CLEVELAND — For decades, the Weeping Willow at Edgewater Park has been a source of shade for family picnics, the star of memorable photos and the perfect spot where a monumental event can take place, like an engagement, as was the case for Emily Bacha.
“I think the willow tree at Edgewater is Cleveland's most beloved tree. Everyone talks about it as their tree,” said Bacha, communications director for the Ohio Environmental Council, who has memories of the tree since childhood that continued through adulthood when her husband proposed to her beneath it on a sunny September Sunday morning in 2018.
The Weeping Willow at Edgewater is probably the most famous tree in Cleveland, but when I started asking questions about it, I learned its origins are as shrouded as its canopy.
The tree's roots
On Aug. 5, 1940, the future of Edgewater Park for generations to come was secured with the passage of Ordinance No. 1422-40 by Cleveland City Council. This ordinance was significant because it gave the approval for the development of "Lower Edgewater" by way of what is called landfilling, the same method used to create Burke Lakefront Airport.
Chuck Mocsiran, Chief Archivist for the City of Cleveland, enthusiastically combed through three decades of archives to aid in my search for this tree's roots. He said documents detailing adopted resolutions say that the land between the Yacht Club and Edgewater Park was created by using the method of landfill— extending shoreline by approximately 36 acres with excess sand and dirt from the straightening of the Cuyahoga River.
“During this time of transition, it even became notorious as a dumping ground, where people would just come by and dump stuff,” he said, referring to a time when a man confessed to dumping a woman’s body on the site. “It was a massive dumping ground in the city, which actually gave what they called scavenger contracts to companies to come and pick up all the stuff that people were dumping all over the place."
Landfilling was used as a way to artificially expand parkland in areas where acquiring additional land might be complicated by existing development.
In my search, I also enlisted Terry Mater, a librarian at the Cleveland Public Library, who told me, “Since buying additional parkland isn't always cost-effective, Cleveland has historically used landfilling to expand into the lake, often using construction debris and river dredgings."
The aerial map below shows the before and after photos of Lakeshore extension.
And with the land expansion came trees, including the Weeping Willow. Even with the extensive documentation detailing the development of Edgewater Park, little is known about the age of the tree, or who deserves credit for planting what's become an iconic piece of Cleveland's shoreline.
I spoke with historians, urban foresters, librarians and researchers (I was determined, you guys) about the Weeping Willow. No one had a definitive answer about who planted the tree, but they agree it dates back to the 1950s after the extension of the shoreline was completed to extend Edgewater Park and made room for the Memorial Shoreway, which opened to traffic in 1954.
Based on the timeline and location of the tree, one theory is that no one planted it. It propagated from a branch that washed up on the beach after a storm.
“Sixty to a hundred years ago, a big summer storm blew through, broke a branch of an old willow in somebody’s yard, got washed down into the lake and the storm blew it up on to the shore and started growing,” hypothesized Alan Siewert, an urban forester for ODNR’s Division of Forestry. “This is just speculation, but it’s fun to think about how many different ways it could have gotten there.”
At the time the tree was likely rooted, the city of Cleveland owned the land. It was transferred in 1978 to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which managed it until 2013, when the Cleveland Metroparks agreed to a 99-year lease to manage the lakefront, including Edgewater Park, and transformed the park into a green retreat, just a glance away from the city.
A Cleveland Metroparks historian estimates the tree is about 50 to 60 years old, originating sometime between 1953 and 1958.
In the hunt to find more about the mysterious tree, two photographs from the Cleveland Memory Project, both 10 years apart, supported the belief held by local researchers that the tree was planted in the early 50s.
One photograph of a mock invasion drill at Edgewater Park dated July 20, 1959 revealed a shrub-like tree in the same spot as where the Weeping Willow stands today.
Ten years later, Mayor Carl Stokes and Utilities Director Ben S. Stefanksi, both of whom are credited for passing bonds to clean up the river and make Edgewater safe for children, are seen talking to children while the willow appears again in the background.
“I mean we can’t be positive, but I believe that’s the start of it [the Weeping Willow] in the background of both those photographs,” Mocsiran said.
Fast forward to more than 10 years later, and the Weeping Willow, again, appears in the background in a photograph of where the Cleveland Script sign now stands.
An immigrant city
Fittingly, a city that’s a melting pot for different cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds is also home to non-native trees like the Weeping Willow, where it’s thrived in almost every condition imaginable on the shore of Lake Erie.
Native to China, Weeping Willows usually live between 50 to 100 years, with other factors such as the environment and preventive measures like pruning determining its longevity. But forestry experts like Siewert say that because storms off the lake can cause the top of the tree to blow off, it could be retrenching it, a good thing for trees.
“Now it’s able to hunker down without the weight of the top branches. Maybe the environment that this [the Weeping Willow] is in is what is causing this tree to be able to be longer lived,” Siewert said.
A landscape that reflects us
Like Cleveland, this tree has seen the good and the bad, and those who discover it are delighted and surprised.
Bacha remembers going down to Edgewater as a kid and seeing the tree near the break wall—a sight she wouldn’t have guessed would become a habit. She and her husband, who also works in the environmental field, walk down to the park every day from their home in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.
“We’ve talked about the grit and resilience of this tree in that we know Cleveland winters are harsh and Cleveland summers can be harsh, and the winds off the lake can be fierce, and to see it surviving, well, says something,” Bacha said. "Our hope is to continue to track the growth of the tree each year on or around our anniversary."
Mocsiran, 55, grew up in Detroit-Shoreway, and he remembers the Weeping Willow as mature in size, even as a kid. Its presence is a connection to childhood for many, a reminder that no matter what is thrown at you, it remains planted in the very place, accident or not, that it was meant to be in.
“We feel them [trees]. We take them [trees] for granted," said Siewert. "They have such a huge impact. You know, we go to the park, we sit in the shade, but we don’t know why we park in the shade. And so, here’s this big tree that’s been there for years. And I’ll guarantee you that there’s been hundreds of thousands of picnics taken underneath that tree and no one’s noticed why. It’s just a nice spot. They can’t figure out why—it’s the tree.”
Do you have a memory or photo of the weeping willow you'd like to share? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The historical facts in this article were gathered from ClevelandMemoryProject.org, Cleveland City Archivist Chuck Mocsiran, The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Forestry Division, Cleveland Metroparks, The Plain Dealer Archives, Western Reserve Historical Society, The Ohio Environmental Council, the Western Reserve Land Conservancy and the Cleveland Public Library.