After 80 Years, A Franklin Street Icon Comes Down

After 80 Years, A Franklin Street Icon Comes Down

For decades, the big ash tree on the corner of Franklin and Columbia provided shade to Chapel Hillians, especially University Baptist Church attendees.

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One final service under the tree. Photo by Joseph Bray

Mitch Simpson has said perhaps a thousand prayers under the big ash tree on Franklin Street’s most famous corner. With an awning perhaps 50 feet across, the tree provided shade for decades to pedestrians crossing the corner of Franklin and Columbia and to the small garden of University Baptist Church, where Mitch has been the pastor since 1990.

“Whether it was the internment of ashes, or sunrise services, or weddings or Easter egg hunts. We did all those things under the shelter of that tree,” says Mitch.

Yet, every time the wind blew, Mitch gave a prayer for the tree itself. When the church put up a small retaining wall on the corner in the late 1990s, town officials told Mitch the tree was already dying. Rather than take it down then, his church paid to have its roots, which extended dozens of yards in all directions, wrapped for protection as the wall and a new sidewalk went in. In recent years, heaves in the pavement swelled as those roots kept growing. Its base was more than 70 inches across and its top branches reached higher than the balcony tables at Top of the Hill.

But recently, says Mitch, he has worried more and more. “Every ice storm, every hurricane or windstorm,” he said. “Every Halloween or celebration after a Duke game or championship.”

Once the full trunk was down, Mitch went out to say one last goodbye. To his amazement, so much of the trunk was rotted away that he was able to climb inside. Photo by Joseph Bray

In mid-April, time ran out. A late winter town inspection found the tree was 80% hollow, with cracks radiating through the trunk and branches. Its age remains a mystery: Mitch says some longtime residents confirmed the tree was at least 70 years old, but once down, the trunk was too rotted to count rings.

Jim Orr, Chapel Hill’s director of parks and recreation, says the tree was one of seven large trees taken down by town crews this spring, a higher number than usual, including one at a Franklin Street sorority house and four near the power substation off West Franklin. In each case, he says, town crews worked with heavy hearts.

“The character of Chapel Hill is large trees over the streets,” says Jim. “There is not a concerted effort of clear-cutting trees or anything like that. There is no way we would do that.”

With removal scheduled for the day after Palm Sunday, Mitch gathered members that morning for a short, final service under the ash branches. In a brief prayer, Mitch gave thanks for the tree, “standing as a sentinel all these decades over the crossroads meeting place we call Chapel Hill.”