The Squares: The true history of Savannah’s tree history

All research and commentary by Jefferson Hall

How the squares evolved from empty spaces to parks… and why the Savannah of today is a town of oaks instead of overgrown chinaberry trees

Johnson Square, looking northward toward the City Exchange, 1883

The oak trees of downtown Savannah are old, but perhaps not as old as you might think….

Nor is the tradition of them in the squares as old as we often imagine.  As the Savannah Republican lamented in an editorial in March of 1842:  “We wonder why none of our citizens choose the Live Oak when they are ornamenting their lots.  There are very few in town, and we think they are the most beautiful species of the quercus virens.” 

To anyone strolling Savannah’s streets in the 21st century the notion that in 1842 there were “very few” oaks in downtown Savannah seems unimaginable… but to be clear—for the first three generations there were no trees in the squares.  Throughout the entirety of the 18th century the squares were barren spaces.  Anyone who believes the stories of ghost tours that claim that people were hanged in the 18th century from any particular tree in a square must contend with the fact that there is not a single square that had trees before 1810, and there is not a single tree standing in any square today that would predate 1840. 

The southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) commonly achieves a lifespan of between 150 and 300 years, and there are certainly examples—not only in the world, but also in our local region—of some individual trees achieving far greater lifespans.  It should be understood that the majority oak trees in Savannah today were planted in the 20th century… but a significant minority remains from the 19th (specifically, the 1850s and thereafter).  Any argument and possibility that the later squares of the 1830s-1850s might have contained any native trees seems unlikely given that Savannah resident Charles Olmstead offered a specific recollection in the 1840s that the city common south of Harris Street was cleared land, devoid of trees to the boundary of today’s Gaston Street.

Oak trees seem inexorably linked with the squares, but this was not always the case.  Today’s squares are beautiful green spaces, but the road to beautifying them was a long and difficult one, and it was never a guarantee that the end result would be the parks we enjoy today.  There were wrong turns (the city promoted the wrong types of trees for a full generation) and there were literal roadblocks (…all of the squares were enclosed by fencing in the 19th century).  There were hurdles (…squat little utilitarian firehouses sat in eight of the squares) and there were obstacles (…streetcars ran through the middle of twelve squares for nearly 80 years).

Relic of a bygone era… cistern remains still visible in Crawford Square

A long gestation: 77 years of empty space…

As anyone who has seen the Peter Gordon Map may attest, the squares of Oglethorpe’s time were open spaces.  They were, essentially, the negative space to the tything and trust lots’ positive.  Notably, when Oglethorpe visited Savannah in the fall of 1739 he was displeased with the scrub and growth that had occurred in the squares during his various absences.  From William Stephens’ Journal:

“The General observing, that since the Land of the Common being cleared of Trees, Abundance of Shrub-Wood was daily growing up, which filled the Ground; and that the publick Squares, and most open Parts of Town, were filled with an offensive Weed, near as high as a Man’s Shoulders, both which were a great Annoyance….   He was pleased over Night to send out Orders, that upon the Beat of Drum this Morning, all Persons inhabiting the Town… should appear at Sun-rising this Morning, and go to Work clearing this great Nuisance: Which accordingly they readily did.”

Colonial Records of Georgia, vol. IV, p. 433

Unable to finish the clearing of brush in just one day, Oglethorpe set aside a second day the following month for completing the task.  In brief, October 17 and November 5, 1739 confirm the notion that to James Oglethorpe, his vision of a “square” was a cleared open space.

So exactly why were the squares empty spaces?  It’s important to consider one small detail in Stephens’ 1739 account that might help address this question.  Stephens remarked—and it is easy to infer that the following may have been based on Oglethorpe’s own words—that the growth in question “harboured and increased many troublesome Insects and Vermin; and moreover if set on Fire when dry, might endanger the Burning of the Town.”  This seemingly-throwaway, probably second-hand comment, offers us a crucial insight:  In the 18th Century, natural growth within the squares was viewed as a liability in that it hosted insects and rats, and even presented a fire hazard.  In short, the area around the town was cleared to help promote a more sterile environment in a Colonial wilderness.

