The last time Riverhead Town wanted to tear down the historic white oak on the corner of North Wading River Road and Wading River Manor Road in Wading River, a group of residents urged the town to reconsider.
Their effort nearly four years ago was in vain, as the town highway superintendent, citing the hazard the tree’s long limbs posed to drivers, ordered it trimmed down. On Thursday, Riverhead highway crews finished the job, tearing down what remained of the dead tree that some arborists said had stood since before the American Revolution. A small group of those same protestors stood nearby and watched, taking photos and bemoaning the death of the tree.
Joyce Wood, whose property contained the tree, said her family has been in her home since the 1950s; the tree was always there.
“It hurts,” Ms. Wood said, watching stoically with her arms crossed as the crews pulled and sawed the tree’s trunk apart. “It hurts.”
Most of the limbs on the tree were originally cut down in 2012, after Riverhead Highway Superintendent George “Gio” Woodson said the tree — which leaned over the roadway — posed a danger to drivers.
Mr. Woodson said he didn’t want to cut down historic trees, but noted the inside was rotted and that two arborists he had spoken had determined the tree was a hazard. The trunk that remained after the initial cutting was soon deemed an “eyesore” by some, said Sid Bail, president of the Wading River Civic Association.
“It was a shame,” he said.
The rest of the tree was not immediately torn down because of local legend that claims a mile marker supposedly left by Benjamin Franklin had been engulfed by the tree and lied within its trunk, Mr. Bail said. On Thursday, crews took care to trim away bits of the trunk, digging through the dirt looking for a stone marker.
“We’re down to the nitty gritty,” Mr. Bail said. “We’re going to test this urban legend.”
The crews pulled down the trunk and began cutting into the tree. Then — about half an hour into the demolition — a hit. A highway crewman pulled out a broken piece of stone. Then another and another. But the rocks bore no markings.
Jane Alcorn, a local resident and past president of the Wading River Historical Society, said it wasn’t clear whether the chunks of stone were the fabled mile markers or whether they were part of a nearby stone wall the tree had overgrown.
Still, she was hopeful.
“I wouldn’t discount it,” she said. “Sometimes history surprises you.”
Mr. Bail said he will have experts take a look at the stone pieces to validate whether they were mile markers.
With the artifacts removed, highway crews began hauling away pieces of the tree. A bulldozer smashed into the trunk, attempting to break it apart. As it backed up, the bucket caught on the old, dead wood and a piece of the edge tore away.
“The tree’s putting up a fight,” Ms. Alcorn joked.
“Its revenge for all the cars that crashed into it,” highway worker J.R. Renten added.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted J.R. Renten and Jane Alcorn. Their comments have since been corrected. The News-Review regrets the error.