Lightining and Trees and Buildings Oh My!

Lightning destruction was not too uncommon throughout the University’s history. On several different occasions, campus buildings were directly hit by lighting and damaged pretty badly. A tower of Graham Chapel was shattered twice, one of the library towers was ruined, a chimney of the Lee dormitory building completely crumbled. Conveniently however, the towers of Brookings Hall were never under threat because the steel flag poles at the top were connected to the solid ground.


(image above: University (Brookings) Hall just after completion in circa 1903, but prior to tree planting)

No need to worry now, each building is required to have copper wire running to the ground to keep it safe from lightning. But before technological installments were made, the trees on campus actually provided some lightning protection. When the trees on campus were newly planted babies, they were too small for lightning to touch and the buildings were completely exposed. After the trees grew taller, the buildings were no longer the tallest objects in the area. Sure the trees probably got hit with their fair share of lightning, but the buildings stayed relatively more safe- which was by far more important.

Washington University first planted many of the trees on campus one hundred years ago — April 22, 1905 to be exact.   On that day, Dean Woodward presented his poem titled “What do we build when we build a ship” which included the verse, “What do we plant when we plant the tree?/We plant our love and loyalty”.  As cheesy as the poem might have been, I think he was onto something there. Planting trees is always a positive action, and even though we might not need trees for protection from lightning anymore, I definitely enjoy our beautiful trees that provide shade and fresh air.

(image above: Tree Planting participants, April 22, 1905)
Since the first tree planting in 1905, there have been many others in the past decades. In fact, Washington University’s Danforth Campus was named Tree Campus USA by the Arbor Day Foundation in 2011! Here is an article to learn more about this unique award:


(Image above: Certificate showing that R.B. Brinsmate, WU Class 1894, paid for a tree planted on campus in 1905.)

To research more documents such as this about 20th Century tree planting, check out the Washington University Tree Planting Collection, 1905-1935 at University Archives.



This post is part of an occasional series, marking the 110 year anniversary of the Danforth Campus’ first use for academic programs, in 1904-05.  Read more about the dedication events and first commencement ceremony, June 1905, in the Alumni Bulletin available in full text on-line.

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.