Montgomery's estimate that the circumference of the tree was between 35 to 40 feet, its height 150 feet and the spread of its branches 250 feet.
The site for the Boy Scout cabin was chosen because of its proximity to the famous tree, the stump of which stood at one end of the cabin, an imposing sentinel of the past over-shadowing the peacetime conferences of the youth of Pelham."
Source: General Howe's Tree Lowered For Safety To Scouts At Cabin -- Marker To Be Placed On Low Stump Remaining As Memento Of Revolutionary Days In Pelham, The Pelham Sun, Aug. 17, 1928, p. 7, col. 3.