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More About the 1962 National Christmas Tree from the San Juan National Forest

By Mike Rosso

Last month’s issue contained an article about the National Christmas Tree, which was felled near Silver Creek in Chaffee County in 1962, and shipped to Washington D.C. to be displayed before thousands at a lighting ceremony outside the White House. Since publishing that article, more was learned about the tree and the dedication sign that was erected in the early 2000s at the site of its removal.

The first tree chosen for the honor came from the Cottonwood Creek area west of Buena Vista. It was an 85-foot blue spruce. Sadly, as it was being loaded by crane onto a truck, a cable holding the tree snapped and the tree fell to the ground, damaging many branches on one side. A decision was made to fell a new tree, the one found near Silver Creek.

That tree, also a blue spruce, stood 76 feet tall and was estimated to be 100 years old. Its diameter at the base was 25.5 inches. It was cut down by the Whitman Timber Co. of Poncha Springs, and trimmed to 72 feet before being loaded onto a truck bound for Salida.

The Held family, posing on the stump of the first National Christmas Tree in the early 1960s.

The original Forest Service road, which led to the tree site, was closed earlier this century and little remains of it today. A bridge across Silver Creek was shored up by Chaffee County employees to support the 40-ton crane used to load the tree onto a flatbed trailer. Two smaller trees were also cut down from the San Juan National Forest, one for each of President Kennedy’s two children, Caroline and John, Jr.

On Wednesday, November 14, 1962, an official ceremony for the tree was held at the Salida depot freight house. Attendees included the Buena Vista Boy Scout color guard, the Salida High School marching band, Salida Mayor Edward Touber, Buena Vista Mayor Frank Harrington and representatives of Senator Gordon Allot, the railroad, the U.S. Forest Service, members of the Tree for Peace committee and many others. Chaffee County stores and businesses were required to close from three to four p.m. for the observance.

The tree then began a 2,000 mile journey on two railroad flatcars to D.C., and ceremonies were held along the tree’s route in Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Denver. It was accompanied on its trek by then Salida District Forest Ranger Jack Wolfe, and arrived in D.C. on December 5 where it was dedicated by President Kennedy on December 17, a year and five days before his assassination in Dallas, Texas. The dedication ceremony was broadcast on all three television networks.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, when then U.S. Forest District Ranger Charlie Medina assigned employee Jim Dickson to find the stump remains of the tree. They posted an announcement in the local newspaper seeking information on the tree, and received a response from John Held, then Salida superintendent of schools, and his wife Mary. They had photos of themselves from the 1960s, posing with their children on the stump.

With photos in hand, Dickson set off with Martin Gliver, then a forest field technician with the San Juan National Forest, to find the stump. They were assisted by Sam Schroeder, assistant resource manager at that time, who helped determine the size of the tree based on the Helds’ photos. Using those photos, they were able to determine landmarks which contained clues to the trees location, and discovered a stump which was likely that of the National Tree.

Dickson placed a stake to mark the spot, and they brought John Held to the location to confirm it. It was shortly afterwards that Roy Thompson and Bob Davis were assigned to construct a sign dedicating the tree, and to cap the stump with cement.

The sign and cement cap are still in place along Silver Creek.