Gettysburg 'Witness' Tree

This 285-year-old large white oak tree is often called a "witness tree," as it has observed nearly 300 years of history from its spot on a small ridge behind what is now the Peebles Festival Shopping Centre on Route 30 in Straban Township.

The tree's life was threatened in 2000 when developers planned to demolish it for the shopping centre. But the township convinced the developers to push the buildings forward to avoid damaging the tree's roots and save the historic piece of nature. Now, the tree is fighting for its life again.

Last fall, Jim Paddock, former Straban township landscape consultant and landscape architect, was enjoying lunch at the white oak when he noticed a crack near the top of the tree's base. "The extra weight of the tree's long branches are likely to blame." he said. Paddock worried that weather - harsh winds or heavy snow - could damage the tree even further, or amid modern-day clothing stores and fast-food restaurants just outside of Gettysburg stands kill it. Workers from the Cumberland Valley Tree Service were voluntarily giving the oak structural help by placing rods in the tree to relieve the stress of the branches. Without the rods, it would be possible for the tree to split down the middle during heavy winds, Joe Breighner, a local botanist, said. The workers also removed dead cells, tissue and other rotting material from the inside of tree and placed cabling near the base to help push the tree together. "As long as we can hold it together, it should be fine," Paddock said. The tree is in great shape despite the split in the middle on the base and continues to grow, he added. He was hired in 2000 as the township's landscape consultant to go over the plans of the shopping centre. But he didn't notice the tree at first. He studied the land and the developer's drawings, but thought the area was wilderness. Then, one day when he was driving on Route 30 to go to Harrisburg, he noticed the tree - one of the oldest white oaks in Pennsylvania.

The tree began growing in approximately 1728, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. It served as a property line so it's unclear who owns it, Paddock said. However, the tree does sit on private property, he added. The tree is unique, given the conditions, Paddock said. No one has trimmed the branches of the tree or spread fertilizer on the roots. The tree has survived in the natural habit - from wilderness to industry - as the years have passed. The tree's birth dates back to America's virgin forests, before the first settlers began cultivating the land. The genetics of the white oak are pure, which is a rare find, said Breighner. But the exact history of the tree is unknown.

During the pre-Revolutionary War period, Paddock believes the tree overlooked a road that allowed travel from York to Gettysburg and continued through the gap and mountains of present-day Adams County. In the 1700s, the Route 30 area was in Lancaster County, and Gettysburg was known as the Marsh Creek Settlement, Paddock said. The oak stood long before the Battle of Gettysburg that took place just miles down the road. Roy Thomas, a former Straban Township supervisor, imagines soldiers used the tree's description - a large oak tree on the ridge - as a navigation tool to find Camp Letterman, a hospital that was stationed in the area of Route 30. "Nothing was here," Thomas said, pointing to the busy shops and roadway ahead. "It's part of history." Thomas was a township supervisor during the 2000s and fought to save the tree's life alongside Paddock. Thomas visits the tree at least once a year, searching for acorns in hopes of growing more white oaks like the one that has stood firmly in the ground for 285 years. He hasn't found an acorn.....Yet.

The proposed extension of Camp Letterman Drive will most likely not impact the white oak, according to Straban Township Chairwoman Sharon Hamm. The township's Board of Supervisors recently approved a traffic study to test potential impacts of extending Camp Letterman Drive from Sheetz all the way down to Hunterstown Road. "To best of my knowledge the tree, would be not be impacted by the extension," Hamm said. "We would do whatever we could to do to try to protect the tree." The township is in the preliminary stages of planning the extension and is still accepting public input.

The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Spring 2013