The Historic Empress Tree
 
The gnarled remnant of a once-elegant flowering tree remains standing on the grounds of the Amtrak station at the foot of Harris Avenue.  Its presence memorializes the former site of Pacific American Fisheries, a once thriving anchor to the economy of the Fairhaven district of Bellingham.

Paulownia tomentosa, or Empress tree, is native to western and central China.  It is named for Anna Pavlovna of Russia who reigned as queen consort to King William II of the Netherlands in the nineteenth century.

Why was the Empress Tree planted on Harris Avenue?  It's location on Harris Avenue and 4th Street is the former Pacific American Fisheries salmon processing facility.  The PAF  was heavily reliant on the cheap labor of their Chinese workers, as were many such industries up and down the West Coast.                   
2019 Photo by John Koenig
 
The tree was a gift from Goon Dip, a successful Chinese entrepreneur and diplomat who managed the labor contract for this cannery and many of the others in the Northwest.  The tree was presented to E.B. Deming, the manager of Pacific American Fisheries, who contracted with Goon Dip to provide the labor necessary for the profitable operation of this facility.  Their association began in 1909 and evolved from strictly business into a personal friendship of mutual respect.  Deming was a pallbearer at Goon Dips Seattle funeral in 1933. 
 
 
 
Fire on Sept. 1934 at Pacific American Fisheries offices at 4th and Harris
Empress Tree is the larger tree on left.  

Photo by J.W. Sandison
Whatcom Museum #1996.10.12993 from the Gordon Tweit Collection
 
How old is the tree?  It is not definite, but a series of Bellingham Herald articles helps to narrow down the date. 

May 21, 1931:   "Down at the PAF there is a tree a-bloom with purple.”  

Spring 2019 photo by John Koenig
Fairhaven Empress Tree Still Blooms


A 1941 article reported that 30 years earlier,  PAF gardener Rockwell H. Thomas, planted a small tree on the grounds of PAF and that the "big Empress tree is one of the few monuments left to the memory of his love of nature’s handiwork.”  Gardener Thomas worked for PAF from 1913 until his death in 1928.

The May 23,1962 edition had an interview and photo of PAF employee,  Mrs. Wes Geiger, in front of the tree and wrote that the tree was presented to PAF in 1908.  
 
A Herald column of September 22, 1968, cites historian Galen Biery maintaining that it was planted sometime between 1913 and 1918 based on photographs in his collection.  The article reports that World War I rallies were held next to the tree.
 
The Sandison photo from the Whatcom Museum depicts an April 1918 flag raising event showing two saplings at this location.  (circled).   See close up right.




In 1976, a small group of citizens created an informal "Save Our Empress Tree Committee” over fear that the Port of Bellingham, the new owners of the PAF property, would remove the tree.  A typo in the article of July 11, 1976, describes the tree as being 6 instead of 60 years old which would place the date the tree was planted  at 1916. 
 
Perhaps the closest guess is that the Empress tree arrived in Fairhaven on March 28, 1916.  The Herald reported on that day that Goon Dip was in Bellingham waiting for dignitaries from China to arrive by boat.  While there is no reporting yet found about the ceremony presenting the tree to E.B. Deming, it is highly likely the Fairhaven Empress tree arrived with the dignitaries on that date. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Photo courtesy Wing Luke Asian Museum



The existence of the Fairhaven empress tree before WWI makes it perhaps the oldest empress tree in the United States.  According to the Monumental Trees inventory list, it may also be one of the three oldest empress trees in the world.   
  The world's oldest empress tree on the inventory at Villa Massari in Ferrara, Italy; planted in 1890 give or take 20 years.  The Netherlands and Belgium are claiming their trees were planted in 1910, give or take 5 years.   

The current plaque which indicates the tree was presented to PAF in 1935 hopefully will soon be updated with this new information.   
 

 

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