If you’re traveling south from Baltimore on I-95, glance to your right as you cross the I-695 Beltway and you’ll see the huge canopy of a white oak tree, standing nearly 70 feet tall and dwarfing its neighbors. This is the Arbutus Oak, a sentinel on this patch of land for well over 300 years.
The old oak, named for the nearby community of Arbutus, was just a little acorn’s sapling at the end of the 17th century, and it marks the spot where (as the story goes) General Lafayette and his troops passed by in 1781 on their way to battle the British at Elkton during the American Revolution.
It’s a lonesome giant, one that sparks the imagination, and if you catch it in just the right light, backlit by the setting sun on a late spring evening, it dances like a painting. It’s made it through three centuries, but its survival hasn’t always been guaranteed. By the 1950s, although the tree had stood on what was private property since the late 1600s, that land came under the ownership of the U.S. Highway Department. Today, the historic tree is trapped by ribbons of highway concrete, in the middle of one of the busiest interchanges along the I-95 corridor.
As the route for the new I-95 was being excavated, construction workers found a treasure trove of Native American artifacts around the tree. Like other large oaks in North America, it was thought that this one may have served as a gathering place for early native peoples, and a decision was made to realign the ramp from the outer loop of the Beltway to I-95, in order to save the tree.
The tree was spared, but more trouble did strike in 2002 when a bolt of lightning took away some of its height and a good deal of its crown. Luckily the magnificent Arbutus Oak made it through, to keep on going into another century.