Logging town of Darrington reluctantly parts with cemetery’s Doug firs

DARRINGTON — The old Douglas fir trees in this town’s nearly century-old cemetery provided shade, beauty and character.

But the roots of the four trees kept pushing up the headstones of Darrington pioneers and unsettling a row of long-forgotten bachelor ore miners placed in wooden boxes and buried in shallow graves.

And worse, windstorms kept knocking down heavy limbs, narrowly missing the fragile old headstones and the people who tend the graves.

The trees became the focus of debates at meetings of the cemetery board and town council. Some loved them, others wanted them out. In the end it was safety that decided the issue. The Doug firs in the cemetery had to come down.

Nobody knows for sure whether the trees were already there in 1917 when Edith Nugent Kennedy donated the property for the graveyard or whether someone planted them later. Nevertheless, over the years, people in town tried to control the trees by topping and pruning them. It was a futile effort. Suckers grew from the original trunks, creating what the loggers call “widowmakers” and “schoolmarms” — trees that are dangerous and difficult.

On Wednesday, with snow falling and a breeze blowing, Chad White of Puget Sound Tree Care cut them down while a crowd from town came to watch one of Darrington’s biggest public works projects of the year.

White, 39, of Oso, grew up in Darrington and started working in the woods at an early age. He did an excellent job with the cemetery trees, said Rick Jones of the town public works crew.

White’s bid to remove the 140-foot trees was less than half of what others submitted.

“I have relatives here. I just wanted to help out my community,” White said. “This small town is having a hard enough time surviving as it is.”

In a bequest in the early 1980s, Rose Strickland left her estate to fund the maintenance of the cemetery. That’s what paid for the tree removal job, said town clerk Lyla Boyd.

For $9,000 from the cemetery fund and the price paid by Hampton Lumber for the logs, White was able to hire the owners of a big crane that lifted the logs as they were cut over the grave sites to a self-loading log truck. It was the only way to ensure that nothing in the cemetery was damaged, he said.

It took White more than a week to carefully strip the big limbs and the smaller branches from the trees and then cut down each one. About 100 feet in the air, tethered to the trees along with his chain saw and the chain from the crane, he would pause occasionally, a cigarette hanging from his lips.

“Yes, ma’am, I get nervous,” White said during a lunch break. “It’s a big job with no room for mistakes.”

Among the people in a dozen pickups lined up in hastily improvised viewing area were Chad White’s parents, Lee Cook and Robert White. Though confident in their son’s skills, they, too, smoked to calm their nerves.

“It’s dangerous work and anything can happen,” Robert White said.

Former mayor Joyce Jones, who retired from the U.S. Forest Service, explained that Douglas fir trees are strongest in groups. The four trees spread out across the cemetery were just too exposed to the wind and far too unstable.

She and her friend Inajean Buchanan, a cemetery board member, stood watching from beneath an umbrella as the wet snow fell.

Buchanan, 80, has three generations of her family buried in the cemetery. She has helped care for the graveyard since she was 5 years old. She was happy to see the trees come down and pleased that some of the elderly people in town would be given firewood from the trunks.

OnaMae and Jeff Griffiths had mixed feelings as they watched the action from their pickup.

“My daughter is buried here,” OnaMae Griffiths said. “The trees made the cemetery a beautiful place. It’s sad to see them go, but it had to be done.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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