Clear Creek State Forest, PA: Searching for American Chestnut   Edward Frank
  Oct 07, 2005 19:55 PDT 
Clear Creek State Forest, PA: Searching for American Chestnut

A famous poem, The Village Blacksmith (1841), by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow begins:

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;

The days of the spreading chestnut in the Eastern United States are gone. A fungal chestnut blight entered this country in New York City in 1904. By the 1920's the disease had spread across the range of the Chestnut and by the 1950's the American Chestnut was all but extinct across its entire range. Formerly it had grown throughout eastern United States with its area of predominance running down a belt including New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and adjacent areas of adjoining states. In some forests the American Chestnut made up at least 25% of the forest cover. Today it is virtually gone.

These thoughts rolled through my mind as headed to Clear Creek State Forest in west central Pennsylvania on a mission to measure two American Chestnut trees actively producing nuts. Generally the remnants of the trees are simply shrub sized bushes grown from roots still living underground. These chestnut sprouts are uncommon. Even less commonly the chestnut reaches tree sized, and rarely do they reach reproductive maturity before succumbing to the blight.   The location for these two trees were given to me by Gary Gilmore, a PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Forestry, Service Forester for this region. He is also active with the American Chestnut Foundation. He wrote, "Last Tuesday, we climbed these trees and harvested about 300 nuts from each one. These nuts will then be used in the research to develop blight resistant trees."

I was anxious to see them as we have few American Chestnuts in our Eastern Native Tree Society database. The tallest reported in Pennsylvania is located in Cook Forest State Park at a height of only 75 feet. It was measured a couple months ago by Carl Harting and was also producing chestnuts. Gary had emailed me GPS coordinates pulled from a GIS layer, but hadn't verified them in the field. I translated the numbers to the degrees and minutes with decimal format used by my GPS unit and was off. The first tree was reported to be located along a gas line road near the top of a hill amidst a patch of blueberries. I drove past the turn-off to the next road and had to turn around and head back to find the gas line road entrance. I followed the directions and drove up the road the estimated distance. I am glad I have good ground clearance in my Tracker. I stopped and got out, and there was the tree. I was within 15 feet of its location - excellent directions. I took GPS coordinates and then measured the tree. I had a several good locations to measure the top of the tree along the road. The bottom was obscured by blueberry bushes. I propped a stick against the trunk and measured the top of the tree and the top of the stick and calculated the height, and then added the length of the stick to the base of the tree.

Lyle Summit #2 American Chestnut
cbh 46"
height 62.2 feet

Lyle Summit #2 American Chestnut

Top of Lyle Summit #2 American Chestnut.  A few nuts are still visible.

From here I drove down to the next dirt road and headed up it a short distance to the next tree. It is actually on the same ridge about 1,700 feet from the first tree. I started out following my GPS unit as it ticked off numbers. Then of course, the batteries in the unit died. I cut across through the woods back to the Tracker. I came across a couple smaller 30 foot-range chestnuts along the way. With new batteries found rummaging in my glove compartment, I was off to find the tree. The GPS coordinates I had been given were pretty good. The tree was on the far side of a wire exclusion fence. It was obviously bigger than the first tree I had visited. It was difficult to find a good spot to see the top, but I finally found a good spot to read. I measured the height from this one vantage point through the trees along the trail.There was a pass through in the fence some distance back, but I didn't feel like walking that far. I didn't want to damage the fence by trying to climb it. I am a relatively thin guy, so I found a place to squeeze under the fence. Sliding under a stretched fence on your back was rough enough, without the prickly chestnut shell digging into my back as I slid. Anyway I made it. I measured the GPS location and the circumference of the tree. The tree was 51.75 inches cbh - over four feet around!   The results were:

Lyle Summit #1
cbh 51.75"
height 71.98 feet (rounds to 72.0 feet)

Lyle Summit #1 American Chestnut 

Both of these trees appeared to be healthy. I did not see signs of blight, but as I am not an expert I could have missed them.

chestbark3.jpg (66218 bytes) 

Bark on the lower section of the Lyle Summit #2 chestnut.  The lower section of Lyle Summit #1 was similar in texture.

chestbark4.jpg (60752 bytes)

Smoother bark about 10 feet up the Lyle Summit #1 American Chestnut.

In anticipation of finding these trees I had been busy on the internet. The current National Champion Tree (American Forest list) is in Washington State. It is a planted tree outside the range of the blight. The figures for it are as follows:

American Chestnut Castanea dentata
Location: Washougal, WA
Circumference: 242 inches
Height: 77 feet
Spread: 77 feet
Points: 338
Most Recent Measurement: 2004
Nominator/s: Robert Van Pelt and Michael Dunn

This tree isn't that tall, but the impressive girth makes it the National Champ. It is comparable in girth and height to the large white oak on Lencer Drive just north of Cook Forest that Carl Harting and I measured last month.

In the Eastern US the tallest in the listing, not including Carl Harting's recent finds at Cook Forest, was in Massachusetts:

66.3'       2' 11.0"   Mass.    Mt. Everett (0.4 mi. southeast of summit), Mt. Everett State Reservation, Berkshire Co. Leverett & Wessels 5/26/02

On the ENTS website is a photo of a tree climber in an American Chestnut

It reads :A recent climb for the American Chestnut Foundation. The climber (Mike Riley, an employee) is ascending to do the pollination. I had bagged the female flowers two weeks earlier. He is nearing 40' up in this beautiful chestnut in Ashe County, NC which may stand 60' tall. It is about 5 feet in girth and in nearly perfect health. It has small non-lethal (yet?) cankers only in narrow branch bark ridges. I will try to get a photo of the impressive trunk of this tree. It is so smooth the bark looks very much like young black birch or cherry. Photo by Will Blozan.

A number of historical accounts of large chestnuts are listed in "Great Eastern Trees Past and Present" by Colby Rucker (2004)

These accounts tell of a number of trees with great girths. One listing stated: "North Carolina: American Chestnut. Joseph S. Illick stated that a chestnut at Francis Cove, near Waynesville, Haywood County, had a trunk diameter of seventeen feet. This is considered the greatest known diameter of any eastern hardwood." Several other accounts described trees in the 8 to 12 foot diameter range. None of them talk about great height. The tallest height mentioned in any of these accounts was 75 feet.

Information on the American Chestnut Foundation website suggest that some chestnuts grew limb free up to 50 feet and reached heights of 100 feet. But no height numbers are given for any specific trees:

"And the trees could be giants. In virgin forests throughout their range, mature chestnuts averaged up to five feet in diameter and up to one hundred feet tall. Many specimens of eight to ten feet in diameter were recorded, and there were rumors of trees bigger still.... The tree was one of the best for timber. It grew straight and often branch-free for 50 feet. Loggers tell of loading entire railroad cars with boards cut from just one tree. Straight-grained, lighter in weight than oak and more easily worked, chestnut was as rot resistant as redwood. It was used for virtually everything - telegraph poles, railroad ties, shingles, paneling, fine furniture, musical instruments, even pulp and plywood. "

The American Chestnut Foundation is working to produce a blight resistant strain of chestnut by hybridizing American Chestnut with resistant Chinese Chestnut, and then back breeding the cross to retain the characteristics of the American Chestnut, along with the resistance of the Chinese variety. I wonder what the tallest American Chestnut is that they have found?

I can't find any reliable data (or even unreliable data) indicating the height chestnut would reach in the past. It is interesting that all of the American chestnut trees of reproductive size today are relatively short. Other tree species 80 years old may have reached 150 feet tall. Many of the tall trees from GSMNP are secondary growth from timbering operations 70- 80 years ago...

A nice overview of the history of the Chestnut and the blight is available as a PDF file from Penn State: It is about 870kb in size and worth the download. The size potential described in this 4 page pdf file is essentially that the American Chestnut can reach 100 feet or more in height.

Another organization involved in trying to re-establish American chestnuts is the American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation The American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation is trying to breed a resistant chestnut using only American Chestnut strains and perhaps augmenting this with other biological controls.

