Richard Schave looks on The Eagle Tree, November 2019

It’s always unpleasant to break the news that a significant cultural landmark is in trouble. During a pandemic, it feels cruel.

But we can’t sit on this information any longer: Compton’s landmark Eagle Tree is on the ropes.

The ancient sycamore was already remarkable in 1859, when Henry Hancock noted it on his survey of Rancho San Pedro, at the border with Rancho San Antonio. The Dominguez Family’s 75,000-acre landholdings were measured from the old tree, then 60 inches in diameter.

In the rancho days and long after, travelers would orient themselves in an undeveloped landscape of tall weeds by looking to the great tree, and the raptors that used it as a perch.

The ranchos were broken up and newcomers settled the land. (Here is a rancho map, produced in 1930.) The Dominguez Family held onto much of the Spanish land grant, and grew fabulously wealthy from mineral rights, oil and real estate development.

In time the Eagle Tree found itself within the boundaries of the City of Compton. A modest neighborhood grew up around it, but that didn’t stop oil companies from drilling. Standard Oil made a strike, and determined the best place to run the pipeline was along the old rancho border, Eagle Tree be damned.

Getting wind of the project, the socially connected Native Daughters of the Golden West fought to protect the threatened sycamore, and Standard Oil capitulated. The tree could stay, and share the land with the pipeline.

Presumed to show the Native Daughters of the Golden West, Compton Parlor dedicating the plaque, 1947.

The big tree was fenced off inside a petrochemical right of way, with a plaque noting its significance. The promised state landmark designation never happened, so there was no main drag way finding sign to raise awareness. In the 1980s, kids tagged the trunk, and tried to burn it down. A few people cared, but apparently not enough to get the city to send out a tree surgeon to ensure the health and survival of the Eagle Tree.

And yet the great tree lived on, ignored and neglected, occupying a weird no man’s land, its trunk controlled by an oil company (now Chevron) which was only interested in the mineral wealth beneath, its boughs shading an apartment building, holding in its heartwood memories of a very different California.

We kept meaning to pay our respects, and finally found the time last fall, on Richard’s birthday.

But in mapping our route, Google’s Street View time machine tab set off alarm bells.

June 2012 / December 2017

As late as July 2015, the Eagle Tree appeared scraggly, but clearly alive, with young leaves making a nimbus around her crown. But when the Google car returned in December 2017, not even a single dry leaf was on her boughs.

Had the Eagle Tree perished?

When we rolled up in mid-November 2019, the Eagle Tree looked parched and desolate. The loud trio of fenced police dogs precluded our getting closer to test her trunk for signs of life.

A friendly couple from the apartments next door noted our interest, and observed that we weren’t the first strangers to come look at the tree, and by the way, a big piece of it had recently broken off and landed on their roof.

So, was the Eagle Tree dead? We’re not arborists, but it didn’t look healthy. Still, it was November, and November is no time for sycamores. So yesterday, hearts in our throats, we went back to see if the wet spring had given the grand old Eagle Tree another season of life.

There was nothing we wanted more than to find the Eagle Tree bearing leaves, so we could pester the City of Compton to take care of this treasure in its care, rather than shame it for letting the giant die unnoticed between Google street view sessions.

We didn’t find that, not exactly.

That’s Richard Schave under there, honest, July 2020.

But the difference between summer and fall was distinct. Although it’s impossible to get close enough to the Eagle Tree to be certain, the lifeless but still impressive trunk appears to be well surrounded with Sycamore suckers extending half the height of the original tree.

We called our curator friend Andrew Mitchell, who does remarkable things at the Huntington Gardens, described the problem, and asked if he thought there was hope. Of course there was!

Andrew reminded us of the bonsai trees at the Huntington that use dramatic sections of ancient trees as armatures for young growth. Bonsai methods aren’t restricted to miniature plants. With the right sort of enlightened care, the massive Eagle Tree could be stabilized and the living growth trained to climb it.

It won’t be easy to save the Eagle Tree, but few things worth doing are easy. And because we’ve fallen a bit in love with this ambassador of old California, we’re going to try. We’ve made the Eagle Tree one of our Historic Preservation and Cultural Stewardship campaigns, and will advocate for the tree and seek to build partnerships with people and institutions that can help her.

These will include folks on both the botanical and California history sides of the Huntington, City, County, State and National officials and historic preservation officers, Chevron, the Native Daughters of the Golden West, and select academic and cultural institutions.

The Eagle Tree is that rare and wonderful thing, a Witness Tree, present for and prepared to speak to so many different notes of Southern California’s song. The little tabby in the window is keeping an eye on her, and we hope you will, too.

Update: On April 7, 2022 around 9:20pm, the main trunk of the Eagle Tree toppled over, crushing a car parked behind the apartment building next door. Thanks to Jensen Hallstrom, who is a great friend of the historic sycamore, we can share these photos and video of the aftermath, and a little encouraging news about the healthy young growth that surrounds the dead, toppled trunk.

Kim Cooper with the young sycamore clone / Richard Schave and Don Hodel with the cone of silt revealed when the hollow Eagle Tree fell (photos: Jensen Hallstrom)

This is a blow, but it still may not be too late to save the Eagle Tree to be a living witness for future generations of Angelenos. Please raise a glass of whatever is handy in honor of a cultural and historic landmark that is poised tonight between life and death. The Eagle Tree is dead – long live the Eagle Tree!

Update April 13, 2022 – Since the tree fell, we’ve been working hard to try to preserve this awesome natural, cultural and historic artifact by bringing together the city of Compton’s Public Works department, Chevron Oil, the office of Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell, the Natural History Museum and independent tree experts and historians. The massive trunk needs to be moved away from where it fell, and we hope it can be moved under the direction of the Natural History Museum’s curators with the aim of keeping it largely intact so the Eagle Tree can be exhibited and its ecological data studied. And the young clone tree that’s growing just behind the fallen trunk needs some love, too.

Update: April 30, 2022 – The Eagle Tree has landed, safe thanks to all the good work of our preservation pals at Mr. Crane. The oldest tree in Compton will live again as a historic object. More soon.

Update: October 3, 2022 – Here’s a story from The Museum Review, the newsletter of the Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum, about the Eagle Tree falling, its rich history and our hopes that both the giant toppled trunk and the young saplings can remain a part of living history in the community. The work continues. Stay tuned for updates as we have them.

Update: August 2023 – In Alta Magazine, Ajay Orona reports on how the Eagle Tree went from a healthy shade tree to a bare 14,000 pound stump vulnerable to sudden collapse, the loose network of friends who have cared for it in life and in death, and about the delicate negotiations to preserve the sentinel tree’s genetic material before Chevron Oil chopped down its child. Plus, a special subscriber’s edition of our newsletter reveals the treasures that were hiding inside the Eagle Tree’s trunk!