LONGWOOD — There the Senator stood in Spring Hammock, magnificent and sublime, rooted long before Jesus of Nazareth and even Keith Richards. The bald cypress has been around, some say, for 3,500 years, maybe the oldest of its kind in North America, and the fifth oldest in the world. It was a landmark and lookout for Seminole Indians, then a canopy for early picnicking Floridians, then a tourist attraction as the state filled with people and their things.
But early Monday, before sunrise, a motorist on General Hutchinson Parkway noticed the sky above Big Tree Park was blazing orange and phoned 911. Firefighters rushed out and pulled hoses through the swamp and found the stately old cypress ablaze.
A new crop of pilgrims came Monday, and then again on Tuesday, those who, in better days, carved initials into its bark or broke bread at its base or posed for photos next to the giant. They wanted to lay eyes on the charred remains of the Senator's trunk, poking toward the sky like big black fingers. So many showed up that the Seminole County Sheriff's Office closed the park to the public until things calmed down. One man, an arborist, wept openly.
Outside the park, someone planted a handmade sign:
REST IN PEACE
Others placed store-bought flowers around the sign, plants for a grand plant.
"I'm devastated," said Jeff Gormly, 54, who pedaled over Tuesday morning to say goodbye. "I came to grieve and cry."
"It's a big loss for everyone," said Cliff Frazier, spokesman for the state's division of forestry. "It can't be replaced."
In its final days, the tree measured 118 feet tall, shortened from 165 feet by a hurricane in 1925, four years before President Calvin Coolidge stood at its base, full of admiration. Its diameter measured 17 1/2 feet, and its circumference, 425 inches. It contains some 3,781 cubic feet of wood.
The tree was once visible from the St. Johns River, 8 miles away, and tree climbers in recent years have said they could see downtown Orlando from its branches. It bloomed purple blossoms in the spring and grew green, needlelike leaves.
It would have been a national champion cypress, but was bested by a comparable 1,500-year-old tree at Cat Island Swamp in Louisiana. The Senator had to settle for undisputed state champion as the biggest cypress.
It came by its name in the 1920s when state Sen. M.O. Overstreet donated several acres around the tree to Seminole County. During Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, the Works Progress Administration spent $9,000 to build a pathway to the tree, pulling the country out of the Great Depression one board at a time.
Despite the rise of Disney down the road, the tree continued to draw a respectable number of visitors, several hundred thousand a year. Jeff Gormly remembers his dad dropping 25 cents a trip to bear witness to the fissured bark and old gnarly limbs. He remembers being amazed at its volume and structure. He came back years later to make a documentary film.
"People are naturally attracted to places and objects that give them a sense of history," said Charlie Marcus, state coordinator for American Forests' big tree program. "I think when the historical object of their focus happens to be a living organism, such as a tree, I think that attraction is naturally enhanced."
Investigators for the division of forestry are trying to determine what sparked the blaze. They have not ruled out arson, but the park was locked and foul play seems unlikely. Other theories include a lightning strike days ago, spontaneous combustion, and friction caused by rubbing branches.
"Everything at this point is speculation," said Seminole County Fire Rescue spokesman Steve Wright.
In the coming days, foresters will head out to measure three smaller cypresses — one in Oleta River State Park and two in Hamilton County, near the Suwannee River — to determine a new state champion.
The memorial service for the Senator will continue indefinitely.
Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.