Lost Landmarks

Giant Sycamore Tree

Until its removal in March 2000, the giant sycamore on the 500 block of North 21st was the oldest living thing in San Jose. More than 200 years old at the time of its demise, it was once the meeting ground and resting place for stage coaches and horses and served as a sentinel tree for immigrant wagon trains in the 1840's.

Sycamore Tree"[T]his sycamore was a landmark for the Santa Clara Valley's first settlers from the east." the North San Jose Sun reported in a July 1980 article. It was so tall that it could be distinguished from miles away. The immigrants looked for it as an indication that they were nearing their goal of the settlement of San Jose.

A plaque erected by the San Jose City Council October 16, 1974 commemorates the site where the sentinel sycamore once stood.

The tree, which occupied the front yard of the Frutosa Vasquez family home, was nearly one hundred feet high and had a branch diameter of 80 to 90 feet. Cables had been placed in parts of the canopy to support the various limbs, which arched over the Vasquez kitchen and garage.

In 1999, the City planning department secretly issued a removal permit, allowing the tree to be taken down without the usual public hearings. NNA vice president Chuck Hagenmaier uncovered the plan and "blew the whistle on the bureaucrats," the Northside newsletter reported in its Winter 2000 issue. Councilmember Cindy Chavez then "stepped in and insisted a public hearing be held before the chain saw drops on the heritage tree," according to the San Jose Mercury News. "Everyone in the community has a stake in this tree," Chavez said.

At the public hearing on February 23, 2000, NNA president Don Gagliardi explained that the neighborhood association's goal was to achieve a solution which would keep the Vasquez's and their immediate neighbors safe while at the same time saving the sycamore, "creating what Gagliardi called a 'win-win situation,'"according to the Mercury News. Gagliardi pleaded for more time so that a renowned arborist from Ohio, Dr. Richard Abbott, could inspect the tree and offer his opinion. Abbott had saved a 300-year-old historical cottonwood tree in New York by using extraordinary preservation measures which had never been tried before, despite six separate independent arborists who recommended removal. The City relented and called on Abbott to inspect the tree to see if it couldn't be saved after all.

The Ohio arborist and his staff meticulously examined the tree for two full days. Unfortunately, Abbot concluded that the tree was beyond saving. "I am sorry to report to you that it is not possible to safely preserve the sentinel sycamore . . . Until the very end, we were confident something could be done," Abbott wrote on March 7, 2000. "At the end, we discovered a separation of the trunk and leader not detectable from the ground and not previously noted. . . ." Within a few days the tree was removed.

"I am very disappointed," Gagliardi told the Mercury News. "But I'm very happy that we had this process. Without it we would have always wondered [whether the tree was salvageable] and there would have been a lot of bitterness."

The City agreed to honor the memory of the tree. The City professionally photographed the tree before removal. (A copy of the tree's final photo is on this webpage). Also, the City is saving a cross-section of the trunk together with the plaque for the San Jose History Museum at Kelley Park, and is cloning the tree. In time, a community meeting will be held for the purpose of deciding where to plant genetically identical clones of the tree.

"The Northside Neighborhood Association is to be commended on their proactive interest in preserving a historical tree," Dr. Abbott, the Ohio arborist, wrote. "Urban forestry needs the support of groups like yours if it is to grow and realize its potential in the future and for the community to realize all the benefits trees can provide."


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