These initial six squares remained empty during Oglethorpe’s tenure, during the entire Colonial era, during Oglethorpe’s lifetime and through the incorporation of the City government.  The first six squares remained cleared spaces for more than six decades.  It’s stunning today to consider just how long the squares were static and barren.  Only in the 1790s, with the addition of the Early Federal Wards of 1791 and 1799 did the question seem to have arisen… what to do with these elements of Oglethorpe’s design—the squares—that City Council had now decided to continue?  To put the issue in perspective, as of January, 1799 there were twice the number of squares there had been ten years before with the incorporation of the city.  In other words… now that the city had bought into the idea of the squares, it was struggling to consider what, exactly, to do with them.

Enter George Throop.

The above made its appearance in the January 17, 1799 Georgia Gazette.  Captain George Throop was elected Harbor Master in 1797, and one of his “other duties as assigned,” (as a former boss of mine used to characterize such unspecified responsibilities) was to ornament Bay Street with trees.  And to be clear, while this is Bay Street, it still connected to the overarching theme of the squares.  By the spring of 1799 the City Expenditures included $200 to “Capt. Throop for the purpose of purchasing trees and completing the line on the Bay of Savannah.” (Georgia Gazette, March 28, 1799)

So while it might seem odd to us today, the squares were not the city’s first beautification program; instead it was Bay Street that represented the city’s first tree-planting effort.  But 1799’s efforts had fallen short; by the following spring Throop was still trying to complete the line on the Bay.

Columbia Museum & Savannah Advertiser, February 18, 1800

Throop continued to serve the public trust in his many capacities until his demise in early 1803.  On May 5, 1800, with Throop’s second planting going in the ground, City Council passed an ordinance subjecting anyone who caused harm to the city’s public trees a penalty of $20, or 39 lashes if a slave.  Ten years later, with the dawn of 1810, the attention of City Council finally began spreading to the squares.  In the January 13, 1810 Savannah Republican and Evening Ledger three advertisements for proposals placed side by side by side were about to alter Savannah’s squares forever.

It was this effort, executed in the spring of 1810, under the direction of City Council’s special committee of John Bolton, Adam Cope and William Moore, that saw the first attempt to beautify the squares.  Frankly, it was not universally celebrated.  In April a Letter to the Editor appeared in the Savannah Republican and Evening Ledger decrying the misuse of the city’s incidental funds “for the prosecution of agricultural experiments.”  While acknowledging the “city council are daily endeavoring to improve the city,” the correspondent identifying himself as “An Episcopalian,” wondered aloud “would not the erection of the Episcopal Church add as much to the ornament of Johnston’s square, as the walks and trees there established?”

But Robert Mackay liked it.  In May he wrote to his wife: “The weather is most delightful as yet & the alterations in the squares so great an improvement, that Savannah is quite fascinating.”

“Every square in town is now enclosed with light cedar posts painted white and a chain along their tops, trees planted within, and two paved footpaths across, the remainder of the ground they are spreading Bermuda grass over, and upon the whole the Town looks quite another thing and very enchanting.”

The trees furnished by John and Robert Bolton were the Pride of India trees, continuing the precedent established the decade before.  There was now a uniformity to be found in the town’s greenery:  East Broad Street, South Broad Street (now Oglethorpe Avenue) and the squares were now dotted by the same ornamentation already established on the Bay.

From the June 11, 1810 City Council Proceedings: “All public squares shall, as soon as council may deem it expedient, be planted with trees after the manner already adopted in Johnston’s square.”  From this simple declaration one may infer that Johnson Square was the first.  According to Thomas Gamble, Reynolds Square, Oglethorpe Square and Columbia Square immediately followed.  As City Council explained its encouragement of trees in June of 1810:

“Experience has fully proved, that great advantages are derived to the inhabitants of this city from Trees being planted in the streets and squares, from the shade they afford, the heat of a very sultry climate is lessened, and by the power which they possess of absorbing the noxious vapour which arises from the marshes and other low-grounds in its vicinity, the prolific source of Fevers, so fatal in this climate, they afford a shield by disarming in a great degree, the said vapour… thereby affording to the inhabitants the means of comfort and security.”

