Time Machine: Thousands of the stately shade trees were lost in Cedar Rapids

This 1968 photo shows the canopy of American elms over Second Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids before Dutch elm disease killed the trees. The city would lose 9,160 of the elms before the disease abated in the mid-1970s.
This 1968 photo shows the canopy of American elms over Second Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids before Dutch elm disease killed the trees. The city would lose 9,160 of the elms before the disease abated in the mid-1970s.

Scientists from Iowa State College in Ames appeared before the Cedar Rapids City Council in June 1955 with a dire warning.

Cedar Rapids had more than 50,000 elms lining its streets and shading its parks. All were threatened by the advancement of a beetle-carrying fungus called Dutch elm disease.

The disease, first recorded in Holland in 1918, hit North America in 1928 in a shipment of logs and slowly advanced across the continent, killing thousands of American or white elms.

Once a tree began to show signs of the disease, it was too late to save it. The only option was to prevent the spread of the fungus.

After several thousand elms had been infected in neighboring Illinois, Parks Commissioner Richard Jones and City Arborist Elmer Delaney brought the Iowa State experts to Cedar Rapids to offer advice on how to save the city’s trees.

Forest pathologist H.S. McNabb Jr. urged city officials to start a control program that involved cutting out dead branches and trees, keeping watch for diseased elms and treating elms with DDT, a pesticide, twice a year.


The first sign that the disease had crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa was found in Fort Madison in July 1957.


By 1961, all of the river cities were affected, as well as Iowa City, Waterloo and Des Moines, but no diseased trees had been found in Cedar Rapids.

Parks Commissioner Don Gardner said, though, it was inevitable. The beetle that carried the disease, Scolytus multistriatus, was already in the city, he said.

By 1963, Dutch elm disease was evident in northwest Cedar Rapids.

Arborist Bob Gardner thought the source of the disease could be traced to a huge dead elm in the 700 block of Second Street NW. By the time city officials knew about it, it was already dead.

Testing began in trees throughout the city, and 179 cases were found on public property.

The recently closed landfill south of Jones Park Golf Course, intended for expansion of the course, was used as a place to burn the infected trees and branches.


Coralville and Iowa City had identified the source of infection in those cities as a small island in the Iowa River between Coralville and Iowa City’s Rocky Shore Drive. Action was delayed because no one knew which jurisdiction was responsible for the island or if it was under the control of the county. By 1969, Iowa City had lost half the 4,200 elms on city-owned property, with losses on private property even greater.

Marion had no forestry program in 1963. The city decided to establish one that year and initiate a Dutch elm program.

The Linn County parks system was hard hit. The 2,400 acres of county parkland contained 800 acres of bottomland timber, most of it elm.

No attempt to control the disease was made because the heavy equipment needed to treat the trees could not get into those areas in the spring to spray. Conservationists also were concerned about the effect of the chemicals on wildlife. (DDT would be banned in 1972.)


In Cedar Rapids, Dutch elm continued to spread. The city lost 129 elms in 1964 and 231 in 1965.


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As if a tree-killing disease weren’t enough, a tornado passed through May 26, 1965, killing a thousand trees of all species.

The city continued its burning of dead elms and its spraying, but hundreds more trees were infected by 1966. Gardner revealed 208 trees had tested positive for the fatal disease and 130 more were so badly infected that no tests were necessary.

Stately trees throughout the city — many of the more than 50 years old — soon bore markings that identified them as infected and in line for removal.

Entomologists noted that when a diseased tree was cut down, its healthy neighbor soon showed signs of disease. That was attributed to the grafting of root systems, and a plan to sever interlocking root systems was implemented.


By the end of October 1966, 764 cases of Dutch elm were confirmed in Cedar Rapids’ privately owned trees and 585 cases on city-owned property.

As more scientific effort was applied to the problem, observers discovered woodpeckers were helpful. Elm branches weakened by the disease drew the colorful birds, who feasted on the beetle larvae. After they had done so, the branches took on a yellowish/orange color, alerting tree crews to diseased branches they might otherwise have missed.

The main method of control, however, was removing and destroying dying elm branches to prevent the beetles from spreading the fungus.

In the end, nothing worked. By mid-1967, more than 1,200 trees were reported as diseased. City crews continued to disrupt root grafting with Vapam, a soil sterilant.


By 1969 scientists at Iowa State University and Cornell University in New York were working on a disease resistant elm. Michigan State was breeding tiny wasps that fed on the elm-bark beetle larvae, and University of Wisconsin scientists were studying what attracted the beetles to elms.

In 1969, a tree planting program began to replace the lost elms.


By the time the disease had abated in the mid-1970s, hundreds of thousands of elms had died in Iowa — 9,160 of them in Cedar Rapids. The tree planting program replaced 8,000 of them in the city.

In 1977, the “tree dump” on C Street SW closed. Eventually, it would be used for the back nine at the Jones Park Golf Course. The city Forestry Department made plans to plant 700 trees in Cedar Rapids that year. Half went to the northwest quadrant where the scourge began.

Sadly, a majority of the replacements were ash trees, a species that is now being decimated by the emerald ash borer.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com



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