BLOOMINGTON - During the past several months, the Japanese beetle, with its ability to defoliate trees, has unnerved many area homeowners. Yet this ravenous interloper is a mere nuisance when compared to the tree killer that reached these parts in the fall of 1948.
In mid-September of that year, Illinois Power Co. forester J.D. Barth broke the grim - though not entirely unexpected - news: Dutch elm disease had made its way to Bloomington.
That fall, elm trees in a five-block area east and south of the East Oakland-Gridley intersection were dead or dying. In an unmistakable sign of Dutch elm disease, the leaves of these apparently healthy trees wilted and fell in midsummer.
Before the outbreak, city officials in Bloomington and elsewhere favored American elms. This fast-growing, hardy elm variety was an ideal shade tree for urban areas, and when planted along both sides of a street, its braches would form a leafy tunnel. Unfortunately, Dutch elm disease proved lethal to this popular variety of elm.
The fungal disease, which is spread by the elm bark beetle, arrived from Europe to the United States in the late 1920s. It decimated elms in New England and then spread through the American South and Midwest.
Barth speculated the elm bark beetles had arrived in Bloomington by rail. By 1948, the disease had spread to most Illinois communities south of a line running from Danville to Bloomington to Peoria. After wreaking havoc, Dutch elm disease continued its march northward, finally reaching Chicago in the early 1960s.
Despite efforts to halt the disease by way of both spraying and tree removal, the scourge spread with startling ease through Bloomington. By September 1949, diseased trees were spotted at the corner of Chestnut and Center streets, the Fell Avenue Playground (today Fell Park) in Bloomington, and Division Street west of Main Street. The following spring, 16 elms at the intersection of Lee and Seminary streets were lost, reducing another well-shaded corner of Bloomington to a collection of stumps.
Perhaps the most depressing chapter of this story played out at Miller Park, where Dutch elm disease made its appearance in 1956. Before the disease, city officials estimated that half the park's 700-plus trees were elms.
Community groups also battled the disease, especially with replanting efforts. In the late 1950s, the Sertoma Club, led by Bloomington businessman Irving Tick, purchased hundreds of trees resistant to Dutch elm disease, including sycamores, silver maples and pin oaks. These trees were planted in Park Hill Cemetery, along Washington Street, Clinton Boulevard and throughout the area.
As expected, the losses increased as the disease spread over an increasingly wider area. By the summer of 1958, a tree specialist from the University of Illinois reported that in Bloomington alone there were 751 dead and 1,424 dying elms. And although the city was spending $30,000 a year on spraying and removal, it had lost more than 2,000 elms since the late 1940s, or about 25 percent of the city's estimated total of 8,000 elms.
The mortality rate for American elms in Bloomington and surrounding areas was extremely high, and it's not known if any of those 8,000 trees survived the inexorable spread of Dutch elm disease. Today in the Twin Cities, new and old disease-resistant varieties, such as the Chinese elm, are common, and even some smaller American elms can be seen along Constitution Trail. Unfortunately, Dutch elm disease never left, and to this day few local American elms ever reach full maturity.