Even if the reasoning was a bit specious, the legacy of trees in the squares had begun here in 1810.  It is worth noting that none of these plantings or their descendents survive today; all of the trees in question were Pride of India (chinaberry), a species encouraged by the city for a full generation before forced into retirement in lieu of more favorable species. By the following spring, in 1811… more trees.  The following notice appeared:

But simply, these “Pride of India” trees, again, more commonly known today as chinaberry trees—or, melia azedarach—were a messy species of ornamentation.  Not everyone was a fan.  Even today chinaberry trees are considered an invasive species and often regarded as a pest.  As one Letter to the Editor submitted by “A Citizen,” in the April 6, 1824 Republican noted:  “I observe that there are some of the new public Squares lately inclosed, and, I see also, that some of the old ones require more trees—Now is the time to transplant such as would be more useful and ornamental than the China.”

“Savannah, upon the whole, is not the most disagreeable place in the world,” another correspondent charitably noted within the July 22, 1837 Republican.  While politely nagging about the condition of the streets and a sultry summer temperature, he also found an opportunity to knock on the trees the city had chosen to promote.

Finding the flowering tree’s perfume to be “very obnoxious,” and every other part of it “poisonous,” the author left behind no uncertainty as to his opinion of  “this baneful tree… covering the ground with litter, and filling the atmosphere with a narcotic poisonous odour.”

But the city’s mulberry trees—basically the alternate “go to” trees—also proved unsatisfactory, and often caused more problems than they solved.  As the Republican editorialized in 1842: “he who plants a wild mulberry, promotes a nuisance.  They give good shade, but their roots spoil the side-walks, penetrate walls, injure the water in wells, and overrun gardens with their shoots and suckers.”

Clearly, by the 1830s the city was beginning to reevaluate its previous enthusiasm for certain species of trees.

Early fencing and monuments

In the meantime, other improvements were moving the squares forward. As 1817 dawned, Orleans Square, laid out eighteen months before, was getting a fence.

By April Washington and Warren were getting upgraded fencing.

By 1820, with the relocation of City Market to South Broad Street, Ellis Square was freed up for a fence and pathways as well. (Note: the market would return to Ellis Square two years later.)

Chippewa and other squares, in 1822:

Mayor Thomas Usher Pulaski Charlton explained the rationale for fencing the squares in August of 1820:  “The reason… for enclosing the squares, was to protect the young trees from injury, and destruction by horses, and other animals going at large.” But he questioned if it was still necessary, as “the growth of the trees in most of the squares enclosed, has removed this apprehension.”

By the end of the decade in 1829, the Greene and Pulaski Monument was soon to be erected in Johnson Square.  If the following editorial by the Georgian is any indication—despite the trees already present—Johnson Square was not quite the green space we would recognize today… though it was taking some early steps in that direction.

“The proposition is to enclose the whole of the Square with a handsome railing, and to plant the part enclosed with grass and trees, and intersect it with gravel walks, as a promenade.  There is none such now in the city, and no situation, either for health or ornament is at all comparable to it….  If the square be left as it is, the monument will be exposed naked to all the dust and filth of the streets through which alone it can be approached.”

– April 3, 1829

The comment that “there is none such now in the city” is an odd remark, suggesting that the graded pathways through the squares of 1810 had not been maintained and were already long forgotten by 1829.  It seems the “path” toward beautification did not run in a straight line.

A Letter to the Editor on April 4 celebrated the Georgian’s suggestion from the day before, adding:  “Let that Square be permanently enclosed, and planted with Orange trees, and in a few years it would be the pride and ornament of our city.” (April 4)

A few days later The Argus joined in the chorus.  “Were the whole square enclosed, planted with shrubbery, embellished with flowers and gravel walks, how much would it add to the beauty of our city?” (April 9)  But in the same issue a correspondent to The Argus under the pen name of “India Berry” found all this talk about plants and promenades a bit too ambitious.  “That this square will ever be enclosed, or improved, I much doubt….  It needs not the spirit of prophesy to say, that this square, after a little will be abandoned, as that beautiful walk on the Bay has been.” Long was the memory that recalled the tree plantings of Bay Street; 30 years on, the city’s first effort at beautification had evidently faded.

City Council seems to have acted on these Johnson Square suggestions.  With the Greene and Pulaski Monument completed the following February, in April of 1830 the City Council instructed “the Marshall to place gravel in Monument Square, and to enclose it.”  A full 97 years after it was laid out, Johnson Square was becoming a park.  The fact that it was the first of the squares to be treated as such is evident in the 1837 Cerveau painting of the city, which finds Johnson Square the only obvious green space in the town.

