Santa Rosa residents mourn 276-year-old oak tree that was toppled in storm

Its roots apparently loosened in the saturated soil as the weight of extra water in its foliage reached a tipping point, and the massive tree crashed to the ground.|

In a steady stream, the people came to see what had happened to the mighty oak. It had been a majestic presence that stood for centuries — before California statehood, before the Spanish missions and before European presence in lands stewarded by the ancestors of living Pomo Natives.

A week ago, the coast live oak stood tall at Spring Lake Village near the edge of Santa Rosa Creek, its full, graceful branches casting shade on the rain-lashed landscape where, for an estimated 276 years, it grew.

But Sunday, its roots apparently loosened in the saturated soil as the weight of extra water in its foliage reached a tipping point, and the massive tree crashed to the ground, breaking through a fence as limbs thick as trees themselves snapped into pieces.

For the 440 or so residents of the senior community off Montgomery Drive, the loss marked a moment, if not of mourning, at least of admiration for the oak's longevity and size.

“We’re sad to lose it,” said Jim Masters, a Spring Lake Village resident for 11 years and chairman of the community’s Dell Committee. “Just the size, the age, the amount of shade. This area is the closest you can get to the creek. People just loved to come here and sit.”

The tree stood at the western edge of the property in an area known as “The Dell,” where residents grow flowers and vegetables in raised beds and maintain a butterfly garden 25 yards or so from the creek, now a rushing waterway, just outside the edges of the fallen oak’s splayed branches.

But even in its heyday, the tree was “a leaner,” perhaps because of the removal at some point of a tree against which it had rested, said Tyler Watson, who, with Cagwin & Dorward landscape contractors, had worked on the campus when the oak “was tall and strong.”

It still cast most of its shade across the shade from Spring Lake Village, where its evergreen branches would have picked up significant weight in all the recent rain.

With a trunk probably 5 feet across, “that’s hundreds of thousands of pounds right there,” Watson said Wednesday, gazing at the moss-covered trunk as workers prepared to trim more limbs.

The coast live oaks are highly susceptible to root rot, which this tree didn’t appear to have, he said.

Barney Johnson said the homeowner next door heard the tree groan and crash at 10:18 a.m. Sunday, splintering the fence and littering the area with bits of foliage and bark.

The first tree crew arrived a day later and has been working since to pare the branches and chip up what they cut.

Since the tree fell, residents had worked around the rain to make pilgrimages to the site to see for themselves what had happened, many taking photographs and commenting on the loss, as they did Wednesday.

Many mentioned how peaceful The Dell was and how often residents and staff alike sought the tree’s shade for moments of solitude and relaxation, even though the community has hundreds of other oaks and many outdoor communal areas.

“There is a sentimental value to living on this property that has this huge, beautiful tree,” said Elizabeth McKee, a resident since 2017.

Masters, the 11-year resident, said there probably were some in the community who hadn’t yet become aware of the tree’s demise, others who had a passing interest in it, and still others who felt emotional about the loss.

“I have a high regard for it,” said Masters, who creates natural sculptures out of bits of bark and branches around the area. “I’ve put in a lot of time down here — maintenance and so forth.”

A 4 p.m. gathering was planned Wednesday, led by the community chaplain for those who wanted to honor the tree.

Efforts also were underway to collect small pieces of wood from the oak to turn into coasters or some other souvenirs, while Masters and Johnson were working to secure large pieces of wood that might be turned into benches or other items for use in The Dell.

A large, twin-trunked big leaf maple closer to the creek fell about 2 1/2 years ago, and rounds from that tree are now placed among the vibrant green woodland plants that grow like a riot after so much rain.

“This was a special tree to the people here,” said Cathy Cheshire, a newer resident, “and you also have to wonder what was happening in 1748. In 1748, this wasn’t Santa Rosa.”

"To me,“ said resident Susan Drake, ”it’s the most unifying symbol on this campus. Everyone has a feeling about it. Everyone agrees it’s a terrible loss.“

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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