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The sugar maple that crowned the Belmont Plateau shared its final breath this week with the city it called home for approximately 90 years.
A victim of a changing climate and human behavior that left its roots gasping, its bark shedding, and its trunk decorated with graffiti, the tree came down Wednesday in the careful hands of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation arborists.
Given that this tree stood alone, open to the elements at the top of a very exposed hill, its demise was hastened faster than peers that remain within the context of their forest brethren.
The Wissahickon’s Great Beech has also fallen ill, but its roots have produced sprouts that will continue this champion tree’s legacy. In the Belmont maple’s absence, the Bartram gingko and the Chinese scholar tree at Buist Park, both in Southwest Philly, vie for most iconic in the city. An enormous sycamore on the Sixth Street side of Washington Square from an 1816 planting makes a good case, too. And while it lost its twin in a storm last year, the weeping willow at Penn Treaty Park is still one of the most photogenic trees in the city.
Another particularly impressive and healthy sugar maple still towers over “Tommy’s Hill” at the rear of Thomas Mansion in the Germantown section of the Wissahickon. Each fall, its leaves coat the entire hill in fiery orange.
But the sugar maple atop Belmont Plateau stood alone, literally and figuratively, in the hearts of so many Fairmount Park visitors. It was a tree to climb, a tree to picnic under, a tree to sit under and watch the changing skyline.
As a species, the acer saccharum is relatively adaptable, but climate change is pushing its livable habitat ever northward. After two sizable branches fell off the Plateau maple over the past year, and given its grim outlook for survival, Parks & Rec said it removed the tree in the interest of public safety.
After a brief ceremony to honor its life, including remarks by Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell and Director of Urban Forestry Lori Hayes, a team of arborists under the direction of supervisor Gregory Hubbard began dismantling the sugar maple, limb by limb.
Tree maintenance worker Jose Genaro Melendez did most of the cutting from a bucket truck, while a team on the ground salvaged the best parts of wood to be milled and repurposed.
Since I moved here in fall 2000, I’ve taken hundreds of photos of this tree. Below are a few of my favorites over the years, with a final farewell to its stump, also not long for this world.
Then roughly 40 years old, the Belmont maple featured on the cover of Fairmount Park Commission’s annual report for the agency’s 100th anniversary.
This still from a 16mm via the Philadelphia City Archives shows the tree framing the skyline amid Bicentennial fever in 1976.
Nighttime on the Plateau, 2003.
Belmont maple in full summer splendor, 2006. Cira Centre, the first skyscraper built in Philadelphia in over a decade, had just joined the skyline.
Seen here in full winter profile, the tree was a popular meeting spot, including for sledding outings after a snowfall.
Without a doubt, the best time to visit the tree was during the fall, when its orange leaves began to blanket the ground.
It’s seen here in 2007, with the new Comcast Center glistening on the horizon.
By the following winter, the tree’s decline had become evident, with a little lost from the top.
In summer 2020, a couple fully-leafed branches fell, indicating deterioration.
In summer 2021, another of the tree’s signature branches fell.
In December 2021, Parks & Rec fenced off the tree in preparation of its removal.
Before its removal, Parks & Rec and Fairmount Park Conservancy invited the public to “bid adieu to the tree with a view.”
Parks & Rec staff arrived early on Wednesday to begin the tree’s removal.
Tree maintenance worker Jose Genaro Melendez wields his chainsaw from a cherry picker.
The Belmont maple’s final branch falls earthward from Melendez’s cut.
The branchless trunk was cut in three parts, each removed with a crane.
Melendez and Philadelphia Director of Urban Forestry Lori Hayes attempt to count the rings to determine the tree’s official age; the tree’s decline, however, prevented a final count onsite. A healthier piece was taken offsite by sculptor Roger Wing, who plans to clean it and use a microscope to take the count.
The end. You had a good run, Belmont maple.