In short, this Johnson Square was finally becoming our Johnson Square… except for the firehouse.  Yep, I said firehouse.

Sounding the fire alarms…

As early as the 1790s—before even the earliest trees had been planted—there were “engine houses” in many of the squares.  Between the 1790s and the 1870s there were no fewer than eight of these squat little buildings sitting in the midst of today’s squares.

  • Ellis Square
  • Reynolds Square
  • Pulaski Square
  • Franklin Square
  • Wright Square
  • Johnson Square
  • Columbia Square
  • Washington Square

Placing fire stations in squares made logistical sense, in that by the early 1790s cisterns had been placed in each square.  However, as the squares began burgeoning into full-blown parks, these engine houses began to run up against the notion of what seemed appropriate in a square.  In January of 1852 a resolution was passed to build an engine house in Lafayette Square; three months later, in April of 1852, the committee chosen to consider whether to build this engine house in Lafayette Square or Chippewa Square returned instead with the unexpected conclusion that the engine houses were simply too ugly to continue erecting.  The committee noted that the public viewed “the present Engine Houses as so many ugly excrescences spoiling the much admired picturesqueness of the squares,” citing the specific example of the “unsightly exhibitions in Johnson’s square, when the Green Monument is in juxtaposition with the shapeless, dwarfish, nondescript building which is a puzzle to every stranger visiting our city.”  In 1858 “the residents of Columbia Ward” pleaded with City Council “to remove the engine House in Columbia Square, as the same ‘is and has been for a long time, a pest and nuisance to them’.”  (Savannah Morning News, May 29, 1858)  The following year, in 1859, the engine houses in Johnson Square and Wright Square were removed.  In 1861 that unpopular engine house in Columbia Square was sold and removed.

The Washington Square engine house

The last of the engine houses was the one in Washington Square, its image captured above in the 1871 Birdseye View of Savannah.  It was described in 1875 as “an unsightly structure and in a most dilapidated condition, not worth repairing, and should be removed.” (Savannah Morning News, August 26, 1875)  In 1876 it was sold and dismantled.  As the Savannah Morning News reported on March 9: “The old Washington engine house in Washington square, was sold by the City Marshall yesterday, and was bought by Mr. Thomas McLaughlin for the sum of fifty dollars.  The old stable in the rear was purchased by Mr. C.E. Wakefield for $7.50.”  A stable for seven and a-half bucks….

For eight decades firehouses stood in the squares, but no sooner did the firehouses begin to come down than the city laid down streetcar tracks in twelve squares, and for the next eight decades—from 1869 to 1946—streetcars ran through the center of Savannah’s squares, further impeding the placement of trees.

From chinaberries to oaks…

By the 1830s, disillusionment had set in with the chinaberry trees.  In 1839 the City Council confessed that it found itself disappointed with the “irregular position of the trees in the streets and squares of the City,” remarking that “they are neither ornamental nor as useful as they ought to be.”  The chinaberry tree, the chief ornamental tree of the town for four decades—or in the words of the Daily Georgian, “the pride of Savannah for years that have past”—had proven unsatisfactory.  A deciduous tree, in the winters, “stripped of its rich foliage,” its bare trunk was a husk.  From the February 20, 1839 Daily Georgian: “It has been the policy of our corporate authorities recently to substitute the oak, the wild olive, and other evergreens, for the decayed trunk of the China tree, and such an innovation on custom we would rather see observed than broken.”

Later in the year City Council offered to any individual who would undertake the planting and care of any new and approved tree a compensation of “two dollars for every such tree from the City Treasury” after a successful gestation period of two years.

The approved trees on City Council’s 1839 list, printed in the November 11, 1839 Republican:

Out were mulberry trees—expressly forbidden, in that their roots endangered any nearby water pump or cistern—in were oak species.  By the following spring, on April 23, 1840, City Council “resolved, that part of the ‘Pride of India’ trees on the eastern side of Johnson’s square, and the Mulberry trees within the square, be removed.”  The oak era had begun.

