New Hampshire has long been renown for its picturesque birch trees. Most often I think of these tall, pale, and often slightly bent trees in a scene combined with a mountain or a crystal blue lake in the background, reminiscent of tourist brochures.
The so-called Wizard Tree of Intervale, New Hampshire (a village partly in the towns of Conway and Bartlett) was unusual in its appearance, and by 1904 became one of the most frequently photographed and promoted trees in New Hampshire. How did that come to be? And where is it now?
Although it appears that the tree itself was known as early as the 1870’s I give initial credit for this tree’s fame to Nathaniel Paine, who in 1892, captured on photographic media an unusual and gnarly white birch tree in Intervale, New Hampshire, calling it “White Birch Tree (The Wizard)” [see directly below].At the same time, a (probably) local newspaper printed the following article, “The shy dryads of the Cathedral Woods of Intervale have been completely routed by the invasion of the summer guests who daily stroll along the cool brown carpeted paths of the wood enjoying the quiet and solemnity of Cathedral Aisle, where formerly Henry Ward Beecher held divine services, or gazing with curiosity upon the huge “Serpentine Birch” whose gnarled and twisted limbs wave ghost-like in the midst of the wilderness of pines, and whose truck is scarred by the initials of many generations. Like the other large resorts, Intervale has added this year to its many attractions by the introduction of golf grounds which have been laid out in the Beautiful intervale facing Mount Washington and in front of the Intervale House, from whose piazza the entire course can be seen.” The photographer, Nathaniel Paine, was the son of Gardiner & Emily (Baker) Paine, born 6 August 1832 in Worcester MA. He was active in his native city, both in the banking industry, and in preserving the artifacts of history. He donated many artifacts to the American Antiquarian Society. He was interested in genealogy writing extensively on the Paine family. In addition he was an amateur photographer, who preserved historic locations, sadly now mostly disappeared, for future generations, including that of the ‘Wizard Tree’ shown above.
A better known photograph was taken in 1900 by a photographer for the Detroit Photographic Company. The original was in a crisp black and white, and a colorized version of it can be found here (see right). It was the beginning of a golden age of tourism for the White Mountains, and those who were able to make the journey at first by horse-drawn coach, and later by automobile, were awed by the lovely scenes.
Apparently the tree stood amid a forest of lovely tall white birch trees sometimes called “Cathedral Woods.” The fact that the tree was large and gnarly as opposed to its tall, spindly birch neighbors would make it stick out from the crowed. (Any of the local rocks, trees, and brooks that were in any way interesting were being given lively and tourist-friendly names).
The book, Guide to Paths in the White Mountains and Adjacent Regions, by Appalachian Mountain Club, 1920, offers this for the origin of a path going by Wizard Tree: “Intervale Path. This path was built by Mr. Jacob Washburn and his sons Arthur and Donald in 1908, and is maintained by Mr. Washburn….the path begins at the Intervale railroad station, leads through the Cathedral Woods, past the Wizard Birch, across the road and along the Pt. Surprise Path to a fork in the path opposite a large beech tree (sign)….” The 1909 Applachia magazine (Volume 12, page 89) of the Appalachian Mountain club reports: “Mr. Jacob Washburn of New York, who spent the summer at Intervale, has constructed a trail from Intervale Park to the summit of Bartlett Mountain via Rattlesnake Ledge.”
As late as 1938 this tree was still being promoted in various New Hampshire travel guides, the last as such: “At the Intervale railroad station, is the junction with the Intervale Path. Left on this trail to the gracefully arched Cathedral Woods, and to the Wizard Birch, to ML Bartlett, 1 m., and to ML Pequawket, 3.7 m.” A 1931 AMC White Mountain Guide describes
Intervale Path as “shady except across the ledges, has easy grades and good views. It is well marked by signs, cairns and white paint, and is in good condition.The path begins at the Intervale railroad station, leads through the Cathedral Woods, past the Wizard Birch, across the road and along the Mt. Surprise Path to….”
Several recent sources state that the Wizard Tree no longer exists. The American Antiquarian web site states, “the Wizard Birch, under which Henry Ward Beecher preached in the 1870s to throngs of White Mountain tourists, no longer stands.” There must still be inquiries about it, because the Bartlett Historical Society has a statement on their web site saying the tree “has not been standing since around 1948.” My research shows that advertising of this well-known tree ceased about 1938, a year that was eventful for New Hampshire. The Hurricane of 1938 was a horribly destructive force in the state including the White Mountain Region, downing or damaging thousands of trees.
At any rate, the curious tree by several accounts no longer exists. In the place where it used to spread its gnarly branches is a housing development. In fact as early as 1883 developers had their eye on the lovely location of Intervale Park. And so Intervale’s Wizard Tree and Cathedral Woods passes into ancient memory.
Ours shall be the moonrise stealing
Through the birches ivory-white;
Ours shall be the mystic healing
Of the velvet-footed night.
Ours shall be the gypsy winding
Of the path with violets blue,
Ours at last the wizard finding
Of the land where dreams come true.
-Lucy Maud Montgomery
That Gnarly Birch Tree – Flickr photographs of other ‘Wizard” trees