Life of a Tree: The West Chop pitch pine

The pitch pine finds the sandy soils of Martha's Vineyard perfectly suited to its needs. — Sam Moore

This is the second in a series of articles that will describe unique and old trees across Martha’s Vineyard — one tree for each town (March 9, “The Quansoo oak”). Each article relates the natural history of the tree to historical events that the tree has witnessed.

Tall as a schooner’s mast, this pine tree grows in the sandy soil of West Chop Woods in Vineyard Haven. It is a pitch pine, and its scientific name is Pinus rigida. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the range of the pitch pine extends from the mountains of northern Georgia to southern Maine. Across most of this area, the pitch pine sprouts mostly upon the thin, droughty soils of the rocky ridge tops.

However, on Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, and in the pine barrens of New Jersey, the pitch pine finds the sandy soils of these areas perfectly suited to its needs. On Martha’s Vineyard, pitch pine grows in profusion, on both the hilly moraine and on the flat outwash plains. One may distinguish the pitch pine from the white pine by the needles. The needles of each pine grow in a cluster known as a fascicle. The pitch pine has fascicles of three needles; the white pine has fascicles of five. On larger trees, the bark of the pitch pines turns a rich brown in color, and the bark splits into thick, rough scales and plates.

The name of the pitch pine attests to its usefulness. The tree exudes resin. In his classic text, “A Natural History of North American Trees,” Donald Culross Peattie describes the “strong, sweet pitchy odor” of the pitch pine groves, and illustrates the many practical uses of this resinous tree. From the tree, one may create pitch, turpentine, rosin, and tar.

At the Pennywise Preserve on Martha’s Vineyard, the name of the Tar Kiln Road ancient way testifies to the forgotten practice of extracting tar from the pitch pine. In a June 2015 article for Northern Woodlands magazine, “Yankee Tarheels: Remembering the Pitch Pine Industry of Colonial America,” Emery Gluck describes the process of collecting tar from pitch pines. Tar burners would stack the logs, cover the pile with earth, light a fire, and tend the kiln while allowing the fire to slowly burn. Tar would seep out of the burning wood, drip into a trench below, and flow into barrels set at the bottom of a pit. The tar was used on land and at sea. Tar greased the axles of wagons and preserved the fibers of ropes used for rigging. When tar was hardened into pitch, the pitch would caulk the seams and seal the boards on wooden sailing ships. The resinous wood of the pitch pine resists rot. Steve Ewing of Aquamarine in Edgartown builds some of his docks and boardwalks out of pitch pine.

No tree is better suited for life on an Atlantic island. Burn it? The thick bark resists flames. If killed, the tree sprouts from its stump. Some pitch pinecones are sealed up, and release their seeds only when they have been burned. The pitch pine has strong, stout limbs, and will take a crooked, windfirm form if grown in open sun and amid strong winds. The seeds germinate anywhere there is sun and bare soil — a sunny scrape on the side of the trail is all it needs.

The West Chop pitch pine grows at West Chop Woods in Vineyard Haven. West Chop Woods is a 90-acre forest that lies between Main Street and Franklin Street, and the land is a Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation conservation area. The pitch pine that is the subject of this article grows between the yellow trail and the right-of-way for the power lines.

Lofty and tall, the West Chop pitch pine is one of many at West Chop Woods, yet its stature and girth make it noticeable. The tree measures 17 inches in diameter, and it is approximately 50 feet tall. Two cores of the tree revealed that the tree is at least 80 years old, and it may be over 100 years old. The tree grows straight from the ground to its crown, and the trunk has no forks or crooks until the lower branches. Clear of branches for the bottom two-thirds of its stem, it looks as if it has been professionally pruned. If felled and sawn, it would yield fine, knot-free lumber on some of its boards.

The tree dominates the shorter pitch pines and black oaks next to it. Huckleberries, greenbrier vines, and poison ivy make a green tangle at its base. This tree has more space around it than many of the others do. The extra space has allowed the West Chop pitch pine to grasp more sunlight and drink more water than most trees, helping it attain the eye-catching stature that it enjoys today.

The only serious threat facing pitch pines on Martha’s Vineyard is the southern pine beetle. Unfortunately, the southern pine beetle has been found here on the Island. The UMass Amherst Center for Food, Agriculture, and the Environment reported this spring that last year, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation had found southern pine beetles in traps on Martha’s Vineyard. The department had not, however, observed any signs of infestation or any trees killed by this beetle.

