Storm toppled historic K.C. trees

? The branches of the Westport Oak shaded Indians and fur trappers on the nearby Santa Fe Trail, and they supported lynchings in the years before the Civil War. After all that, the tree may have been done in by the ice storm of 2002.

The worst ice storm in the city’s history tore down trees all over eastern Kansas and northwestern Missouri. The casualties included two “Bicentennial Trees,” designated in 1976 because they were believed to be at least 200 years old.

Betty Dawson cleans a historical marker in front of the Westport Oak tree in Kansas City, Mo. The worst ice storm in the city's history tore down trees all over eastern Kansas and northwestern Missouri. The casualties included two Bicentennial

The Westport Oak is a big burr oak, 50 feet tall with an even wider spread of twisting branches. The storm ripped off at least half of its crown and left jagged wounds in its trunk. A huge pile of its branches littered Washington Street last week, just north of busy 43rd Street.

“There’s not money anywhere to do anything about this tree,” said Betty Dawson, a self-professed tree-hugger who discovered the tree in 1976 while working as a nurse at nearby St. Luke’s Hospital.

Then, the tree was surrounded by a rose garden and flowers. Today, the battered Westport Oak stands on a vacant lot. The garden, and the tree’s caregivers, are gone.

“Poor baby,” Dawson recently cooed while cleaning a bronze plaque designating it a bicentennial tree.

Dawson hopes private groups will step forward, trim the tree, care for it and, perhaps, give it a few more years of life.

At least one other bicentennial tree was toppled by the storm a burr oak in Independence, estimated to be 331 years old.

Foresters don’t regularly check on the special trees, so it is uncertain how others have fared. One, estimated to be 355 years old, fell about a year ago in a windstorm, said Don Hamlin, director of campus operations at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in northern Kansas City.

Jerry Monterastelli, an urban forester at the Missouri Department of Conservation, helped select the bicentennial trees in this area. He and other government foresters have been busy with other duties and have not revisited those trees since they were designated in 1976.

“I usually only get notice when they’re damaged,” he said.

George Eib, longtime city forester in Kansas City, checked the Westport tree last week and pronounced its future as iffy, at best. “It’s a shame, but I think it’s going to have to be removed,” Eib said.

If the tree had been cared for in recent years, through trimming and possibly cabling to reinforce its branches, it might have survived the storm, Eib added.