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Irene Changes City's Landscape, Revises History

The Wadsworth/Kerste deBoer Arboretum along Long Lane in Middletown suffered widespread damage from trees uprooted and toppled.

Hurricane Irene came and went without too much fanfare. She knocked out power for a good chunk of the city, felled trees, and left significant foliage debris. Clean-up will be tedious, and for most of the city there will be little lasting impact.

However, a city treasure was sadly damaged. It will be decades before the century-old Wadsworth/Kerste deBoer Arboretum will be whole again. The stretch of park, which runs about a half-mile along Long Lane, lost about 25 of its 200 trees to the winds and rain of Irene.

The Arboretum was the gift of Colonel Clarence Wadsworth of Wadsworth Mansion fame. He was passionate about trees. He established the Rockfall Foundation in 1935 to “establish, maintain and care for parks and forests or wild land for the use and enjoyment of the people.” He also donated his family estate to the state of Connecticut (Wadsworth State Park) for all of us in Middletown to take pleasure in that beautiful area.

And he planted the Arboretum. He selected representative examples of all the native trees of the area, including the 56 types of oak to be found in Connecticut. Interestingly, Wadsworth didn’t own this property. In 1909, when he planted the trees, he traveled regularly from the mansion to his office at the DeKoven House on Washington Street. 

This was his way of beautifying his morning route and giving something to his hometown. At that time, the adjacent land belonged to the Connecticut Industrial School for Girls and the local trolley ran parallel to the street.

The City of Middletown has celebrated this Arboretum by tending to the trees and planting new ones when the older trees fall. It has significant work ahead of it.

Just along the road, 16 trees fell, nine of which hit power lines. The folks in that neighborhood, including me, will not see power for a while. We've been told it may take up to a week. Many residents had the utilities lines violently yanked from their houses and power lines lay on the ground, mixed with glass from the street lamps, branches, and leaves.

Liz Holder, who lives in the affected area, recalls that she heard the “whooshing, wind and cracking” of trees in the early morning hours. Then there was the loud explosion of the transforming exploding. Holder, who is a science teacher, explained that the larger trees "are taller, top heavy, and have more surface area,” qualities that make a tree vulnerable to hurricanes.

Holder pointed out that if you take a walk along Long Lane, you will see that all the trees fell to the west, pushed over by wind coming from the east. By mid-morning, Holder reports, the wind was from the west. Then in classic cyclone style, the wind shifted and blew from the south. This typical cycle illustrates that the trees went down early, with the first rains and heavy winds occurring in the early morning, about 8 a.m.

My mother was director of Rockfall for many years and learned to love and respect all of the Wadsworth’s contributions to town. I think she speaks for all of us when she gasped in horror at the news and declared it, “a shame. Just a shame.”

Another important loss was an ancient tree on Washington and Pearl streets. You’ve probably driven by it a thousand times and never known its significance. It was one of the only remaining elms left in the downtown area to survive the elm blight of the 1930s. It was caused by an Asian fungus, Ophiostoma ulmi, which was accidentally imported into the United States.

Middletown was named the “Forest City” because of its lovely tree-lined streets, of which many (if not most) were elm trees. 

And now the remaining vestige of those days has left us. It was uprooted, falling north toward the house associated with the property, 166 Washington St. Miraculously, the tree, which was very tall (I was going to estimate, but would have been very wrong), missed the house by inches. 

Irene came and went and will change Middletown in subtle ways. She was wet and wide, packing steady high winds, which were ripe ingredients for some of our city’s oldest and largest trees. Next step is clean-up.

May it be swift and uneventful.

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Ellen Waff August 30, 2011 at 02:21 PM
Marianne Corona, of Middlefield, tells me that her father planted many of those arboretum trees with Col Wadsworth in 1935. So sad for her to see that damage.... FYI, there is a beautiful climax elm on Laurel Brook Road in Middlefield just above the Ed Birdsey house on the north side of the road. There are so few left.
Emily Constance August 30, 2011 at 04:22 PM
That is so sad to hear! Stories like that make you realize that they're more than just downed trees.
Joyce Kirkpatrick August 30, 2011 at 05:06 PM
Wonderful story about a sad event for all who enjoy the deBoer-Wadsworth Arboretum and Colonel Wadsworth's other gifts to area citizens. I'm glad no one was hurt. Thanks for the photos and reporting.
Jane Harris August 30, 2011 at 08:22 PM
The Rockfall Foundation will collect and manage donations for the repair and replanting of the Wadsworth/Kerste deBoer Arboretum. The Foundation has for many years acted as a steward for this property, assuring that the interested parties work cooperatively to maintain these special trees. Contributions may be mailed to the Foundation at 27 Washington Street, 06457. The Foundation, with assistance from Middletown's Urban Forestry Commission, Wesleyan University, the Middletown Garden Club and interested residents, will work to ensure that the replacement trees are appropriate species for today's climate and conditions.

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