Ashes to ashes, sawdust to sawdust: Elsa, Scarborough's historic giant elm, is no more

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SCARBOROUGH — She was a silent sentinel over Oak Hill for generations, surviving disease, lightning strikes and a road widening that nearly left her without roots.

But Elsa, one of the last remaining giant elms in Scarborough, is gone now, removed Saturday by workers from Bartlett Tree Experts, Scarborough Public Works and Northeast Crane Service. By 11:30 in the morning, all that was left was a giant stump along Route 1.

The felling of Elsie, as she was commonly called, was surgical: an arborist in a bucket lift cut portions of limbs, one at a time, sending sawdust raining down on observers below.

A crane operator lowered each branch to the ground in a giant sling. There, workers would cut the small twigs and branches and send them to a wood chipper. Larger pieces of wood were put in a dump truck, and even larger pieces – like a trunk log that weighed in at 12,000 pounds – were put on a flatbed trailer.

The town decided the tree had to come down for safety’s sake. Elsa – its exact age unknown, but believed to be between 150 and 170 years old – was clearly dying, and its root structure was crumbling.

The town believes Elsa posed a risk to the pedestrians and motorists passing the busy intersection of Route 1 and Black Point and Gorham roads.

A crowd of about 20 spectators watched the tree’s demise from bleachers set up across the street. Passing motorists slowed down and craned their necks to watch the work.

“I almost don’t want my name attached to this,” said Tim Lindsay of Bartlett Tree Experts. “I didn’t want to be be the guy who brought Elsie down.”

Lindsay, who had been working with the town to plan Elsie’s fall, took twig samples from some of the higher branches. He planned to send the samples to Bartlett’s lab in Charlotte, N.C., where they would be tested for Dutch elm disease. He pointed to a dark ring on the outside perimeter of each twig, one of the signs of the disease.

“This is a bad sign, but we won’t know whether she had Dutch elm until the lab results come back,” he said. “Either way, this isn’t what killed the tree. It was just one nail in the coffin.”

In the early 1990s, Elsie was saved from certain doom by supporters who successfully persuaded the Maine Department of Transportation that the tree didn’t have to be cut down to make way for a widening of Route 1. Although many of her roots were removed, the town built a small rock wall to keep Elsie from tipping over.

Around the same time, Elsie got her name. According to documents provided by Yvonne Spalthoff of the Elm Research Institute, William Stroud – one of the residents who fought to save Elsie during the widening – registered the tree with the institute in February 1992. The institute designated the tree a historic landmark “to be honored and preserved for future generations.”

Stroud was there Saturday when Elsie came down, along with his partner, Geraldine Clough, who he said named Elsa after a lion cub in the movie “Born Free.” He was pragmatic about the need to bring down the tree.

Stroud and Clough said that when they had worked to save Elsie in the ’90s, she was healthy and beautiful. They recognized that now it’s a different story.

“This had to be done before someone got hurt,” Stroud said. “No one likes to see her go, but it’s for the safety of everyone around.”

The usable lumber from Elsie is set to be processed at Hillside Lumber in Westbrook. Like Yarmouth’s historic elm, Herbie, which was cut down last year, Elsie’s wood will be offered to woodworking artists and craftsmen. Proceeds for Elsie-made goods will benefit a new town fund created to support tree planting in Scarborough.

The town hopes to plant a new elm at the site where Elsie stood for so many years, but first must determine whether the tree was infected with Dutch elm. If it was, the land would have to be treated before another elm could be planted.

In the meantime, residents can still pay their respects to Elsie: Public Works Director Mike Shaw said he doesn’t anticipate pulling the stump until next spring.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.