The most famous tree in York County, at more than 300 years old, is fighting to survive

The most famous tree in York County looks only half alive.

Gone are the days when the American holly along the Susquehanna River stretched strong and stately some 65 feet tall.

The tree near the Indian Steps Museum has been photographed and documented for more than a century. Hand-written accounts claim it was a sapling alongside Native American fishing camps, primarily the Susquehannocks, more than 300 years ago.

Some have called it the largest holly north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

But those who run the museum along a winding, wooded road in Lower Chanceford Township worried that it might have to be cut down. It does look to be fighting for its life, once again.

The curious condition of a tree being barely held together

A few of its enormous, dense limbs have been sheared off by wind and ice storms. Its insides were once patched together with cement in an effort to stave off decay — wire and mesh still showing through the trunk in one cavity.

The tallest stretches of its trunk are dead wood.

And yet it’s not necessarily dying, after all.

That was the recent observation of Longwood Gardens arborist Scott Wade, who evaluated the tree that is about to give up its long reign as a state champion for size.

Wade visited Indian Steps in March to take cuttings from the holly in hopes of propagating it among the historical collection at Longwood.

His status report is that the tree is “changing” in old age.

Though lopsided in appearance, one side of it remains green and vibrant and is pushing new growth. Some pruning and propping could help this legend maintain, if not even recover to a point, Wade said.

And even if the main trunk of the tree is lost, the root system should continue to grow — evidenced by a pair of fast-sprouting shoots from the bottom of the trunk.

A natural wonder that ‘would be considered an antique’

An early, undated photo of people standing around the tree. The American holly tree, believed to be 350 years old, is part of the Indian Steps Museum along the Susquehanna River in Lower Chanceford Township.

It could begin over again, in a sense.

“It has so much great history to it. It’s been written about for a hundred years. Just its legacy is something that’s interesting. It draws people down here,” Wade said.

This holly has been listed among the Penn Charter Trees — any tree documented to have been alive when William Penn arrived to claim this territory in 1682. However, the tree has long been hollow — Wade pushed a stick through a crevice and out the other side — so its growth rings can never be counted.

That means its precise age may never be accurately determined.

Robert Bair, executive director of the York County Conservation Society, said he remembers the tree from a second-grade field trip to Indian Steps. He’s 60 now.

“It’s the sense of history. You can stand there and realize that this has been around with any of our parents, any of our grandparents,” he said. “You can’t feel that any other way. You can’t fathom it, almost.

“In another realm this would be considered an antique.”

The tree’s many lives

At some point, decades ago, the American holly tree was filled with cement to deal with its hollowing trunk. Certified arborist Scott Wade said the damage to the tree probably began when a branch peeled away. The American holly tree, believed to be 350 years old, is part of the Indian Steps Museum along the Susquehanna River in Lower Chanceford Township.
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The Indian Steps holly tree nearly came to end nearly a century ago.

In the early 1930s, the Pennsylvania Water and Power Company, which built the Holtwood Dam across the Susquehanna River, planned on removing the tree, according to the book, “75 Years of Conservation: The Story of the Conservation Society of York County.”

The Conservation Society reportedly petitioned PWP to save the tree, and it was granted.

It is a survivor from an era when nearly everything was clear-cut for timber, agriculture and tannins to make leather. Loggers even cleared those steep hills around Indian Steps that run headlong toward the river.

Arrowheads and tools have been found near the holly that are 10,000 years old, said Debbie Saylor, museum curator and research director. Native Americans associated the holly with courage and defense, often placing sprigs of it on their war shields.

As the holly grew, the Susquehannocks morphed into the Conestoga tribe. They moved to the Lancaster side of the river and eventually vanished in the 1700s.

“We know our predecessors were actually there,” Bair said. “It does give you a sense of connection, if you will. When folks go down to Indian Steps you you can feel that …”

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Written by Tom, All Things Arb Editor

Qualified Arborist/ Business owner now turned content producer for All Things Arb writing about anything and everything to do with the industry! Spiderjack user and DMM abuser.

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