History of the Shade of Trees in the Village of Newburgh

By Rev. John Brown, D.D. (1791-1884)

In the Spring of the year 1827, being the owner of a large garden at the corner of First and Liberty streets, I made application to the Village Street Commissioner for permission to plant trees around my premises for shade and ornament. At that time the streets on the hill were in a state of nature, rough and uneven. Not a single tree had been planted in the streets for use or ornament. The Commissioner, like some of our City Fathers in the present day, did not see the use of Shade Trees, but thought it improvement to cut trees down. He however, as the official organ of the Corporation, gave his reluctant consent that we might plant trees. But so narrow was his policy that in the wide streets on the hill would allow us only six feet as the width of the sidewalk. I used what little influence I pofsefsed, to induce my neighbours to plant Trees. The consequence was that in a very few years our streets were beautiful with Trees which now are majestic & useful. The public will perceive from this statement, how so many trees occupied a wrong place on the sidewalks; it was by the arbitrary order of the Street Commissioner. As we were order-loving citizens, we followed our instructions.

Rev. John Brown, Rector of St. George’s Church from 1815 to 1878.

Rev. John Brown, Rector of St. George’s Church from 1815 to 1878.

At this time the attention of the Corporation and the services of the Street Commissioner were devoted almost exclusively to the streets below the hill. The inhabitants upon the hill, feeling themselves neglected, formed themselves into what was called the “Improvement Party.” The owners of the lots at their own cost, and upon their own responsibility, dug down the hills and filled the present length. When the question of the width of the Sidewalks was agitated, we first learned that the Corporation had never ruled upon the subject & that there was no law for our guidance. Accordingly, at my own suggestion I laid out the sidewalks in front of my own premises & St George’s Church at 12 feet. My neighbours followed my example. I mention this fact as explaining the unfortunate position of the Trees. It did not require the wisdom of a Solomon to perceive that the trees were not properly located. It was not really our fault, but our misfortune, to be under the guidance of an official who really had no authority in the matter. But the tree had come to a degree of maturity & usefulness which rendered their removal impossible & inexpedient. The inhabitants with one accord deemed it best that they should remain & perform their office of beauty and shade. The Village Fathers took pride in the growth of trees which served the double purpose of use & ornament.
Architectural drawing of St. George’s Church, courtesy of The Episcopal Diocese of New York.

Architectural drawing of St. George’s Church, courtesy of The Episcopal Diocese of New York.

But now we live under a new regime. The City Fathers whose duty it is to protect individual rights & to ornament the City by their labours have signalized the first year of their rule as a reign of error. The owners of trees in First Street were not so foolish as to suppose that their individual taste or preference would be permitted to encumber the Side walks with an intolerable nuisance. They would have been among the first to vote for their removal if the public convenience had demanded it. But they have yet to learn that the first individual can be found of the hundreds who dailyh traverse that street who would give their voice for the destruction of these notable shade trees. No complaint as yet has been made, & yet thework of destruction has progrefsed, but by whose authority we are yet in darknefs. The Mayor reports that the destruction of these trees did not meet his approval. Two of the Street Committee declare that they were not consulted in the matter. Of course it must have been by the assumed power of the Chairman of the Street Committee, who had no more authority in the matter than any other citizen. He stands amenable for the outrage and must take the consequences.

This essay first appeared in the Historical Society’s 1929 annual publication. Scroll below to request a copy.

This essay first appeared in the Historical Society’s 1929 annual publication. Scroll below to request a copy.

It is to be regretted that so respectable a body as our City Fathers should have suffered themselves to be misled by the malice of any individual. So far from the public taste or convenience requiring the removal of these trees, there is a universal expression of disapprobation. Individual taste or preference should never for one moment interfere with the public good. If the removal of these trees had been deemed a necessity, there are persons enough in this community who would have had the manliness to say so. But as yet there is no one willing to father the bantling.

The many strangers who have heretofore visited our City & admired its beautifully shaded sidewalks will be confounded to learn our present style of improvement by destruction. The many beautiful singing birds who have for years made these trees their summer residence & gladden the hearts of our inhabitants by their joyful notes will find their hitherto happy homes captured and destroyed by the Goths & Vandals of the day. And all whose business or pleasure have heretofore led them led them to use this street will lament the lop of he cool, refreshing shade of their old friends, the trees.

Our community is composed of men of various tastes and views. To the lovers of trees it is quite refreshing to know that the public taste & judgment was universally in favor of preserving these trees as the conservation of health & pleasure of its inhabitants.

"Quality Row," First and Liberty Streets, Newburgh, 1913.

“Quality Row,” First and Liberty Streets, Newburgh, 1913.

The subject is not yet exhausted. I will say nothing about the flourish of trumpets when the raid against these trees was announced as a war against the “Trees of Quality Row” as it was called, thus appealing to the bad pafsions of the low and the vulgar. I will leave this and many other topic connected with the history of the ill-fated trees for future consideration, as circumstances make it expedient. I will endeavor to bow graciously & submifsively to the edict of my superiors, although they pained me in not sparing my Trees. I will endeavor to forgive them – though to forget them I never can.

From a manuscript read at the Annual Meeting of the Historical Society, October 31, 1928, and first published in the Historical Society’s 1929 annual publication.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *