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 Last Update 02/04/07  

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olseley Avenue wanders through a gentrified Winnipeg neighbourhood on the north side of the Assiniboine River, its 2.5 kilometres of sidewalk dappled by light that filters through a canopy of American elms.

Sometimes the shady street follows the meandering course of the muddy brown river; at other times, like Portage Avenue just to the north, it obeys the dictates of traffic engineers and straightens out. But whether straight or curvaceous, it is always lined with grand, old, century elms. Hundreds of them.

Back in the 1950s, when Winnipeggers began their passionate affair with the automobile, if you wanted to avoid busy Portage Avenue on your way downtown or if you lived in the south end and were on your way to see a Blue Bombers game at the new Winnipeg Stadium, Wolseley was a fast alternate route with no bothersome traffic lights or stop signs. It did, however, have an old tree growing smack-dab in the middle of the road near the corner of Basswood Place. The ancient Wolseley elm, according to local lore, was planted in 1859 by a girl named Mary Anne Good who lived on a prairie farm near the bank of the Assiniboine. Nearly 100 years later, by some road-planning oversight, it was still there, although surrounded by a curb and a fringe of grass that Ripley's Believe It Or Not declared was "the smallest park in the world." Motorists, however, were not amused, and city officials worried that someone might drive into it and kill themselves. Neighbourhood residents argued that the tree protected their kids from being killed by speeding cars. 

In September 1957, at the height of the football season, the city assigned a crew to remove the offending elm. In the ensuing standoff, a dozen neighbourhood women circled the tree, arm in arm, to fend off the buzz saws, and within minutes the police had arrived, paddy wagons and all. A crowd gathered. 

"If they want to chop down this tree," said one of the women, "they're going to have to chop us down first."

In the end, the matter was settled peaceably by newly-elected mayor Stephen Juba, who pulled up in his Cadillac and sent the workers home. Most of the rest of the neighbourhood's trees have also survived, somehow evading both the urban-planners' axe and the more serious threat of Dutch Elm Disease. In fact, the city remains shaded by a forest comprised of over 200,000 elms, a remarkable legacy that is guarded by Winnipeggers every bit as vigilant as the defenders of the Wolseley Elm. Their appreciation of the urban forest, and their decades-long battle against a disease that has virtually extirpated the elm from the streets of most other cities, is now finally offering some hope for those who might otherwise have given up on what was once eastern North America's most popular city tree.
At the turn of the century, when the grain and railroad boom was fuelling Winnipeg's growth, the city fathers looked south for inspiration and were, perhaps inevitably, inspired by Chicago, a city with a similar economy, monumental architecture, grand streets, and lots of elm trees. By then, much of eastern North America had been cleared of forest, and city dwellers were starting to rethink the value of trees. Arbour Day had become fashionable, and tree planters had only to look to adjacent farmsteads, where the stubborn Ulmus americana, a very tough tree for settlers to remove, still proliferated. The giant American elms that survived the agricultural clearances and thrived on prime farmland became the source of the graceful, parasol-shaped trees that would dominate the urban forests of North America for decades to come.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4

Jamie Swift is a writer and broadcaster living in Kingston, Ontario. His most recent book, Wheel of Fortune, was published in 1995. He is also the author of Cut and Run, a lament for the mismanagement of Canadian forests.


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