John Willard

Those who worked the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Paul knew it as the "The Green Tree Hotel."

It was not made of brick and mortar but instead was an open-air lodging house, a giant elm with a height of more than 50 feet and a canopy 100 feet long. The big tree provided shade and refuge for men coming to LeClaire, Iowa, in search of jobs on the river.

Before it was cut down on July 20, 1964, a victim of Dutch Elm disease, the LeClaire Elm, or "The Green Tree" as it was affectionately known, was one of the town's most widely known landmarks. In 1912, it was named to the Hall of Fame for Trees in Washington D.C.

As LeClaire and its Illinois neighbor across the Mississippi, Port Byron, prepare to do battle with a 2,400-foot rope stretched across the river in this weekend's annual Tug Fest tug-of-war, let's revisit the storied natural landmark that is so much a part of LeClaire's history.

During its 225-year lifetime, the tree survived shore erosion, construction of railroad tracks and storms. Among the countless children who played under its spreading branches was LeClaire native Col. William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the famous frontiersman and showman.

What set the tree apart was its graceful shape, F.M. Fryxell wrote in the June 1924 issue of American Forests and Forest Life Magazine.

"All the limbs of The Green Tree are grandly twisted and contorted, yet in their ensemble they give the crown an irreproachable symmetry," he wrote.

"The Green Tree" figured prominently before the Civil War, when LeClaire was an important river port. Because of the town's location at the head of the Upper, or Rock Island Rapids, most steamboats plying the upper Mississippi stopped there.

"A few rods upstream from the landing place there stood by the water's edge a shapely elm with branches over-arching a large plot of slopping ground. This naturally became a rendezvous for rivermen from far and near, who came to LeClaire looking for jobs as river hands. Under the graceful shade of the elm, they congregated, spread their blankets, and cooked their meals often making this spot their home for weeks at a time," Fryxell wrote.

In the late 19th century, the tree became threatened by shore erosion. The river's cutting action, Fryxell wrote. likely would have toppled the tree had it not been for a project to improve the boat landing.

 A contractor named Joe Perkins was hired to fill in the shallow water under the tree through use of limetone blocks quarried from a nearby bluff and "the incessant gnawing of the river was stopped forever," Fryxell wrote.

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The tree again was endangered with the coming of the Delaware, Rock Island and Northwestern Railroad in 1899. The railroad ran along the Mississippi River from Davenport northward. In marking out the route through LeClaire, surveyors cut it directly through the site of the tree. The railroad pushed forward with its plans until public outcry forced officials to do another survey and position the tracks so that they would run north of the tree.

Over the years, the railroad came to appreciate the tree, which was located on railroad right-of-way. It built a palisade around the tree to give it protection and to provide for what became a town park.

 During the golden age of passenger trains, travelers passing through LeClaire caught a glimpse of the stately tree. "The finely divided extremities almost overtop the passing cars," Fryxell wrote.

In 1924, LeClaire resident Joe Barnes installed a granite marker near the tree as a means of commemorating the good times he and his childhood playmate, Buffalo Bill, had at the tree. The marker remains at the foot of Wisconsin Street, the site of the tree, along with a plaque identifying the site. The plaque was installed in 1966 by members of Boy Scout Troop 9 of Davenport's First Christian Church.

"The Green Tree" is gone, but its legacy remains. A preserved portion of the tree's trunk and the chain saw used to cut it down are on display at the Buffalo Bill Museum, 200 N. LeClaire Drive, LeClaire.

(The Buffalo Bill Museum provided research assistance for this story.)

John Willard can be contacted at (563) 383-2314 or jwillard@qctimes.com.

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