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Thursday, 29 October 2009

Remembering the Wolseley Elm

On October 31, 1958 a decades old battle to save the Wolseley Elm came to an explosive end.

The tree was said to have been planted around 1860 by Mary Ann Good, the daughter of landowners along the Assiniboine River. As the city grew up around it, the tree found itself in the
intersection of Wolseley Avenue near Basswood Place.

September 8, 1923, Winnipeg Tribune

The first official attempt by the city to remove the tree appears to have taken place in September 1936 when Alderman Blumberg brought forward a motion from the public improvements department to the floor of council to spend $70 and have it removed. 

Blumberg initiated the department's investigation after driving down Wolseley one evening and, not expecting there to be a tree in the middle of the road, almost ran into it. A colleague suggested that any driver surprised by such an obvious obstacle “...should be examined to see if he is fit to drive a car”.

In the end, the motion was voted down, though the department was instructed to see if some signage or reflective band could be put around it.

 September 9, 1936, Winnipeg Tribune

For some, the tree represented more than just urban greenery. A Winnipeg Tribune story from 1942 said that to supporters it was a final, symbolic remnant of the open land that was once there while others took it a step further, claiming that it was emblematic of "man's victory over bureaucracy". In the New Years Eve 1958 edition of the Free Press it was referred to as "Winnipeg's famed symbol of non-conformity."

The tree did have its detractors. In a May 17, 1938 Free Press story it was referred to as "...the venerable old elm tree in the middle of the street which has provoked either furious indignation or appreciative delight from passing motorists." 

There were other unsuccessful debates at city hall in the 1940s and 1950s to have the tree removed and there were even a number of attacks by vandals (also) who tried to do the job themselves.

"The Battle of Wolseley Avenue"
September 20, 1957, Winnipeg Free Press

The most famous showdown began on September 18, 1957. In what a Free Press reporter referred to as a "...26 minute knock down, drag 'em out battle..." at a public works committee meeting, complete with booing and jeering from onlooking aldermen who came to watch. A motion to remove the tree was passed.

The reaction in the neighbourhood was angry and immediate. First thing Wednesday morning area residents, most of them housewives, took turns forming a human barricade around the tree, some chaining themselves to it.

Above: LIFE Magazine, October 7, 1957

The plight of the women and their elm were making news across the country. Even LIFE magazine dispatched a photographer and caught some great images for their October 7, 1957 edition.

On September 19th the city decided to move in. Initial attempts to cut top branches stopped when an unnamed grandmother of six threatened workers with an axe and police had to be called, (it may have been the same woman as seen above LIFE photo warning off a police officer with axe in hand. 

After 90 minutes the site was swarming with more residents, police back-up, the fire department and reporters. Mayor Stephen Juba came down from city hall to try to diffuse the situation. After hearing from some residents he ordered the city crews away. It was pointed out later that under the city charter he could not give a direct order to city crews, to which he replied that if councillors voted to censure him he would resign.

In the end, a truce of sorts was called citing public safety concerns from a possible confrontation if work proceeded. The matter was put on hold and crews never returned.

October 31, 1958, Winnipeg Free Press

Some could not accept the fact that the tree was still standing. A few days after the stalemate vandals set it on fire, burning off the remaining leaves on its lower branches but causing no serious damage. In the summer of 1958 it was doused in oil and set ablaze then in a separate attack and was cut by a chainsaw.

Then, at about 4 a.m. on October 31, 1958, residents for blocks around were awakened by the sound of explosions. Streetlights were blown out, a hydro pole lay on the pavement and the Wolseley Elm was almost split in two. Bore holes in the base suggested that dynamite or other type of explosive charge was used.
October 31, 1958, Winnipeg Free Press

The section not felled by the explosion was the side already damaged in the chainsaw attack. The tree stood no chance of surviving and died a slow death over the next 18 months. 

In June 1960 a tree scientist from the University of Manitoba declared it officially dead. On July 18, 1960 city crews went in to remove its remains.

There were no protesters.

Wolseley Elm
Wolseley Elm Photo Gallery - Wpg Trib Archives

1 comment:

Grant said...

Man, that's so sad. People dynamiting a tree?

This sounds like a great inspiration for some really committed (park)ing day activists, combined with guerrilla gardening.

Rather than just putting down some sod and creating a mini-park for an afternoon, in the dead of night, dig through some pavement and plant a tree.

There are plenty of over-wide residential roads where this could happen.