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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Great story. Hope you save the tree.XXX Jean
Looks as if the tree has been severely pruned back, taking the live crown away. But the vigorous re-sprouting indicates that the tree’s root system is still very much alive. Perhaps the sprouts could be selectively thinned to encourage more rapid diameter growth, leaving a few dominants to become Eagle Tree II.
Eagle tree is down
Yes, but small daughter trees still grow around where she stood.
Now she’s a Phoenix Tree… let her rise.
Actually, the new growth is directly from the root system, so it’s genetically identical to the original tree, rather than grown from seed. It’s pretty amazing to still have this, and with its unique early California legacy! In Orange County there’s a city called Aliso Viejo. Here, if we can save the new growth, we’ll have el Aliso Nuevo! But still part of the original!
That’s fascinating and quite moving, to think about the old tree falling and its clone still giving shelter and shade.
Time for the City of Compton to step-up and have a plan to care for the remaining living shoots. It’s not too late to give future generations a piece of California living history.
We are grateful that city has been so thoughtful about the fallen tree, recognizing that it’s something more significant than just something to be cut up and trucked away. We continue to advocate with the office of Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell and local historic organizations, seeking a preservation solution for this remarkable cultural and natural artifact. Thank you for caring, too.
Thanks for your response. I’m looking forward to future updates on this important living talking point.
Having grown up in the North Long Beach area in the late ’60s / early ’70s, just a mile south of Alondra, I, as a kid and as an Independent-Press Telegram bicycle carrier, I frequently went about the city and was always interested in history and significant historical landmarks. Too bad society tears down their history for development and expansion – Comes down to the policy makers and cooperate America who have the money that frequently make bad decisions such as the neglect of Compton’s Eagle Tree.
Keep pressing on.
I am 85 years old and remember Eagle Tree in about 1948. At that time I attended nearby Olivet Baptist Church. Eagle Tree had a bronze plaque near it describing it. I visited it many times in those years. The tree was quite vigorous at that time. As a boundary marker between Rancho San Antonio and Rancho San Pedro the tree has great significance. The tree looked just like your photograph except there was no oil derrick there at that time, so your photograph is older than 1947.
Thank you for sharing your memories of visiting the Eagle Tree when it was so tall and green. The bronze plaque is still there on the boulder, which is close to the young clone sycamore that has grown up from the fallen Eagle Tree’s roots. We hope you’ll have a chance to visit the young tree, and the old trunk once a place is found to exhibit it.
Thank you for the update and caring for this landmark. I belong to the Native Daughters of the Golden West. We are the organization that placed the marker. We appreciate being kept up to date and all your effort to preserve this important landmark!
It is an honor to be a part of this multi-generational acknowledgement and protection of The Eagle Tree. While it could be more accessible, your organization’s marker still looks great!