Trees planted as a memorial to dead boys grew too big

They stood tall along Everett’s Norton Avenue, for decades paying silent homage to two young brothers.

On Tuesday, two trees planted in 1965 were in pieces on the ground. The noisy buzz of a stump grinder disturbed the old neighborhood’s quiet.

“I had two brothers killed in a car-train accident in Index on Thanksgiving Day 1964, Ron and Steve Smith,” said Janice Gowen, 74. “They were really good boys. Nice boys. They went to Sultan Union High School.”

Wesley “Ron” Smith was 16. Steven Smith was 14. And 12-year-old John Hanold, another boy in the car struck by a Great Northern freight train, also died that snowy day. The car’s 18-year-old driver survived, according an Everett Herald article published a day after the Nov. 26, 1964 collision.

Gowen, now living in Arlington, was a wife and mother in her mid-20s when the tragedy happened. By 1965, she and her husband Marion Gowen had a house on Norton Avenue, near what was then Providence Hospital.

A year after the accident, the Gowens went elk hunting in Coleman Canyon north of Ellensburg. They brought back two live trees. “You’re probably not supposed to do that,” Janice Gowen said.

In remembrance of Ron and Steve, they planted the Douglas fir and blue spruce trees in the parking strip outside their house on Norton. In 1962, the couple’s little boy had died. Gowen said they also planted a Ponderosa pine in his memory. The pine, she said, was cut down some time ago.

The trees never had markers showing they were planted as tributes to the lost boys.

Last week, Gowen and one of her sisters, Judy Schirman, were on a drive to Mukilteo. Gowen decided to go past her old house, which she said was once owned by Everett football coach Pinky Erickson, to show her sister the trees.

“It was kind of a fluke,” she said. “I went by there the day before the trees were coming down.”

Gowen saw that the huge trees were marked with orange paint and signs. The area was blocked in preparation for their removal.

She called Everett’s Public Works Department. Gowen said a man named Mike explained that the big trees were affecting the street and sidewalk, and had to come down. He told her the city would replace them, but not with evergreens.

Kate Reardon, the city’s spokeswoman, said Gowen likely talked with Mike Hale, a Public Works supervisor and one of Everett’s tree experts. Hale, she said, is away from work and unavailable for comment this week.

“It looks like the root system from the trees was damaging the sidewalk and the roadway. Tree removal is primarily done when there are safety issues,” Reardon said.

Gowen, whose husband died two years ago, isn’t angry the trees were removed. She understands they couldn’t be allowed to create hazards. It is a loss, though, for Gowen and the neighborhood.

The issue has stirred memories of a horrible holiday, and of her brothers.

“It is a sad story,” Gowen said. “It was really very traumatic. I sympathize with people who lose more than one family member at a time. People say, ‘I know how you feel.’ Really, they don’t.

“Growing up, they were just good boys. My mom was a Cub Scout leader, they were in Scouts,” she said. Her parents, Wes and Hazel Smith, had five girls before their three sons came along. “We didn’t think Dad would ever get a boy,” she said.

As stunning as their loss was, Gowen said the wreck could have claimed more loved ones.

“They were in the car going sledding, it was the first snow,” she said. “I also had a 12-year-old brother, David, who didn’t go. He didn’t want to put his boots on, so Mom made him stay home.”

David Smith, her only surviving brother, lives in Gold Bar.

And the accident happened close to the home of an older sister. The car landed in her yard. There, children were out making a snowman before the crash. They had been called in to get ready for Thanksgiving dinner. “It could have been much worse,” Gowen said.

Her parents were lifelong and active members of the Index community. The Wes Smith Bridge over the Skykomish River is named after her late father.

Before her husband died, Gowen said he would stop by the tribute trees when he came to Everett for doctor visits. As a patient at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett’s Pacific campus, he also saw the trees.

Marion Gowen, who retired from the Snohomish County PUD as a safety manager, had worked as a lineman. “He said those trees were 80 feet tall,” his widow said.

“We always knew — everybody in the family knew — they were Ron and Steve’s trees,” Gowen said. When new trees are planted, she said, they still will be.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460;

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