From 1840 to 1856 the transition from chinaberry trees to oaks began in earnest.  With the Park and Tree Department still decades from creation, the city relied on individuals to take the initiative, and 1856 saw an enormous effort by two individuals.  In February and March of 1856 James Welsh was paid $350 by City Council for planting trees in Chippewa, Lafayette, and Monterey Squares.  The same spring of 1856 James Wilson left an equally long-lasting legacy, contributing more than a hundred trees to five different squares.  In the February 21, 1856 City Council Proceedings Wilson was paid $159 “for trees planted in the following squares: — Chatham Square, 13; Jasper [Madison] Square, 21; Pulaski Square, 17; Orleans Square, 22; Calhoun Square, 33.  Total trees, 106.”  Do any of these plantings of Wilson and Welsh still stand today?  It seems unlikely, but—given the size of some of the denizens within Pulaski and Chatham Squares today—the possibility cannot be dismissed.

Oak avenue at Emmet Park

It was the following year—1857—that would see the oak trees in Emmet Park planted, under the direction of John Falligant, Chairman of the Streets and Lanes Committee.  The planting sprees of 1856 and 1857 had seen more than 400 trees planted under the initiative of three men.

In the mean time, other parts of town were actually losing their trees.

The loss of the Forsyth forest…

If it’s true that someone today would not recognize the squares of 1800 for their utter lack of trees, the opposite might be concluded of Forsyth Park in the 1850s.  “At Gaston street the pine forest began and continued indefinitely to the south,” recalled Charles Olmstead from his childhood in the 1840s.  “Forsyth Place” was set aside and enclosed in 1851 as a natural pine forest, and its virgin growth was so dense it was impossible to see from one end to the other.  “The native pine is a peculiar feature of this beautiful square,” one correspondent remarked in 1852.  “It is thickly grown with native pines, showing that it was but recently surveyed from the primitive woods.” (Savannah Morning News, May 11, 1852)

Yes, this was Forsyth Park:

Forsyth Park (City of Savannah Municipal Archives)

The park saw extensive pruning of its virgin forest between 1857 and 1858 as the paths were carved out.  From the Mayor’s Annual Report of 1858:

The last of Forsyth Park’s ancient pines died in 1898; none survived into the 20th century.  Begun as a virgin pine forest, Forsyth Park had lost the last of its pines after less than 50 years.  According to Thomas Gamble, 1871 saw the oak tree plantings that line the Park Extension—which is to say Forsyth Park south of Hall Street (and considering the diameter of some of these trunks, it is easy to believe).

In February of 1852 Forsyth Park was enclosed with an iron fence by John Wickersham of New York, a man so prolific at providing ironwork within Savannah’s residences and public buildings that he regularly advertised in the Morning News between 1851 and 1853 as if he were a local.  City Council—already having contracted for the fence around Forsyth Park—found itself divided over a proposal of using the fence to enclose Johnson Square instead; after the motion narrowly failed it became evident an iron fence for Johnson Square would soon arise on the agenda.  From the Proceedings of Council, March 11, 1852:  “Resolved, That Johnson-Square be properly graded… and an iron railing be placed around it.”  This iron fence was locally made, crafted by Gilbert Butler, a “master builder” who advertised in the newspapers his business on York Street at Oglethorpe Square and resided at Floyd & McDonough Streets; the fence was put installed around the square in February of 1853 and is visible in the opening image of this post.  Total cost for the fence was $4320.30.

Wright Square, too, was now singled out for an upgraded fence.  On October 19, 1859 the Streets and Lanes Committee recommended “that Wright Square be enclosed with stone posts, connected by iron rods.”

The trees of 1886 and beyond…

In May of 1850 a powerful gale uprooted “a number of Pride-of-India trees that have stood the gales of upwards of fifty years” on South Broad Street (Morning News, May 31, 1850), a remark which confirms the notion that there were still many of the old chinaberry trees lingering into the 1850s.  The standing policy was to change out each displaced chinaberry with an oak, and the 1850s seems to have been the decade when most of this process took place.  In 1886 an additional ambitious tree-planting spree contributed a second wave to the oak population of downtown, some of which might still exist today.  A generation after John Falligant, Alderman D.R. Thomas, Chairman of the Streets and Lanes Committee, continued the tradition of his predecessor.  From the Savannah Morning News, November 21, 1886:

Stereographic images of the 1870s and 1880s record images of fully mature trees of 20 to 30 years in the medians of South Broad Street and Liberty Street, but clearly 1886 saw additional infill within the medians of these avenues.  Weeks after the above, the Savannah Morning News of December 12, 1886 followed up:

Also, by this point, the fencing around the squares had begun to attract debate.  On February 26, 1887 the Savannah Morning News published an editorial suggesting the fences around the squares come down, arguing that it was more cost-effective to have curbing rather than “the cost of keeping the wooden railings in repair… a continual source of expense.” As the editors concluded, “Iron fences and wooden railings around public squares are features of small towns and villages, where horses, cows and hogs run at large.”

