The Great Catalpa Craze of the late 19th Century

This is a blog post copied from a twitter thread of mine.

There is a wizened Catalpa in Vancouver’s Jericho Beach covered in “DO NOT CLIMB” signs. The tree was likely planted during the Catalpa Craze that swept North America in response to widespread fears of a “timber famine”.

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There’s a branch stump on the tree and if you count the tight rings you’ll find the tree is at least 100 years old. Not that old for forest tree, but one year in a busy public park is worth three in the forest.

This age means tree was probably planted around 1900, right in the midst of the Catalpomina. In the 1900s the shock of the mass deforestation Eastern North America had done was starting to kick in. There were predictions that US only had 15 years left of usable forest lumber.

Roosevelt’s 1907 State of Union: “…the country is unquestionably on the verge of a timber famine which will be felt in every household in the land”

Historians seem a bit split on whether the paranoia was justified. The scale of deforestation was incredible, but soon more efficient access to the lumber from West Coast trees, and better forestry practices, stopped the famine from actually occurring.

What the real concern on the east coast was the lack of hardwoods (like oak, ash, and chestnut) whose easily accessible wood was extremely important in the day-to-day lives of farmers.

But no group felt the fear of a timber famine more than the railway industry.

Railways were booming at the time and money was rolling in. A key piece of a railway track though is that it needs a lot of strong and rot resistant wood for railroad ties.

Oak and Chestnut were the best wood for this, but there was little of these trees left.

Planting oak and chestnut to ensure a future wood supply was considered, but oak grew too slow and chestnut was in the midst of being decimated by the blight. What was needed was an impossible, miracle tree. A fast growing tree with strong, rot resistant wood.

A widespread search for such a tree was undertaken. And soon railway men E. E. Barney and Robert Douglas began selling the world on silver bullet of “the most durable wood known”. A tree that was believed to grow incredibly quickly anywhere it was planted: The Catalpa Tree.

The hype over this tree was incredibly over the top. You can read all about it here in this 1878 presentation of papers/letters on the tree at the US’ Nation Agriculture Congress

Even the famed Harvard Botanist Charles Sargent got a bit carried away by it all: “I am satisfied that no tree, will at all equal the catalpa, either in rapidly of its growth or the value of its wood”

Soon, everyone was selling its praises and planting it. “Catalpa wood is suited to more uses than any other wood that grows in America” says this 1908 farmer newsletter. It was one of the first trees in North America to be grown as a farm crop.

Railway companies started creating huge Catalpa plantations to use its wood for railway ties. The tree often escaped and naturalized to become apart of surrounding fields and forests.

An interesting side tangent: For a long time it was unclear exactly where the Catalpa had come from. It has a very small natural range in the US despite often appearing outside of it and many thought the tree might be native to Asia which has a number of Catalpa trees.

John Warder took a deep investigation into the home origins of the Catalpa in his 1881 book: ‘The Western Catalpa: A Memoir of the Shavanon’. He talks about how the tree was believed to be widely planted by aboriginal groups for its many uses.

Catalpas were not only widely planted during this craze for their wood, but also for their beautiful flowers and big leaves as a city shade tree. However we don’t seem them planted that much anymore due to pain of cleaning up their heavy leaf fall.

Ultimately the Catalpa Craze soon wore out late in the 1910s though. While the trees grew quickly when first planted, the growth slowed as they got old and they became warped, making the trunks too short and curved for railway ties.

There was a lot of hype and promise about the Catalpa before anyone had actually tested the results of its growth in the long term. As Robert Douglas said in a 1893 letter: “It is only on paper that men plant forests which grow in this prosperous way.”

Funnily enough, as mocked by Bernard Fernow in his 1913 ‘A Brief History of Forestry’, a panic over a potential timber famine in Germany in the early 1800s had also led to widespread planting of, and soon disappointment with, the Catalpa. History repeats.

One thing the Catalpa Craze did get right though is the strange the strength and durability it has for such a light wood. It’s average specific gravity (relative to the weight of water) is 0.41 which is on the lighter side for most hardwoods.

However the Catalpa is unique among hardwoods as it never has more than two rings of sapwood. Meaning unlike other trees its wood is mostly heartwood. Full of extractives that give it strength and make it resistant to decay.

This helps explain the confusion Sargent had: “It is remarkable that so soft and light a wood as the Catalpa should possess the power of resisting decay to a degree almost unknown in the hardest and heaviest woods”.

This is what gives the Catalpa tree its great strength and explains why “You can hardly break a dead limb from a tree”

Despite those all those warning signs not to climb on the tree, I still see drunken nighttime beach goers – a classic Vancouver fashion – hesitantly climb and then swing on that low hanging Jericho Catalpa branch. And that thing just won’t break. It’s like steal arm.

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But please don’t sit on it! It’s not actually steel, and you don’t want to be the final weight that breaks it! You can identify the Catalpa pretty easily by it’s large heart shaped leaves, white flowers, or long seed pods.

Published by Ryan Regier

Doing lots of different stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier

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