1980s–2000s: Tree Guardianship and Tom the Tree

"Tom the Tree" with sign urging its protection. Photo by Dana Yates for the San Mateo Daily Journal, January 7, 2007

By the closing decades of the 20th century, the spirit of tree preservation was solidly established in the Burlingame community. One episode illustrates the zeitgeist: the 1993 renovation of the main branch of the Burlingame Public Library, designed by Ernest L. Norberg and dating from 1931. Great care was taken to preserve unique elements of the facade itself; the renovation was a masterful marriage of the old and the new. This care extended to the trees. As the history Burlingame: City of Trees [*1] recounts:

“Contractors were warned to protect six aged street trees on Primrose and Bellevue. A single large deodar pine, in front of the structure, was painstakingly fenced to prevent possible damage. To the chagrin of the Library Board, one tree, whose roots threatened the building, had to be removed. All others were saved. Perhaps few episodes better capture the spirit of Burlingame.”

Caltrans and Burlingame Work Together to Save Trees

The 1980s and 1990s also saw a new rash of threats to the city’s historic eucalyptus trees on El Camino Real. As a state highway, the thoroughfare comes under the jurisdiction of Caltrans, who in 1983 requested permission to cut certain eucalyptus showing signs of fungal decay. The Burlingame Beautification Commission agreed and then worked with the agency on its promise to replace every tree.

The issue arose again in 1997 when Caltrans announced plans to cut down 115 trees, citing maintenance and safety issues. The community—as it had over many decades by now—rose up in protest. In the end, only 21 trees were removed, but they were replaced with a much smaller variety of eucalyptus, E. microtheca.

In 1999, the grove was assessed by a state cultural historian and found to be a protected historic resource under the California Environmental Quality Act, prompting the realization that a different approach to tree care and replacements would be necessary going forward.

In meetings that took place in 2003–2004, representatives from Caltrans, the city’s Parks Department, and the Burlingame Historical Society met to discuss historically accurate replacements for the blue and manna gum eucalyptus in order to allay concerns of safety and sidewalk maintenance. As a result, since 2008, Caltrans has been developing a tree replacement plan under guidelines from the Department of the Interior for cultural landscapes. In 2006, the first batch of disease-tolerant elms were planted along the highway, reflecting McLaren’s original vision of an elm-lined entrance to the area.

“Tom the Tree”

In 2007 another epic struggle pitted preservationists against other citizens concerned about safety in the battle over “Tom the Tree,” a heritage tree located on Easton Drive.

“Tom,” a blue gum eucalyptus, was planted on Easton about 130 years earlier by John McLaren. Over the years, as the tree continued to grow, its root structure disrupted the sidewalk and roadway, which developed a hump. Citizens were concerned about the danger, as drivers were forced to navigate around the hump into the opposite lane. While some residents considered the tree a safety hazard, others said the healthy tree was a symbol of the town’s vegetative beauty. Several alternatives had been considered but were never approved. Lengthy deliberations followed, as well as numerous heated meetings attended by vocal members of the community on both sides of the issue. The anti-eucalyptus language at some of these meetings recalled the screeds published earlier in the century by the El Camino Progress Club. In the end, the City Council narrowly decided to remove and replace the tree.

The outcry over Tom’s fate would lead the city to reaffirm its commitment to an urban reforestation program. Tom was replaced by a smaller species of eucalyptus, the Eucalyptus citriodora, or Lemon-scented gum.

An obituary for Tom the Tree showed how strong the feelings ran about the tree in the community:

“Tom the Tree was planted on Easton about 100 years ago . . . . Tom saw many changes in the area. Easton became built up. People drove by the tree every day. People came to the library and stood under the tree for shade. . . . . Children passed on their way to and from school. . . . Birds and animals found sanctuary in the tree. . . . The tree’s roots began to grow into the street. . . . The roots got longer and higher until many in the city began to worry about safety, accidents and perhaps lawsuits. The traffic situation made people want to cut down the tree so as to allow the traffic to proceed with more ease.

“The tree knew nothing about lawsuits, accidents or safety issues. . . . The tree actually thought it was doing well at slowing the ever-increasing traffic since the people had to slow to avoid the roots. The roots were a natural barrier to speed.

“The tree was still healthy even as it was being cut down. Over many years, it had withstood strong storms, high winds, increasing population, and traffic. It had stood majestically along with all the other eucalyptus trees on Easton helping give Burlingame its nickname, “The City of Trees.”

“The tree stood the test of time and weather but it could not continue to stand tall against enormous machines and the determination of man to cut it down, during this, Burlingame’s Centennial Year.”

s/Barbara Nagata, Burlingame [*2]

Don Cory (1928–2010)
In the 1990s, Burlingame resident Don Cory began to notice that the eucalyptus grove pathway lining the railroad tracks beside Carolan between Morrell and Oak Grove Avenues was in dire need of maintenance. The path was used as a peaceful spot for people to walk their dogs, and it had formerly been in pristine condition. However, by this time, Cory noticed that the path had become impassable. He worked for three years to clear and restore the pathway, removing four trailer loads of debris, leveling out the dirt, removing weeds, and keeping an eye out for illegal dumping. Caltrain objected at first, citing concerns for his safety, but the agency eventually gave up trying to stop him; they gave him an orange safety vest and insisted he wear it. In recognition of Cory’s work to restore this path, it was designated the Don Cory Trail.

[*1] Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett, Burlingame: City of Trees. See Resources
[*2] Daily Journal, September 12, 2007