Timeline: About 1908
The West Chop Lighthouse had been in operation since 1891, and in 1892 the Massachusetts legislature divided the town of Tisbury into two separate towns, Tisbury and West Tisbury. Steamships still docked at the wharf on West Chop, out near the West Chop flagpole. The West Chop pitch pine began its life as a windblown seed. The seed blew out of a pinecone in a nearby tree, wafted about in the breeze, and came to rest on a bare patch of sandy soil in the woods. The seed germinated, and the little tree took root. The little pitch pine grew quite slowly at first, growing just about an inch each year.

With no advance warning, the great Hurricane of 1938 swept up the East Coast of the United States, destroying much in its path. A 2013 Martha’s Vineyard Times article by Bonnie Stacy explored the storm’s impact on Martha’s Vineyard. Josephine Clark, a cook for a Chilmark family, drowned when she was swept away by waters that had flooded the house of the family for whom she worked. Everett Allen recalled that the Vineyard Haven streets were “flooded to depths of two or three feet, and the harbor-front lawns were strewn with boats and wreckage.” By 1938, the West Chop pitch pine was a sapling about five feet high. In the spring it had produced vigorous “candles” of new growth at the end of each branch, including its rapidly growing top branch, or leader. Its limber stem blew about in the storm, but the tree did not snap. The toppling of other, unfortunate trees around the West Chop pitch pine proved fortuitous, as next year the surviving tree had even more sunlight and water to itself.

The West Chop Land Trust granted an easement to the Cape and Vineyard Electric Co. to bring the power lines across West Chop Woods. A swath of trees was cut just to the west of the West Chop pitch pine. According to the 1977 book “The Island Steamers,” by Paul Morris and Joseph Morin, in 1942 there were three steamboats serving the Island: the New Bedford, the Naushon, and the Martha’s Vineyard. That year, the U.S. Navy requisitioned the New Bedford and the Naushon for war service. While steaming across the Atlantic, three ships in their convoy were struck by German torpedoes and sank, but the New Bedford and Naushon survived the journey and their service. The West Chop pitch pine was growing vigorously, reaching for the sun, and striving to be taller than its neighbors. It grew perhaps a foot or more per year at this time, and was now taller than the tallest man in Vineyard Haven. Each spring it formed new pine cones, and the new pine cones were purple and tender and smaller than a baby’s finger. In 1944 another major hurricane struck. This one sank the Coast Guard lightship Vineyard in Buzzard’s Bay. The West Chop pitch pine weathered this storm as well, and continued its upward growth the next year.

The ferry Islander had been faithfully serving Martha’s Vineyard and Vineyard Haven since 1950, but a vessel arrived in 1964 that made itself the very signature of the Vineyard Haven Harbor. Launched in South Bristol, Maine, and skippered by Captain Bob Douglas, the schooner Shenandoah sailed into Vineyard Haven Harbor. Since then, the Shenandoah’s two raked masts have been a welcoming sight to all those returning to the Island. The year 1964 marked the end of a flush four-year run for the West Chop pitch pine. The tree was perhaps 30 feet tall, and each year in the early 1960s it added a fat ring of wood. If one could snap off a lower branch, one would find drops of sticky, clear sap quickly oozing to the surface of the honey-colored wood.

Franklin Q. Brown and Dudley B.W. Brown gave West Chop Woods to the Nature Conservancy, which then gave the land to Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation. This gift was followed by gifts of land from Edward and Jane Douglas in 1977 and Walker Lewis in 1984. Conserving West Chop Woods forever protected what David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest, has determined to be one of the remaining tracts of ancient forest on the Island.

Ross Gannon and Nat Benjamin established the Gannon and Benjamin boatyard and marine railway on Vineyard Haven Harbor. According to the book “Schooner” by Alison Shaw and Tom Dunlop, the first boat launched by Gannon and Benjamin was the Daisy May, a 25-foot canvasback sloop built for James Taylor. The West Chop pitch pine was now just shy of a foot in diameter. The tree exuded resin. The lower branches were well out of reach, and this tree, through growing in the woods without any care from anyone, had self-pruned all of its lower branches.

The West Chop pitch pine still grows in height and girth. On a foggy morning in Vineyard Haven, one may hear the Nobska foghorn and the steamship whistles, stand beside the trunk of this stately tree, and gaze up at the radiating sprays of needles, dark against a cloudy sky, high aloft.

Adam Moore is executive director of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, and a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry.