Bozeman’s Historic Street Trees

Courtney Kramer

April 24, 2015 is Arbor Day. What began as an initiative to plant soil-conserving windbreaks in Nebraska in 1872 has grown into an international effort to plant and maintain trees. The City’s Forestry Department is an important partner in preserving the feeling and setting of Bozeman’s historic districts by caring for the century-old trees lining the streets of Bozeman’s older parts of town.

Early photographs and drawings of Bozeman provide a lot of detail about our community’s development pattern. Pre-1900 images are especially revealing, because the lack of mature trees gave photographers a wide, unimpeded angle on the community’s streets and buildings. Early settlers used available cottonwood and pine trees as construction materials. Ash, aspen, alder and birch trees provided a ready fuel source for residential and commercial purposes.

Tree planting caught on as a valuable idea in the western plains states by the early 1880’s. The Daily Yellowstone Journal, published in Miles City Montana proved an early proponent of street trees in particular. With the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1882, Miles City experienced an uptick in growth in the 1880’s. The Yellowstone Journal prodded community members to think ahead and plant trees. “With wide streets and avenues, lined with firm shared trees, what can be more attractive?” wrote the Journal in December 1882. “It forms a retreat from the solar rays, and lowers the temperature greatly during the protracted heat of the summer months.”

By the late 1880’s, Denver and Salt Lake City offered the nearest examples of the influence street trees had on a community’s well being. “Salt Lake not many years ago was ugly and unsightly, but today it is one of the loveliest of cities,” wrote the Yellowstone Journal on Arbor Day 1887, then held in mid-May. “Its wonderful transformation from ugliness to beauty was brought about by tree planting… The trees not only have a beautifying effect but they have proved sanitarily beneficial in absorbing… many of the noxious vapors in the atmosphere.” They ended with a call to action: “There should be a tree planted on every street; on every spot where a tree will grow.”

Bozeman sent City Engineer C.M. Thorpe, to Great Falls in June 1905 to tour the city and review their process for funding streetscape construction. Thorpe sent a written report to the City Council on June 15, 1905, and noted “While they have nothing in the line of concrete walks and curbs, their system of parks and boulevards is magnificent… Long lines of streets 80 feet in width have been boulevarded… with elms set 30 feet apart in the center.”

Thorpe recommended that Bozeman follow the lead of Great Falls and Helena, which established a Special Improvement District (SID) to fund the building of sidewalk, curb, street grading and paving, as well as installation of topsoil in the boulevard between the curb and sidewalk, where clover, blue grass and street trees were planted. Once the City installed the improvements they converted the SID to a Maintenance District which charged an annual “maintenance” tax of $4.00-$5.00 per property to water and maintain the trees and grass. “I believe the only way we can ever obtain a uniform system of parking’s is for the city to do the grading and sow the grass seed, move and plant the trees and then maintain the improvement at the expense of the property,” wrote Thorpe.

Beginning in 1906, the City Engineer’s expenditure reports for the month of June included an annual expense to purchase and install new trees. Central Avenue, renamed Willson Avenue in 1922, received 500 shade trees from Jewell Nursery Co. and a cost of $383.65 in June 1906. The work continued the next year, at a cost of $67.65 for 204 new street trees along Central. The tree planting continued through the 1910’s. Carl Weidner noted that the Streets Department paid $14.37 for 160 new trees in 1911 ($.09 per tree!).

Planting trees was one thing; maintaining them another. Municipal officials of Paris, France, developed a pattern of staggering light posts between street trees and paid a crew to maintain the trees at a cost of $90,000 per year. Baltimore and New York City both developed tree maintenance divisions in the 1890’s to preserve existing street trees from damage. “The lower branches of street trees, owning to their natural tendency to drop and become obstructions, often have to be removed,” noted the Baltimore Sun newspaper in 1893. “Pruning, therefore, of street trees becomes a practical necessity, but butchering is not pruning.” Records indicate that the City of Bozeman usually tasked tree trimming to street maintenance crews, and occasionally contracted with an arborist to care for trees through the 1980’s.

New theories of residential subdivision design changed the engineering specifications for a City Street after World War II. Designers abandoned the rigid street and alley grid for a curvilinear street pattern that reflected the dominance of automobile transportation in the era. Bozeman’s Westridge subdivision, south of Kagy Boulevard and East of South 3rd Avenue, exemplifies post-war landscape planning, with curving streets and a lack of sidewalks and street trees. As car traffic and speed increased, transportation engineers began to perceive street trees as a threat to driver safety because they blocked lines of sight from behind the wheel of an automobile. Some transportation departments went so far as to prohibit the installation of new trees in any road right of way.

Appreciation for Bozeman’s street trees grew in the late 1980’s. In February 1990, the chair of Bozeman’s Beautification Board spoke to the City Commission about implementing an urban forestry project which would inventory trees in the community and develop a street tree planting program. The idea quickly gained widespread public support. That spring, the City Commission directed the City Attorney to prepare an ordinance which would enable the City to implement a city-wide street tree maintenance district to fund the planting of trees in public parks and rights-of-way.

On May 14, 1990, the City Commission introduced Ordinance 1311, which recognized among other things, “that trees benefit the community by stabilizing soil and preventing erosion and sedimentation; reducing stormwater runoff … aiding in the removal of carbon dioxide, screening noise pollution, protecting against severe weather and conserving energy by providing shade in the summer months… and generally protecting and enhancing the quality of life and the general welfare of the city.”

The Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the ordinance on June 4, 1990. In July, the Commission finalized the related resolution that enabled the new tree tax. In discussing the matter, City Commissioner Joe Frost noted the suggestion that the City hire an urban forester to protect and maintain the City’s investment, which was subsequently completed. The City’s Municipal Code now stipulates one street tree for every 50 linear feet along a City Street and levies fines for destruction of a tree based on the trees age and size.

The City predominantly planted ash trees in the early 20th century, though some American Elm, linden and maple trees can be found in the older area of town. The mono-culture of what is now Bozeman’s urban forest exposes our old trees to threats from invasive disease and pests like Dutch Elm Disease, the Emerald Borer and the Pine Beetle. The City’s Forestry Division routinely inspects and cares for trees in City Parks and boulevards in order to maintain our community’s investment. To that end, Bozeman has been designated a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation.

To spur installation of new street trees, the City offers a program which shares the cost of planting new street trees between the owner and the City. For more information please visit the City’s website  or call 406-582-3226.   

This was made by

Courtney Kramer

Courtney Kramer is a proud graduate of MSU’s History Department and serves as the City of Bozeman’s Historic Preservation Officer. She may be contacted at the City Planning Office, 406-582-2260 or via email at (at) bozeman [d0t] net,). More information about Bozeman’s historic districts is available at

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