September 22, 2022

Historic Trees: The London Planetrees in Santa Clara

Written by TreeUtah
London Planetrees lining Santa Clara's Main Street London Planetrees lining Santa Clara's Main Street Photo Courtesy of the Utah FFSL

The need to plant trees was immediately clear to the early settlers of Santa Clara in Washington County. Seeking to expand their community’s pool of shade, the settlers would transplant Fremont Cottonwood saplings from the banks of the Santa Clara River to the streets of their little town. With saplings readily available nearby that could easily be moved and then grew rapidly when in place, Santa Clara’s Main Street quickly became a shady haven. However, the settlers would later discover their tree of choice was not the best choice. The cottonwoods, removed from the nourishing riverside, struggled to survive and proved to be hazardous.

The hazardous nature of these struggling cottonwoods peaked in August of 1939, when the worst gale force winds in the town’s history shattered windows, lifted roofs, and tore trees from the ground. When the windstorm struck Santa Clara, Josephine Graf was out walking with her granddaughter, Loretta Frei, down Santa Clara Drive. Overpowered by the storm and unable to make it to shelter, Josephine shielded her granddaughter from the whirling debris, including a large cottonwood branch that had broken off a nearby tree, which struck Josephine’s neck, leading to her death.

Josephine Graf’s death united the small town of Santa Clara. Seeing what harm the brittle cottonwoods could do, they came together to remove and replace them with trees that would fare better and prove to be less hazardous in the community’s dry climate, eventually agreeing London Planetrees were the best option. The project began in the early 1940s and was completed through volunteer labor from the townspeople, who removed the cottonwoods and their stumps using axes, shovels, and their bare hands. Sylvan Graf, a relative of Josephine, volunteered to truck new trees in from San Diego. His job already required him to haul cattle from the locale to Nevada and California, so he would do that and return with a truckload of London Planetrees. With interruptions due to the onset of World War II and the strenuous nature of the work, the project took 8 years to complete. Once all the trees were planted, volunteers continued to nurture them for several years by hauling buckets of water to them until they were mature enough to survive off groundwater.

In the following decades, travelers passing through town on the old Highway 91 were amazed by the town’s greenery, often describing it as a desert oasis. The London Planetrees in Santa Clara remain as a stunning fixture and as a reminder of the town’s historic unity.