Tag Archives: Traverse City

The Forest that is Traverse City

The Forest That Is Traverse City

In summer, preparing to land in Traverse City, it is hard to see the houses below through the airplane window.  A vast forest spreads out there, obscuring houses and streets alike.  It is a forest of a sort, yet it resembles no forest growing wild nearby.   Local forests do not have sycamores, tulip trees, Japanese lilac, Norway maples, and Gingko.   Nor do they have Colorado Blue Spruce and Norway Spruce.  All of those trees are exotics, having been planted by individuals or by the City Parks Department to provide shade as well as grace and beauty to the city landscape.  They are native to other lands, some as close as Southern Michigan and others as distant as Tibet.  Whatever their lineage, they have found homes along the streets of Traverse City.

The mixture of white pines, red pines and oak at the NMC campus represent the forest of most of Traverse City before white settlement.
The mixture of white pines, red pines and oak at the NMC campus represent the forest of most of Traverse City before white settlement.

Before there was Traverse City, there was forest.  Most of the city was built upon level, gravelly lake bottom, its sand still visible whenever sewer projects require excavation.  The great White Pines grew there, along with a scattering of Red Pine and White and Red Oaks, a mixture still in evidence on the Northern Michigan College campus.  The pines were the first to be taken by the Hannah Lay Logging Company, while the oaks were generally left alone.  Some of them remain today in the back yards along the streets of both the east and the west sides of town.  Oakwood Cemetery is home to many.

The far west side of town provided different habitats for trees.  Along Kids Creek, from Meijer’s to the Boardman River, a vast swamp covered the land.  Street names like “Spruce” and “Cedar” were named after the trees that grew nearby.  Early in the city’s history, the Creek was dammed to make a mill pond at a location near the Kids Creek viaduct under Division Street.  Valued by young potters even now, the clayey soil of the area still can be seen along the stream banks.

Relic huge beech trees on Monroe Street occupy sites on the West side of town. They prefer the richer soils of moraines.
Relic huge beech trees on Monroe Street occupy sites on the West side of town. They prefer the richer soils of moraines.

Finally, ascending the hills that border the west side of town from the Commons to Hickory Hills, the forest changes again.  Giant beech trees inhabit this area, some admirably cared for by homeowners who apparently do not mind the beechnuts, hollow trunks, and occasional breaking of dying branches under winter snow.  Hard maples–sugar maples–grow along with them, the two species forming most of the canopy of a beech-maple forest.  Soils here are richer than those of the city’s flatlands: Glaciers deposited more clay, enabling higher soil moisture and faster growth during dry summers.  The large trees of Ashton Park near Willow Hill School are examples of the virgin hardwoods that occupied this forest of glacial moraines.  Repetitions of these beech-maple forests can be seen throughout the hilly regions of the Grand Traverse area.

Most trees growing along streets are not relics of the primeval forest that city founder Perry Hannah knew.  They have been planted by the City and by townspeople in an effort to make the barren landscape more hospitable to early residents.  Early photographs show an empty landscape from the Bay to the hills surrounding the city.  The sun burned hot in summer and a heavy rain would send streams out of their banks without the trees to hold back run-off.  It was only natural people would try to restore what loggers had taken from them.

James Decker Munson started the arboretum in front of Building 50 at the Commons. Plaques describing tree species still remain.
James Decker Munson started the arboretum in front of Building 50 at the Commons. Plaques describing tree species still remain.

Centered in large cities like Chicago, the City Beautiful Movement began in the early twentieth century as a response to industrial pollution and environmental neglect.  It promoted the segregation of railroads and factories from residential spaces, city parks, sidewalks, and the planting of trees along broad, paved streets.  Influenced by the movement, Traverse City set about making its streets beautiful.  It laid out Hannah Park at the present location of the Carnegie library (now, the History Center) on Sixth Street and began planting trees, sugar maples by the hundreds.  Early photographs of the library show rows of thin saplings bordering the street.  Most have disappeared to be replaced by other—perhaps more fashionable—trees.

According to Rob Britten, City Parks and Recreation supervisor, the city chooses its trees carefully, attempting to harmonize diversity with resistance to the abuses of city living, all the time paying attention to rate of growth, sturdiness, and the attraction of flowers, fruit, and colorful leaves in autumn.  It is not an easy job.

No longer emphasizing sugar maples, the City plants a wide variety of species: Japanese silk trees, Ginkgos, Hackberry, Autumn Blaze (a cross between sugar and red maples)—even Chinese pears, downtown and elsewhere.  The harmful consequence of depending too heavily on one tree species is visible in the demise of ash trees through the depredation of the Emerald Ash Borer.  Healthy ashes along city streets are doomed to an early death due to the insect.

