How Detroit lost its stately elms

Graceful elms provide a cathedral ceiling over Archdale Street looking north from Schoolcraft in 1957.

Perhaps if they had not been so beautiful. Perhaps if they had been planted 100 feet apart instead of 40. Perhaps if the space between the sidewalk and the curb had been wider. Perhaps if the homeowners had watered them. Perhaps if the European beetle had not arrived in this country in a load of infected elm wood for furniture.

Then maybe Detroit would still have some of the lofty elm trees that formed vaulted cathedral-like tunnels of shade over neighborhood streets.

During the 1930s some Netherlandish beetles that lived in elm bark and carried a deadly fungus came to ravish America’s beloved elms. Most cities had chosen the fast growing elm to shade neighborhood streets. Detroit planted over 400,000 trees on city land, between sidewalks and street curbs. The saplings quickly grew to enormous size, up to 120 feet tall.. But the quick growth soon caused the wide tree trunks to lift sidewalks and attack the curbs. Crews replaced the uplifted sidewalk sections with curved sections to avoid the encroaching trunks.

Two boys ride past an elm tree on Hessel Street between Glastonbury and Faust.

Two boys ride past an elm tree on Hessel Street between Glastonbury and Faust.

The beloved trees seemed to protect the homes. Homes surrounded by the shade trees seemed not to need air conditioning. The leaves allowed filtered sunlight to attract the eye heavenward, and indeed most that recall the trees, describe the arches of elm branches in terms of cathedral vaults used by medieval church architects to lift the spirit.

In 1950 the first case of Dutch elm disease appeared in Detroit. It quickly spread, with cases reported on Korte Street, Chandler Park, Gratiot and Eight Mile, Jefferson and Conner, and on Manor Avenur near Meyers and Plymouth Roads.

Detroit decided to try to save the trees by spraying DDT by helicopter. DDT, legal at the time, did kill insects. It also killed birds and threatened pets and children, according to environmentalists. Parents kept their kids indoors while the copters sprayed. Lawyers considered lawsuits for the delicate who might suffer a reaction from the chemicals. Bird lovers counted bodies, but also mourned the loss of the homes for the birds, the very trees the helicopters were trying to save. Later Methoxychlor replaced DDT, but it was found to kill fish. The chemical was not to be allowed to get into the sewer system. But how was the rain to know when it washed over the sprayed tree leaves?

Lawsuits weren’t the only problem. Even Lloyd’s of London refused insurance to cover the spraying. Detroit’s efforts to save the trees did delay the inevitable long enough to develop a manageable tree removal system. Toledo had decided not to spray, and lost almost all their trees quickly. Falling branches and storm-felled became a serious problem. Des Moines, Iowa, which also did no prevention, lost 90 percent of its trees within a decade, leaving the tree-lined neighborhoods dusty and wind-swept.

Property values, and tax revenues based on those values, also dropped while the costs of tree removal soared for most stricken cities.

During the early 1950s Detroit lost only 2,000 trees per year, a small enough number to keep the crews at an even pace, and to help spread the cost out over a longer period.

In 1965 a drought hit, adding more stress to the trees. The removal pace hit about 10,000 trees per year, until 1972, when the city had taken down 100,000 trees over the previous 21 years.

In 1970 Detroit paid $500,000 for tree removal and $300,000 for spraying, which seemed to delay the deaths of the elms.

In a 1968 Michigan State University extension bulletin, researchers estimated that Michigan had about 5 million elm shade trees still alive, and their value was more than $700 million.

Property owners bore the cost of removal, usually about $1,000 per tree. City workers warned delinquent homeowners to hurry it up, or pay the city for removal.

Cars wrapped in plastice to protect them from spraying line a Birmingham street in 1966.

Pollution rules required that cut trees were only to be disposed of in approved and expensive burial dumps. Detroit began to violate the no-burn law and burned the trees in big piles on Belle Isle.

After the epidemic had run its course, hindsight proved that the efforts to maintain tree health had been the least costly approach to the problem The prevention efforts only delayed the inevitable, but allowed an orderly transition, as other varieties of trees replaced the elms. But homeowners still mourned their elms. Michigan lost 80 percent of its shade elms.

Scientists have been working on finding a resistant elm since the 1930s with little success. However, some lessons learned include spreading new plantings far apart so the beetles can’t attack so quickly. Some chemicals may help keep some trees alive longer. Large watered lawns, such as in Grosse Pointe seem to allow for healthier, more resistant trees. Variety in planting choices might prevent any disease from wiping out vast numbers of identical trees. Researchers may yet find a perfect resistant elm to come back and shade us.

A tree-denuded Bassett Street in southwest Detroit in 1951.

A tree-denuded Bassett Street in southwest Detroit in 1951.

A helicopter sprays elms in Birmingham.”width=

A helicopter sprays elms in Birmingham.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Vivian Baulch / The Detroit News