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Group watches over stately elms on Harrison's Carlisle Street

Mary Ann Thomas
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Eric Felack | Trib Total Media
Postal carrier Kevin Griffith walks his mail route amid the Dutch Elm trees lining Carlisle Street in Harrison on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014.
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Eric Felack | Trib Total Media
Postal carrier Kevin Griffith walks his mail route amid the Dutch Elm trees lining Carlisle Street in Harrison on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014.

The cathedral of century-old elm trees lining Carlisle Street in Harrison wouldn't be so idyllic if not for the foresight of Henry Morgan Brackenridge and the Allegheny Shade Tree Association, celebrating its 10-year anniversary.

The two immense walls of 189 American elm trees flanking the street form one of the largest such stands of elms in an urban area in the state, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Like many things of great beauty, there are maintenance issues unknown to its admirers.

For Carlisle Street and other urban stands of elms, it's the dreaded Dutch elm disease, which has killed more than 40 million American elm trees since about 1930, according to American Phytopathological Society.

“There's a beauty and majesty with these trees,” said Gene Becker, a resident of Carlisle Street and president of the Allegheny Shade Tree Association, a group of residents who guard the health of the mighty elms that tower more than 60 feet.

”If you would wipe out the trees, the street would look bare.”

Ten years ago, Dutch elm disease was confirmed in some of the Carlisle Street trees, and the association was born to save what was essentially the character of arguably one of the prettiest residential streets in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

At least 10 trees were felled by the disease and other mishaps. The diseased trees were quickly removed to prevent the scourge from spreading.

The association went on to pay for and provide about 35 replacement trees, according to Becker.

A state grant from Sen. Jim Ferlo helped to cover the cost of the new trees, a variety of elm supposedly resistant to the disease.

The association remains vigilant in inspecting the trees, looking for signs of Dutch elm and other maladies.

“People have been cooperative because they enjoy the elegance of these trees,” Becker said.

A Brackenridge planted them

The man responsible for planting the trees would certainly approve.

Henry Morgan Brackenridge planted the elms about the time he was building his mansion, near Carlisle Street around 1916. He finished the mansion in about 1918, according to historian Robert Lucas of Tarentum.

Brackenridge's grandfather was Henry Marie Brackenridge, who founded Tarentum and owned large tracts of land in Brackenridge and Harrison.

By all accounts, at least three generations of the family much admired trees and experimented with them. Henry Marie grew trees in Florida that he went on to sell to the U.S. government to build ships, according to Lucas and Cindy Homburg, executive director of the Tarentum History and Landmarks Foundation

Henry Morgan Brackenridge developed Carlisle Street, which was named after Carlisle, Pa., the home of his great-grandfather Henry Hugh Brackenridge, a scholar, writer and founder of the Pittsburgh Academy, later known as the University of Pittsburgh.

“Henry Morgan developed Carlisle Street to make it look beautiful with those big trees,” said Lucas, who has known members of the Brackenridge family.

“He figured the trees would enhance the property, which was near a hospital that was under construction (Allegheny Valley Hospital),” he said.

As the Carlisle neighborhood did, indeed, flourish, the Allegheny Shade Tree Association has taken on the role as steward.

“It's important work,” said Christine Ticehurst, community greening and grant administration specialist with DCNR's Bureau of Forestry in Harrisburg.

“It's great to have an extra set of eyes to care for community trees,” she said.

More shade tree associations are sprouting up these days, and, to meet demand to regrow urban canopies, DCNR offers a number of programs, including its TreeVitalize program, which has planted more than 390,000 trees statewide.

“They keep an eye on those trees that were planted 50 years ago and will be alive 50 years from now,” she said.

There's much to watch for: There are constant threats to trees, especially if just one variety is planted en masse.

In addition to Dutch elm disease, “elm yellows,” a virus disease, is lurking and can decimate trees easily. Abnormal yellowing of leaves in early July and August are telltale signs. The tree will die within two years.

“It's not always easily characterized and it's very lethal,” said Tom Hall, a forest pathologist with DCNR.

“Although it is statewide, there are enough of a population of elms in the wild that are healthy and the disease doesn't move rapidly across the landscape.”

The worst-case scenarios are in urban environments if overplanting the same trees in a row occurs, according to Hall.

“It's like Jim Morrison said, ‘No one gets out alive,' ” he said.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or [email protected].

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