There is a very old Beech tree on the grounds of what was once called the Pennsylvania Oral School, later the Scranton School for the Deaf. The bark of living beech trees are famously the recipients of graffiti, which can be quite long-lived. Here is an example (figure 1).
I’m genuinely interested in the beech, which I believe is the European variant fagus sylvatica. I’ve gone to photograph it maybe a half a dozen times (see, e.g., figures 1, 2, 4, 6, 8). It’s a noble old tree fascinating in its shape; it reminds me, at any rate, of a goblin’s hand, or maybe a skeletal hand. It’s at least a meter in diameter at the ground with large buttress roots.
I have wondered how old the tree is and cast about for evidence. I found one piece in an old photo in a publicity book for Scranton published by the Scranton Tribune in 1894. This was some 5 years after the Pennsylvania Oral School had had its first buildings built. These can be seen in the image (figure 3).
It’s difficult to be precise in lining up the trees in the figures with the buildings. The 1894 photographer used a long lens that both compressed the depth of field and cropped out material around the buildings. It was a cloudy day: there are no shadows to help, either. This makes it harder to estimate closely the position of trees against the position of the buildings. I make no assumption that any trees seen in the 1894 image are still alive, though they might be.
The buildings were altered in serious ways when new windows were installed in the 1930s, and maybe at other times as well. The chimney on the short end of the building on the left in figure 3, along with the fire escape and hipped porch roofs on either side of it have been eliminated to make room for interior stairwells (see the windows rising on diagonals in figure 4). That is the same building, however: you can still see its distinctive triple-bay arch porch (figure 5 shows the top of the central arch).
In fact, it’s worth looking closely at the P.O.S. building (that’s what I’m calling the one nearest the beech). There used to be a doorway to the south, where the iron stair goes to ground. Now that short end has no entrance (nor chimney, as I already pointed out), but a doorway was placed in the long end right at the corner, quite near the beech. In fact, there was and is a pathway, now at least made of cement, that runs from the street (see the wheelchair dip in the curb just beyond the beech in figure 6) directly to the door.
To one degree or another you can see traces of this path in figures 2, 3, 4, & 6). Now I can’t say that the path in figure 3 follows the exact course that the modern one does, but I’m pretty sure it’s not radically different. So I infer that the beech tree—our beech tree— would have been just south of where the path coming directly from the POS building intersects with the street. In figure 3, it actually looks like that path intersects with another, slightly broader path coming from the other two buildings in the image. That could make the beech the (then) small tree covering part of the leftmost of the triple-bay arches in figure 3.
But there is a second piece of evidence, a postcard, printed in Germany, showing the Oral School, Scranton, PA. (figure 7). Hand- or machine-colored, it shows a similar but frustratingly different view of the three principal P.O.S. buildings. At first it looks shockingly different, but we must bear in mind that the image of figure 3 was captured in winter—the trees are barren—whereas that in figure 7 appears to be a summer scene. The colors are not to be trusted, of course. If it were cropped to center the principal buildings it would give the view more or less in figure 8.
If I am not mistaken, that means that the beech in the postcard, like the same tree in my photograph, would block a portion of the short southern wall of the Superintendent’s residence, the central of the three principal buildings. That would mean that the small tree in figure 7 that is just inboard of the road leading around the school (not yet in existence in figure 3) and blocking the residence is our beech. The coloring of the postcard gives the impression that the little tree has a trunk about two inches in diameter. However, upon closer inspection, the trunk is wider than the light colored stripe running up it, and the tree is rather further from the photographer in figure 7 than it is in figure 3.
I think the photographer in image 7 was situated on Adams Street about where it curves around and begins its short descent to where Electric Street crosses Jefferson Ave. He or she was rather high above Electric Street, which can be seen as a (dirt?) path in front of the wrought iron fence that still encircles the property. You can see this at the bottom of figures 9 and 10, which I have no rights to but use here as illustrations of a critical argument. This proposed viewpoint also agrees with the way the principal buildings, easily discernible with their (now) stepped, continuous, light-grey roof in the satellite image in figure 10, are seen nearly end-on.
By contrast, the photographer of figure 3 was rather closer to the buildings, as I’ve noted, and has taken a shot opening up their long sides to our view rather more than the postcard photographer did. I think we just barely see the edge of the tiny ravine with a stream in it, which puts him or her in the roughly triangular patch of ground south of that little stream. I’d place the photographer just inside the wrought iron fence on Electric Street not far from where the Google maps image in figure 9 shows the stream ending on the left. (The stream actually goes on and eventually goes under Electric St.) This patch of ground is at the same height as the buildings and accounts for the angle at which we see them. I get the impression that the photographer raised the camera up on some sort of platform to get it well above ground level thus raising it above the branches, admittedly bare, of the trees we see around the stream bed in figure 7.
You can clearly see the beech just south (below, in the Satellite image) of the P.O.S. building in figure 10, a more olive hue of green than the (mostly) forest-green oaks that run below and to the right of it.
The photograph in figure 3 was taken between 1889 and 1894, when it was published. The beech tree, if I’ve correctly identified it in that photograph, looks old enough that I’d have little trouble believing the photograph was taken in 1893 or 1894, when it was about 4 years old. In any event, it’s barely more than a sapling.
The postcard image in figure 7 appears more recent. The grounds have a more grown-in look, although we must remember that this is a summer image with full foliage. The postcard in my collection has an October 1909 postmark, which is a terminus ante quem for the printing of the postcard, and, of course, the taking of the photograph. The beech tree, if I’ve correctly identified it, does not look twenty years old in the postcard image. It looks roughly the same as in the 1894 image. Unless I can discover the date of the postcard’s printing, I’ll tentatively say that the postcard image falls between 1894 and about 1900.
Coming round full circle, that makes the beech tree just about as old as the P.O.S. building, ca. 1889. This makes the tree about 130 years old today. Old trees that “were there”—for example, ones on the battlefield at Gettysburg alive during the battle—are called “witness trees.” Our beech has witnessed a lot.
But amongst the things that it has witnessed are the people—the deaf students—who in turn witnessed it. Among them were Tom and Esther, with, I think, the number (19-)75 carved to the right of their names (figure 1). “Pat Mellow” was another, dating his mark to “84-09,” and “Bill,” and “A.B.,” and, wonderfully, “Amos” (figure 11).
There are more, but the bark has healed to the point of making them illegible, and some, like Tom and Esther’s marks, were sloppy to begin with. A tree like this is a magic lantern of sorts that projects the ghosts of those young people onto the background of their former campus. It reminds us of the P.O.S. and it helps vitalize this place. Most of all, however, the tree is numinous, one of the treasures of Scranton.