By the following year, the iron fence around Johnson Square came down.  An ornament of pride just 36 years before, now it proved more of an antiquated inconvenience with its clanging gates and the simple fact that it left the square difficult to access.  An editorial from the February 6, 1888 Savannah Morning News:

Wickersham fence (the old Forsyth Park fencing) at Oglethorpe & Drayton

Three days later City Council opted to remove the fence.  Like chinaberry trees and engine houses, the fence was a relic of the past that no longer served the evolving purpose of the squares.  Similarly, the fence in Forsyth Park would come down in 1896.  Interestingly, this fence can still be seen, however, as portions of the fence were reused at the eastern boundary of the Chatham County Board of Education lot.  John Wickersham’s “wire iron fencing” is visible to the left as one waits patiently at the stoplight on Drayton Street and Oglethorpe Avenue.

By the 1890s the squares had taken on the appearances and attributes we would recognize today… but this result was born from generations of trial and error.  Ill-considered, the chinaberry tree—the go-to ornamentation of the first half of the 19th Century—was allowed to die out, gradually replaced with longer-lived evergreen species of oaks and magnolias.  The ancient virgin pines in Forsyth Park were removed and ravaged by disease until extinction.  Engine houses, fencing, streetcar tracks, these all played a role in Savannah’s squares but were ultimately consigned to history as the squares charted a path towards the parks we see today.    Savannah’s Park and Tree Committee was created in 1895, assuming the mantle and duties previously assumed by the Street and Lane Committee, caretakers of squares that were—by this point—now fully-formed.

So how old are the oaks in the squares?

One tree, one hundred and fifty years…

Magnolia trees typically top out at about 120 years, palmetto trees 100 years, water oaks about 80 years, crepe myrtles about 50.  The live oak tends to be the longest-lived of the species in our squares, and in considering the age of the oaks in the squares today it is useful to consider the trees of Ardsley Park and Chatham Crescent as a measuring stick.  Prior to the development of these two neighborhoods in 1910, the Granger and Lattimore tracts were devoid of trees, essentially pastureland.  

Witness the veritable moonscapes of Chatham Crescent, circa 1910….

From Washington Ave (today’s Savannah Arts Academy), looking north:

Victory (Estill) & Atlantic, looking west:

In short, no trees in the neighborhoods predate 1910, so the trunk circumference of their oldest oaks becomes a barometer for judging others found downtown.

Ironically, any tree in Ardsley Park is probably older than any tree in Johnson Square.

Johnson Square (Susan Dick & Mandi Johnson, Savannah: 1733-2000 [image GHS, 1361PH])

Even though the view of the square is partially obstructed, this 1870s photographic image of Johnson Square depicts only one tree visible in the square… and it’s a tree no longer existing today.  This alone illustrates the fact that there is no tree predating the 1870s in the square….  It’s no wonder the Morning News urged more trees in Johnson Square in 1886.

Similarly, the image below of Wright Square, circa 1900, shows a similar lack of canopy.

Wright Square (Susan Dick & Mandi Johnson, Savannah: 1733-2000 [image GHS, 1361PH])

What is more surprising, perhaps, about this turn of the century photo is that none of the small plantings pictured correspond to today’s trees in the square… suggesting that with perhaps the exception of one or two trees, Wright Square’s canopy is entirely 20th century.  The same assessment can be offered for Chippewa, Madison and Monterey Squares; today’s trees in all of the Bull Street squares appear—almost without exception—no earlier than the 20th century.

Judging from the circumference of the trunks and the sheer size of the trees, Chatham and Pulaski Squares, in the mean time, do appear to have a handful dating back to the 19th century.  To revisit an earlier question, do any of the 1856 Wilson/Welsh plantings still exist?  It seems unlikely, but cannot be rejected.  Some trees lining the Park Extension appear to be the inaugural 1871 plantings, though an 1899 Morning News lamented that many had already been wiped away by the hurricanes of 1893, ‘96 and ‘98.  The September 1, 1898 Morning News remarked of the most recent storm on the Park Extension’s trees:  “The destruction there, however, was nothing as severe as it was in 1896, when the whole southeastern corner [Drayton Street side] was practically demolished.”  It is true that in walking around southern half of the park today the Whitaker Street side still has a handful of enormous trees, not so on the Drayton Street side.