Even without attacks by insects, life is hard for trees in the City.  First, there is the broiling sun in summer.  On sunny days black asphalt heats the air above it, raising temperatures far higher than those experienced by nearby trees in the forest.  Winter salt dehydrates roots, conifer needles, and buds.  Add to that the confinement of roots by paved surfaces and it is a wonder they survive at all.  But they do and we are grateful.

The white oak trail-marking tree on Washington St. near the Courthouse reflects the forest of 165 years ago.
The white oak trail-marking tree on Washington St. near the Courthouse reflects the forest of 165 years ago.

Trees enrich our lives in so many ways.  They cast shade and cool our houses.  They turn colors in autumn, bringing us joy even as we contemplate the return of winter.  They make fruit of many kinds, enjoyed by animals that normally spend their lives in wilderness.  They provide homes for birds, squirrels, and other mammals, thereby giving us a glimpse into their lives.  Most important of all, they connect us city dwellers to the rhythms, textures, and beauty of Nature, a perspective that comes easy to the farmer but not to us.  Leaves and twigs, roots in sewer pipes, pollen in spring, a downed tree in a wind storm—it is all worth it.  Imagine the barrenness if they were not there.

The Real Issue

This editorial was taken from Traverse City’s socialist newspaper, Honest Opinion, June 5, 1919:

Do you believe that less than five per cent of the people of the United States should be given the privilege of preying on the other ninety five per cent?  Do you believe that those who do all the necessary work of the United States and every other country in the world should live within a week of starvation while those who do not labor at all should wallow in wealth to the extent that they are obliged to invent new devices and inventions of the mind, more or less immoral, in order to get rid of their ill gotten gains?  Do you believe that more than sixty per cent of the people should be constantly menaced with violent death so that three per cent can become millionaires?  Do you know that one millionaire means ten thousand wage slaves?  Do you know that most of these wage slaves have innocent little children and these little children are the greatest sufferers from this abominable situation?  If you do, you stand for capitalism.  If you do not, you have no business on that side.  The voice of reason should reach you.  Let not the prostitutes of plutocracy blind you to the fact that there is only one issue for you and for them and that is whether or not you are going to get decent food, decent clothing, and decent shelter for yourself and your children.  Any other issue is a mere camouflage and made to rob you of your birthright as guaranteed you by the constitution the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Don’t let them make that document a scrap of paper.

Despite its exaggerations, occasional error (the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, is quoted), and run-on sentences, it reminds us of the modern “We are the 99%” Occupy Movement in its insistence that our nation belongs to all of us, not just the wealthy few.  Socialist and later supporter of FDR, local activist Thomas H. Coxe authored the piece.  He died in 1936.

The Traverse Area District Library Woodmere branch has several issues of Honest Opinion stored on microfilm.

Welcome from the Editors


We greet you!  After a long vacation, we resume the composing stick and quill, a calling in which we have spent the happiest and best portion of a life now past its meridian.  We present you to-day the first number of the GRAND TRAVERSE HERALD.  It is modest and unpretending in size,–perhaps some may think too much so,–but remember it is only one day old!  It will have time enough to grow, and will expand its dimensions just in proportion to the nourishment it receives.  In typographical appearance, we think it will compare favorably with any paper in the State.  At all events, we have consulted our own taste in that matter, and are satisfied with the result.

So begins Morgan Bates’ first editorial for the Traverse area’s first newspaper.  Not holding composing stick and quill, we struggle with hardware and software, though perhaps not as Bates would have imagined those things in 1858.  Whatever the differences in composition and production, we do share his enthusiasm and his high expectations that something interesting and new is in the offing—for us, THE GRAND TRAVERSE JOURNAL (GTJ).

GTJ tells of Nature and History, always with an emphasis on the Grand Traverse region.   Every month we will support that focus through regular department features, photographs, and articles written not just by us, but by you–our readers–who will share your experiences, articles, and photographs with hundreds of your fellow citizens.  Alas, we cannot pay you for your trouble—after all, we are supported by two nonprofits, the Traverse Area District Library and the History Center of Traverse City—but we can inform an entire community about who you are, what you are interested in, and what projects you are involved in.  Please look at the Submissions Guidelines, which spells out what we are looking for.  As Morgan Bates said, our magazine will expand (and improve!) just in proportion to the nourishment it receives.  You, the readers and soon-to-be writers, will supply the nourishment required for the Grand Traverse Journal to grow.

The Grand Traverse Journal may be viewed at gtjournal.tadl.org.  In addition, paper copies may be obtained at the Reference Desk of the Traverse Area District Library and at the Archives of the History Center of Traverse City.  Readers may make copies of articles for the cost of reproduction.

Enjoy this first issue of the Grand Traverse Journal.  Spread the word among your friends about our new magazine and send us your thoughts about how we can make it better.  Our email address is gtjeditor@tadl.org

Amy Barritt and Richard Fidler, editors