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Old Posted Oct 26, 2006, 12:31 PM
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A mighty monarch once reigned over Timpanogos.

This article is a little bit of a departure from our love of buildings, but somehow I thought that there are a lot of us who have an equal love of our architectural landscape design, whether natural or man-made.

A royal branch of the family abies concolor ruled over a section of the Wasatch Mountains for more than three and a half centuries. Approximately 25 years after Spanish conquistador Francisco Coronado began his search for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, a young seedling prince germinated on a promontory overlooking a beautiful glacial-worn canyon on the east side of the mountain we now call Timpanogos.

When the Pilgrims landed near Plymouth Rock in 1620, this princely white fir, or white balsam, was likely 6 or 7 inches in diameter. The tree continued to grow for more than 300 years.

When workers constructed the Alpine Loop Road connecting Provo and American Fork canyons in the 1920s, the majestic monarch stood 110 feet tall and measured 20 feet in circumference. He towered above a ridge about a half mile beyond Aspen Grove and only a few feet from the newly constructed narrow, dirt lane.

King of the hill

Woodsmen and others certainly knew of the Monarch of Timpanogos, but it wasn't until 1923 that the giant tree received recognition for its size and uniqueness. During the summer of that year, Henry C. Cowles, a renown ecologist from the University of Chicago, taught classes during BYU's summer school at Aspen Grove.

While guiding his students on a field trip one balmy July day, Cowles noticed the giant balsam for the first time. After a close inspection of this king of the forest, Cowles took off his hat and pronounced it to be "the most magnificent fir in all the world."

Fallen, rotting trees surrounded the monarch showing that it had once been in a grove of fir trees, but it had outlived them all. Cowles believed that the tree might be the oldest of its species in existence. The fir had achieved extraordinary size for being located in the heart of the Rockies.

In 1923, Brigham Young University professor Walter Cottam wrote to the National American Forest Association and nominated the fir to the National Tree Hall of Fame. The association accepted the nomination, and the fir became Utah's only tree to be listed on the register. The monarch joined the ranks of such famous trees as the Washington Elm, the tree under which George Washington took command of the colonial army.

As Cottam studied the fir in more detail, he became deeply attached to it, and ascribed to it human qualities. Cottam believed that in its youth, the tree had reigned as the Apollo of firs. He viewed it in the 1920s as being an aging warrior, tenacious of life.

Clinging to life

During its long lifetime, the tree had suffered many tribulations. From his studies, Cottam deduced that when the tree was approximately 300 years old, lightning had stuck its uppermost branches, destroying the tree's symmetry, but not its life.

Cottam also postulated that it was about 1815 when a fire scarred the base of the tree. The flames could not destroy the monarch, but they did expose its Achilles' heel. The burned areas around the base of the tree became susceptible to fungi, which led to rot inside of the fir.

Beetles also attacked the tree, making some of its branches dry and brittle.

Still, the tree clung to life, although it grew extremely slowly for the next 100 years after the fire. Cottam developed the impression that the tree might be saying, "My adversaries if they be strong, may shatter my crown or break my arms, but never shall they bend my upright position while life lasts."

15 minutes of fame

As the old tree gained in fame, students and tourists beat a path through a grove of aspen trees to the monarch's base. Photographers snapped its image. Painters daubed its likeness on canvas. However, the fir's newfound fame did not last long.

On April 26, 1930, a group of BYU students wandered through the woods near the Aspen Grove campus on an early spring hike.

Orlin Biddulph discovered a scene that later sent a twinge of sadness through the hearts of Utah Valley conservationists. At some unknown time, a strong blast of wind from the south had toppled the monarch and sent him plunging to the comforting lap of Mother Earth. News of the well-known tree's demise made the front page of the Evening Herald and the Deseret News.

After hearing the sad tidings, Cottam made plans to visit the fallen giant. Two days later, he and a group of his advanced students climbed to the side of the huge fir, and like a committee of pathologists, they studied his death.

Ironically, their findings showed that the Monarch had died just as the warmth of spring heralded new life. Its branches were buried deep in the thawed earth's mud and rock.

When they cut a cross-section from the tree, the botanists found that fungi had hollowed the first 23 feet of the fir's body.

At a distance that would have measured 23 feet above ground level, the group cut out a section of the trunk. At this point, the fir measured 5 1/2 feet in diameter.

In the cross-section, the group counted 315 rings. If one allowed 50 years for the tree to reach a height of 23 feet, the fir would have lived for 365 years.

Cottam planned to take the cross-section back to BYU campus, sand it, polish it and preserve the huge slab in the school's museum.

A funeral fit for a king

One night during the summer of 1930, a group of BYU summer school students visited the broken body of the dead tree and held a memorial service. Using splinters and broken limbs from the deceased, they lighted a funeral bier. One of the mourners then recapped the life history of the monarch.

The words of Cottam summarized the conclusion of the memorial service and revealed his deep respect for the fallen fir and all of nature.

Cottam wrote: "Appropriate songs echoed from the cliffs high upon the face of grand Timpanogos, where spruce and balsam still murmur their solemn requiem. A mighty monarch lay dead."
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