If only trees could talk! If they could, Wedgwood’s trees might tell tales of life in the neighborhood nearly 100 years ago.
The bigleaf maple at 3158 NE 81st Street is a tree which might have a story to tell. According to Arthur Lee Jacobson’s Trees of Seattle, maples “might well be called our unofficial City Tree” because they are abundant in Seattle. Various varieties of maples were widely planted as street trees throughout Seattle in the early 1900’s.
Bigleaf maples are distinguished by their giant leaves, sometimes twelve inches across, and by their massive limbs. A bigleaf maple, planted in an open space where it doesn’t have to stretch upward in competition with other trees for sunshine, will have low, wide-spreading limbs. It is this characteristic which indicates that the tree at 3158 NE 81st Street may have been planted in a clearing next to the log cabin home of one of the first Wedgwood residents.
In the early 1900’s Charles E. Thorpe acquired the land which later became the original Wedgwood housing tract, from 30th to 35th Avenues NE and from NE 80th to 85th Streets. Mr. Thorpe cleared some of the land to grow ginseng, a plant which was in demand in the Chinese herbal medicine trade. In 1929 Mr. Thorpe sold his land to the Jesuits of Seattle University who hoped to move the university to the site. Mr. Thorpe’s log cabin was remodeled for use as a chapel named St. Ignatius, and Catholic Mass was held there until 1940. Then plans to move Seattle University were cancelled, and a new Catholic church was built at 8900 35th Ave NE and named Our Lady of the Lake.
The St. Ignatius site was sold to a builder, Albert Balch. The plat name which Balch’s wife Edith chose for the forty-acre plat was “Wedgwood.” This was the first of Balch’s Wedgwood housing developments.
By the time Balch cleared the former ginseng-farm land and built new houses, the exact location of Mr. Thorpe’s cabin had been forgotten, but the bigleaf maple may give us a clue. Balch tried to preserve tall Douglas firs so that there would be trees between Wedgwood’s houses, and it appears that Balch contoured the course of NE 81st Street so as not to have to destroy its outstanding bigleaf maple, a tree which has grown up with Wedgwood’s history.
Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church archives & history info: http://ollseattle.org
Seattle University: A Century of Jesuit Education. Walt Crowley, 1991.
Trees of Seattle, Arthur Lee Jacobson, 2006 (second edition.) Pages 245-46, notes on bigleaf maples.