Saturday, September 19, 2020

Good News for Cathedral Pines of Cornwall, CT

Once touted as the premiere stand of old eastern white pines (Pinus strobus) in New England, the legendary, lofty Cathedral Pines were summarily brought to the ground in 1989 by three (!) tornadoes (apparently, one wasn't enough).


Cathedral Pines, 1970's (Jack Sobon photo)


The 42-acre grove of tall conifers sprouted from seed on agricultural land sometime in the late 1700's, and soared skyward over the next two centuries. A road rambled through the tallest of the pines at the base of a hill, providing the namesake cathedral experience for visitors. That scene was profitable for postcard publishers of the time. In 1982, the forest was designated a National Natural Landmark.

Those tornado winds dramatically changed the view on Essex Hill Rd. Thousands of tons of timber lay on the ground. And, they're still there today, some 31 years later. The Nature Conservancy, who owns and manages the property, allowed the cleanup of logs along the roadside, but, thankfully, decided to let nature recycle the rest of the debris in the forest. 

Dead pine snags on the hill today









Today, you can clamber among the hulks of large, moss-covered pine logs, and sidle up to still-standing, gray, broken, dead pine snags.

The good news

While those imposing roadside columnar pines are no more, there is reason to rejoice in this forest. There are survivors... a number of large, impressive white pines still gracing the hillside. And they've been quietly putting on girth and height, as they sway in the breezes and gales.

This summer, after a conversation about the stand with our old-growth-forest expert and amigo Bob Leverett, Jared Lockwood and I visited the site to see how it has fared. Bob hasn't been there in several years and suggested it could be well worth a road trip. 

We were delighted to find fat, old pines. Several exceed twelve feet in circumference at breast height (cbh), the standard height of 4.5 feet above ground level at which trees are measured. Jared used his LTI TruPulse 200x laser to very accurately measure tree heights as well; in the limited number of pines he had time to measure, he found a height range of 120+ feet to a maximum of 151 feet. That is really good news! To have white pines breaking the 150-foot mark is a cause for celebration; the number of locations in the northeast where pines exceed that height is very limited, but on the increase. 

Jared Lockwood measures 12.5' cbh, 147' tall pine


On a subsequent visit, we were accompanied by Jack Sobon of Windsor, MA, who is an internationally known timber framer, architect, author, and big-tree hunter. Jack had spent many a day measuring the Cathedral Pines during the 1970's and 80's. Using a surveyor's transit and tape measure, he accurately determined heights and diameters. He found many 160-ft-class pines there pre-tornado; the height champ was an awe-inspiring 172-footer, possibly the tallest tree in New England at that time (and today, there are only two known trees exceeding 170 feet in New England; both are white pines in MA). Jack was heartbroken when the great pines went down, and hadn't been back to the site since. 

Before their demise, the pines were providing shade for up-and-coming eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis), which can be found mixed with pines on the site today; the grandest one Jared found is nearly 10 feet cbh, and 134.5 feet tall ... a very impressive hemlock! Also present are a handful of old northern red oaks, black birch, and others. One of the hilltop red oaks appears to be at least 200 years old, based on its bark characteristics.

For those who long to experience what it felt like to wander among ancient eastern white pines, a trail walk through the remnant Cathedral Pines can be quite rewarding. Take your time; walk slowly; look at and feel the rugged bark; breathe in the pine scent; gaze skyward at the lofty green needles; let troubled thoughts drift away on the breeze. 

And then, take a very short drive down the road to the Ballyhack Preserve, also in Cornwall. Walk the loop trail there to see another stand of very respectable large, old pines. On the far side of the property where the trail passes along the deep ravine, look for a number of white pines with distinctly older looking bark; these are well over 200 years old, perhaps as much as 250.

New Cathedral Pines Film

Before you visit, watch our new 14-minute film, The Cathedral Pines Forest of Cornwall, CT - 2020.

You'll see pre-tornado images of the Cathedral Pines taken by Jack Sobon as much as 42 years ago, and what the forest looks like today. See Jack's reaction upon his first return to the forest after 30 years. Plus, old-growth forest guru Bob Leverett offers his insights on his favorite tree species.

View from top of 145' pine