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Crews cut down a legendary 300-year-old tree at Lincoln Park Zoo

Chainsaws revved Tuesday morning and removed a nearly 300-year-old tree at Lincoln Park Zoo. What stood for centuries was cut down in hours.

The 70-foot-tall bur oak, located next to the primate house, is believed to be older than the city of Chicago itself. The base of the trunk alone weighed a hefty 7,400 pounds and scientists will now be able to get a precise age by counting the rings.

The long-sturdy tree had grown old and weak in its final months, and the sawed-off dead branches creaked as a crane placed them on the ground.

Kim Raymond, who has volunteered at the zoo for more than two decades, looked on from behind caution tape.

“I’ve kind of known this tree for a long time,” she said. “It was just always there so it’s going to be sad.”

Raymond and fellow veteran volunteer Theresa Pasquarella were among a small group who watched the tree come down. Pasquarella called the tree a landmark and a meeting place where groups often gathered.

“This is a life cycle,” said Pasquarella, whose eyes were fixed on the tree as it was cut down. “Probably a lot of trees around here that sprung from this tree.”

The tree’s gnarled branches stretched 70 feet into the air before being removed Tuesday.

The tree’s gnarled branches stretched 70 feet into the air.

Anthony Vazquez

The first signs the tree’s days were numbered appeared in the summer of 2021, when it prematurely dropped its leaves. That worried Katrina Quint, the zoo’s director of horticulture. Along with outside partners, Quint and her team attempted to reinvigorate the tree with air spading — a process that resembles power washing, but with air instead of water. The hope is that by adding oxygen back into the soil, it would increase the tree’s water and nutrient intake.

“Unfortunately, we were a little bit too late in those efforts,” Quint said.

Last summer, the writing was on the wall when the tree again shed its foliage early. In November, the zoo announced the sprawling tree would be removed, citing safety concerns. The tree’s big branches stretch out over sidewalks often busy with some of the two million annual zoo visitors.

Katrina Quint, Lincoln Park Zoo’s director of horticulture, with the nearly 300-year-old bur oak.

Katrina Quint, Lincoln Park Zoo’s director of horticulture, with the nearly 300-year-old bur oak on Friday. ‘It’s going to very different without it standing there for the grounds,’ Quint said.

Courtney Kueppers

In the months since the zoo announced the tree would be cut down, there has been an outpouring of love for the gnarled, twisty tree. On zoo grounds, staff members have been accustomed to pointing visitors in the direction of the old oak. Quint quipped that it has become the most common question after “where’s the bathroom?”

“I feel like we’ve all been commiserating together about the loss of such a beautiful tree,” Quint said. “It’s not an easy thing for us to do and it wasn’t an easy decision.”

Last Friday was a bittersweet Arbor Day at the zoo, which has 330 different species of trees and shrubs on its 49 acres. As school kids ran about excitedly, and seagulls swarmed near lunch scraps, some zoo-goers paid a final visit to the tree.

Grandparents posed youngsters in front of the oak for a photo. Couples took selfies with the tree of the hour. A group of 20-something tourists from San Francisco learned about the tree’s impending fate that morning and swung by to see it.

As one visitor approached, a zoo staff member greeted them with, “Happy Arbor Day, we’re celebrating a very old tree.” On a table, zoo staffers showed a historic black-and-white photo of the tree from nearly a century ago, and guided interested visitors to write farewell letters to the tree.

The bur oak, far left, pictured at the zoo in 1926 when the primate house was being constructed.

The bur oak, far left, pictured at the zoo in 1926 when the primate house was being constructed.

In colorful crayons, people scrawled out sentiments like “thank you for the shade, shelter and much more.”

Nearby, Pablo Rodriguez sat cross-legged on the ground, with a sketchbook in his lap. The 22-year-old aspiring arborist wanted to take a moment to appreciate the oak’s beauty, he said.

“It just feels so majestic and powerful,” Rodriguez said. “It’s been here before everything else, before the city.”

On the other side of the tree, Deborah Kadin, of Oak Park, looked up at the branches.

“It’s pretty amazing to see something that old,” she said. “I’d love to know the stories of that tree.”

That was the common sentiment of the letters and round-the-tree chatter: An awestruck appreciation for all the darkly colored oak must have seen in its time. It’s easy to imagine the deep ridges of its bark as being wrinkles, earned over the years.

While the steady witness to history is no more, its DNA will live on in the 36 cuttings that staff will carefully tend to for years until they are ready to be planted in the ground, where they could grow for centuries into the future.

Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.

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