In Washington Park, a boulder sits in the grass near 51st Street. The inscription, barely legible, reads: “Tree Planted by Ulysses Grant, December Sixth 1879”. The tree next door is obviously not 140 years old. What was Grant doing in what is now the middle of nowhere?
The story of the tree – and its rock – begins in 1877. After considering what to do once he left the White House that year, Grant decided to take a vacation and seeing the world for the first time. He planned to travel as a private tourist through Europe, Egypt and Israel, but the trip soon became a diplomatic trip as everyone from Pope Leo XIII to Tsar Alexander II to the rank and file Ottoman soldiers , wanted to meet him, and he was accompanied everywhere by journalists.
At the end of his planned route, the United States Navy encouraged him to continue through Southeast Asia. When he carried out diplomatic communications between China and Japan, Emperor Meiji of Japan thanked him by planting several ceremonial trees, including a Himalayan cedar which is still alive at Zojoji Temple in Tokyo. From Japan, Grant sailed to San Francisco and made a slow, triumphant progress across the United States, greeted everywhere by huge crowds and long ceremonies, which, drawing inspiration from the Japanese, often included the planting of trees.
His stop in Chicago in November 1879 was met with a reunion of 80,000 veterans of the Union Army of Tennessee, men he had led in the battles of Shiloh, Chattanooga, and Vicksburg. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the parade route. Even in the pouring rain, the roar of the crowd was deafening. That night, a glittering banquet at Palmer House in his honor was capped off with a speech by Mark Twain.
A month later, Grant returned to spend a quiet week with his son Fred, who was living in Chicago. Fred had married Bertha Honore Palmer’s sister. She was connected to everyone, including the commissioners of South Park, who had just begun to lay out their boulevards and parks. What better way to draw attention to their efforts than to ask Grant to plant a tree? They chose a location near an elaborate new horse fountain in Washington Park, where Payne Drive enters from Drexel Boulevard. Grant accepted the low-key event. He was considering running for a third term, and Hyde Park was still the home of Lincoln’s well-heeled Republicans.
On December 6, 150 men, including the mayor and commissioners of Lincoln Park and West Park, gathered at Palmer House, where they boarded open cars adorned with banners. They picked up Ulysses Grant from Fred’s at 781 S. Michigan Avenue and, escorted by 20 mounted park police, marched down the boulevard to the park, where a group and several hundred uninvited people were waiting. The “right-sized” American elm stuck out at an angle from the hole supported by a rope attached to a windlass.
According to the Chicago Daily Telegraph, the weather did not respect the big man. It was miserable, so the ceremony was brief. The chairman of the South Parks Commission said the sight of the tree planted “by the hand that bore the sword of victory” would be inspirational. Grant responded with his standard tree-planting speech: “I hope that on my future visits to your beautiful park, I can see the tree I am about to plant grow and prosper, and that in its growth, it can be symbolic of the growth and prosperity of your beautiful city.” Grant took the nickel-plated shovel, threw three shovels of dirt into the hole, and handed it to the commissioners, who added their own piece of dirt. After everyone’s ceremonial shoveling, the elm tree was hoisted in. The uninvited crowd and the Chicago Tribune reporter were disappointed to discover that the Southern Parks Commissioners were not providing lunch. back in the warmth of the Palmer House.
The memories, however, are short. In 1899, the Tribune questions the guardian of the tree. He told a story that included a cast of thousands, a golden shovel, and Grant still in uniform – in 1865, before the park even existed. The Tribune believed that few remembered this event. Obviously the rock wasn’t there in 1899. A Daily News photograph from 1909 shows the rock and a puzzled policeman, so it could have been installed at that time. With the rock in place and a mast, it became a postcard-worthy destination. Unfortunately, the commission got the date wrong. The rock said November 1879, the date of Grant’s triumphal parade. A disgruntled writer corrected them and the rock was fixed.
The tree keeper in 1899 said there were two problems with the elm, which would normally have lived 150 years. The elms need rich loam soil, while the park has nutrient-poor loam. The second, presented as a charming and eccentric theory, was that he was alone and the trees needed companions. His observation, unlike his memory, was perfect. Soil microbiota science has recently backed up its observation by showing how trees support each other through their root systems. The passage of the tree in the middle of the 20th century went unnoticed. The elaborate fountain and the horses that used it have also faded from memory.
In 1971, when a letter writer asked the Tribune what the rock could possibly refer to, no one had an answer. Even the Park District didn’t know. The Tribune joked that it may actually have been Washington planting a tree in Grant Park. Reminded of the rock’s existence, the Park District planted a Kentucky coffee tree nearby. At that time, no one was planting elm trees in Chicago. Dutch elm disease was killing them one by one.