347-Year-Old Tree Felled for Roof of Bryn Athyn Cathedral (1916)

treeringssm.jpgThe decision was made early on during the construction of Bryn Athyn Cathedral to have a solid timber roof in the nave and chancel rather than a stone vaulted one. Trees of sufficient size had to be found to provide the tie beams that would span the width. Although construction of the roof did not begin until 1915, the search for trees was already underway in the summer of 1913, in order to allow the wood to “be . . . properly seasoned before final working and placing . . . Southeastern Pennsylvania had at that time perhaps the finest growth of white oak trees on the continent. To find specimens . . . became a personal challenge for Raymond Pitcairn. Armed with camera and accompanied by members of the family and frequently by leaders of the Bryn Athyn congregation, he traveled miles in all directions.” 

The cut trees were brought to Isaac Ryan’s sawmill on the Neshaminy Creek where they were squared before being taken to the Cathedral. Ryan “caught the spirit of the undertaking, and for years made it his personal task to seek out the needed trees, conveying his discoveries to Pitcairn in letters that gave intricate directions for reaching the site over the maze of country roads, together with the announced date for felling (Glenn, E. Bruce. Bryn Athyn Cathedral: The Building of a Church. Bryn Athyn, PA: Bryn Athyn Church, 1971, 112).

Raymond Pitcairn wrote a two-page description of November 18, 1916, the day the oldest tree found by Ryan was felled. This document is located in the Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn Archives, Bryn Athyn, PA. A transcription of the text follows:


“On the eighteenth day of November 1916, Edwin Asplundh, Harry Bowman, Bishop N. D. Pendleton, Niel Acton, and I rode up to look at the largest tree which Mr. Ryan has yet found for us. Roy Wells drove the car up, going up Second Street Pike to Richboro, and then on to the “Anchor,” after reaching which we went a short distance further to a toll-gate and then took the first lane on the first road to the right. This is a distance of some twelve miles. I took my graphlex camera and my eight by ten. We arrived there about half-past two. The tree was in a small woods above a brook on the Sarah Matthews’ farm. On the farm were two old houses, a stone house built in 1732, and a log portion connected with the same house built at an earlier date.

“The tree had been almost sawn through when we arrived, and I immediately prepared to take photographs of it. Although this tree was the largest we have cut down, it was not as large at the base close to the roots as the first tree which we photographed with Ryan and me standing one on each side of the tree, and some weeks later when the same tree had been felled, photographed with Father [John Pitcairn], Bishop W. F. Pendleton, and me.

“While we were there a couple of old men, one of whom had lived on the farm, and later, after the tree had fallen, the lady who owned the farm, came out to see the tree.

“I took several photographs taken with my graphlex, and also with my eight by ten, of which latter Niel Acton made all but one or two of the exposures. One of the photographs taken with the graphlex was snapped while the tree was falling.

“When the tree had fallen we discovered that there was a large hive of bees seventy feet up, which from all appearances had lived there for years, and had accumulated a large amount of honey. We brought home a couple of combs.

“Unfortunately the tree had a soft spot in the center at the base, which will prevent our using it as one of the large tie beams. But we hope to get one of the curved struts out of it. Edwin Asplundh and I each counted the rings with the aid of pins, and our counts agreed within three years. The tree was 347 years old. A century older than any of the other trees which we have cut down. In view of a small hole, large enough to put in the tip of one’s little finger, which contained no rings it is probable that the tree was three and a half centuries old, but we did not count any rings that we could not see.

“After the tree had fallen we took a number of photographs and returned home.

“The size of the tree was not so great as compared with the other tree mentioned above in view of its age, owing apparently to the fact that it was growing upon the side of a hill where it would not get as much water as the other tree.

“The roar caused by the falling when many of the branches are broken, and all small trees in the path of the fall are completely smashed, was quite awe-inspiring, and it has always seemed an impressive occasion to me to see a tree felled in so short a time which has stood for so many years. This old tree was growing half a century before the settlement at Jamestown in the time of Queen Elizabeth, Bacon, and Shakespeare.”

(Handwritten on the first page of the document are the following notations: “Copy, Oldest Tree”; “See photos & lantern slides & use for a new talk on church.” Someone has also subtracted 350 from 1916 and written 1566.)

Photo: Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn Archives.

October 13, 2006 | Posted by: Kirsten Gyllenhaal in New Church History Fun Fact