I believe we can find American Chestnut in the 80 foot range at least somewhere in the Central Pennsylvania area. There are many living smaller chestnut trees. We also have found several, producing nuts, in the 60's and 70's in this area. An account of another chestnut tree measured in the west-central PA was published on the ENTS site last year: Tree dimensions were: cbh 3.9 feet, height 62 feet.

Scott Wade reported on an American Chestnut tree damaged by climbing by a deer hunter with spikes in southeastern PA: The tree dimensions were: 2'6 cbh x 64.1' tall with a 29' spread

So I am optimistic taller ones can be found. We just need to concentrate on finding them. I will post photos to accompany this trip report to the website.

Ed Frank

RE: Clear Creek State Forest, PA: Searching for American Chestnut   Will Blozan
  Oct 08, 2005 09:23 PDT 

Great synopsis! I did a study in the Smokies to determine how old the living
chestnuts were. They ranged in size from 2" to 16" diameter. All were 39-42
years old in 1995. I fully expect a tree in the Smokies over 60' but have
not yet measured any.

I have photos of a fallen tree I found in Greenbrier, TN GRSM that was 22'
in girth and 125' tall to the discernable top. With bark and sapwood the
tree would probably have been close to 25' in girth and over 130' tall.

Will B
RE: Clear Creek State Forest: American Chestnut    Edward Frank
   Oct 11, 2005 18:03 PDT 


I posted a couple questions to Gary Gilmore about the American Chestnuts I
measured last week. He was part of the team that collected chestnuts from
the tree in late September. Here are his comments:


1) I found the two chestnuts. I will be doing a write up in the next
couple days. I am wondering if these were trees you had pollinated and
bagged earlier in the year?

Reply: "No, we were unable to access the top of the tree until this year at
harvest time."

2) Was the tree producing any viable chestnuts without artificial
pollination? Yes.

Reply, "There are other chestnuts around and the pollen must travel far.
The problem we had getting nuts was due to the tree's perchance for the bur
to open on the tree allowing the nuts to drop. Once they hit the ground,
they are snatched up by rodents and gone."

4) To what degree do you think any potential regrowth of native American
Chestnuts with some resistance to the blight is limited
by their being so spread out that pollination is difficult?

Reply, "As long as they get pollinated, I don't think there is a problem.
The basic question is can the progeny from these trees live as long ro
longer than their parent? That is one reason we are so anxious to get their
"kids" to grow."

5) The GPS coordinates were within a few feet of the numbers you gave me.

Reply, "Great, These were taken awhile ago but glad they worked out. GPS is
really something!!!! Thanks for the "official readings"

Ed Frank and Gary Gilmore
RE: Clear Creek State Forest: American Chestnut   Carl Harting
  Oct 11, 2005 18:39 PDT 


I think we should plan a measuring trip to the proposed Chestnut Ridge
Wilderness Area in the northern section of the Allegheny National Forest
next Spring. I've read that there's been good Chestnut regeneration in
that area, so maybe we'll find some tall ones. Hopefully we can get
some information about which part of the area contains the best trees,
because it's big (about 5000 acres).

Re: Clear Creek State Forest, PA: Searching for American Chestnut   Jess Riddle
  Oct 11, 2005 18:56 PDT 

Hi Ed,

Thanks for the summary of American chestnut finds, and the
measurements of the new trees. Judging from what you listed, American
chestnut now fairs better in the Northeast than in the southern
Appalachians. The only 70'+ chestnut I've ever seen, a 76' tree on
Shortoff Mountain near Highlands NC, died a few years after being

By coincidence, last Sunday I measured the largest American chestnut I
know of in north Georgia. The tree grows next to a Forest Service
road on a ridge top at approximately 3200' elevation. The tree is
severely infected with the blight, but continues to survive and
produce fruit. After some dieback, the tree stands at 43.9' tall with
a circumference of 4'2" at 2.25' above the ground. At bh, the trunk
is distorted by cankers.

Jess Riddle