The trio of hurricanes that devastated Savannah in the 1890s acted as a crucible that ensured that many of the19th century plantings would not see the 20th.



Similarly, the iconic tree line of Jones Street is largely 20th century, in that many of its older plantings were lost in those 1890s hurricanes.  “It will not be many years before Jones street will be without trees unless there is something done in the way of tree planting in the very near future,” an August 3, 1900 Morning News remarked.  “There are but few good trees on that street, and it presents a rather dilapidated appearance.”  The following year, in September of 1901 the News once more drew attention to the dearth of trees on Jones Street, in a commentary headlined bluntly, “More Trees Needed.”

An undocumented row of five oaks at the south end of the Victorian District on Lincoln Street north and south of Henry Street likely dates from the 1860s-70s.

Lincoln Street giants

And the oak trees on 37th Street were planted in 1901; as the Morning News noted:  “It is true that a double row of live oaks has been planted on 37th street, and in the course of ten or a dozen years that street will be one of the most attractive in the city, as far as trees are concerned.”

Considering the hurricanes and ravages of urban development makes one appreciate the persistence of the Candler Oak that much more. 

Old even during the Civil War and with a circumference of 17 feet, the Candler Oak still reigns today as the king of the downtown canopy, and—with an age estimated at three centuries or more—represents the soul survivor of 18th century Savannah and last vestige of its virgin forest.

Timeline Recap:

  • 1733-1810: Squares treated as “negative space”
  • 1739: Oglethorpe directs the colonists to “reclear” the squares
  • 1790s: Cisterns and engine houses (fire houses) erected in some of the squares

1796-1839 ~ Savannah’s “Chinaberry Era”

  • 1796: Earliest planting of trees on the Bay; first resolution protecting the city’s trees passed
  • 1799-1800: George Throop plants up to 250 chinaberry trees on the Bay
  • 1810: City Council encloses the squares and plants chinaberry trees in the squares and the streets of East Broad and South Broad
  • 1817-1824: Post & chains upgraded to post & rails around the squares
  • 1825: Cornerstones laid for the Greene Monument and the Pulaski Monument
  • 1826: Franklin Square engine house built
  • 1829: Greene and Pulaski Monument erected in Johnson Square
  • 1830: Johnson Square upgraded to a promenade/park
  • 1830: Cisterns updated in ten squares

1839-Present  ~ Savannah’s “Oak Era”

  • 1839: Chinaberry trees abandoned city-wide; for the first time oaks encouraged
  • 1839-1843: Old wooden cisterns in the squares upgraded to brick
  • 1846: Pulaski Square engine house built
  • 1851: Last three squares laid out, Forsyth Park created
  • 1852: City Council committee decries the engine houses as ugly
  • 1853: Iron fence erected around Johnson Square; first attempt to remove its engine house rejected
  • 1854: Pulaski Monument completed in Monterey Square
  • 1856: First widespread oak plantings in the squares
  • 1857: First widespread oak plantings in Emmet Park
  • 1859: Wright Square fencing upgraded to post and rods
  • 1859: Engine houses in Johnson and Wright Squares removed
  • 1869-1946: Streetcar tracks laid through twelve of the squares
  • 1870: Engine house in Pulaski Square removed
  • 1871-1873: Decorative earthen-works mounds erected in six squares
  • 1876: Last of the engine houses sold off and dismantled on Washington Square
  • 1878: Avenue of oaks planted at Wormsloe
  • 1883: Large 150 foot tall electrical towers erected in Wright Square, Monterey Square, Franklin Square and Greene Square
  • 1886-1887: Second widespread oak planting spree on the Bay and the squares
  • 1888: Johnson Square fencing removed
  • 1893, ’96, & ’98: Three hurricanes in five years thins Savannah’s forest canopy
  • 1895: Savannah’s Park and Tree Committee created


2 thoughts on “The Squares: The true history of Savannah’s tree history

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