By John A. Wott, Director Emeritus
One of the four primary forest trees of the Pacific Northwest is Thuja plicata, or the Western red cedar. There are “giants” of this species still growing after hundreds of years in protected sites in this state, but most were logged in great quantities as the lumber mills in the Pacific Northwest grew. The Washington Park Arboretum land, originally owned by the Pope Lumber company, was logged in the late 1880s and then basically clear cut of any remaining harvestable trees a few years later. Realizing that the city was growing up the hill, Pope sold the “developable” property and gave the drainage valley (now known as Arboretum Creek) to the City as open space in exchange for utilities which are all contained in the famed “Wilcox Bridge” over Lake Washington Boulevard East.
The red cedar produces many seeds and thus seedlings, and is an early invader of forest lands. It can germinate and grow under the dense shade of the big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). Since these trees are evergreen with many needles full of chlorophyll, they can photosynthesize every day of the year. They grow rapidly and tall. In the early part of the last century, Western red cedar seedlings flourished and produced many young trees in the fledgling Arboretum.
The University of Washington Arboretum (its original name) officially began in 1934. These were depression times, and there was little money to develop any of the ideas in the Dawson Plan which had been accepted. However, federal funds obtained through the State brought hundreds of men to work here through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Even though fences around the Arboretum have been a subject of controversy, there seems to have always been some type of fence along the eastern side, bordering Broadmoor Golf Course.
These photos from 1937 show men (often in their hats and reasonably dressy clothes) working through the WPA sawing, spitting and building a tall cedar fence. Since cedar is an extremely durable wood for use in northwest climates, the fence lasted for years as shown in a picture from 1951. Eventually it deteriorated and has been replaced by a tall rather unsightly wire fence.
When an inventory of the native matrix of trees was conducted in the 1990s, it was obvious that there was a ten year dearth of missing cedar trees, proving that the lumber for the fence was cut in the Arboretum. Another side bar is that many of the original drainage pipes were hollow cedar logs, some of which are still in use in the Arboretum. What a novel idea, using our own ecosystem for beauty as well as worth.