Newburgh’s Balmville Tree, a Landmark of American History

The oldest Eastern cottonwood found anywhere was appreciated by presidents from Washington to FDR.

By Lynn Freehill-Maye

Among local trees that have captured the imagination, it’s hard to top the Balmville Tree. Walk, bike, or drive past it now, at the corner of River and Balmville roads in the Town of Newburgh, and it’s essentially a stump. But even at that, it’s huge. The “stump” is more than 15 feet high and 25 feet around — giving just a sense of the power it held for centuries at a key place and time of American history.

A vintage hand-colored postcard featuring the Balmville Tree. (Image: Newburgh
Free Library / New York State Heritage Digital Collections)

This tree overlooking the Hudson was the oldest Eastern cottonwood on record. In 1953, scientists dated the start of its growth to 1699. For perspective, Eastern cottonwoods are usually expected to live 75 years. This tree — which was only taken down in 2015 — lived for some 300.

The roads that meet at the spot were once at least two trails used by Indigenous people. It’s not clear whether native residents planted the tree or it sprung up naturally, but plenty of water there was said to have helped it grow.

Newburgh’s Colonial-era hamlet, Balmville, took its name from the tree. (Early on, it was believed to be a balm of Gilead tree, a different type of poplar than a cottonwood.)

Later, the range of U.S. presidents alone who admired it was mind-bending. When George Washington passed it on horseback around the time of the American Revolution, the tree was already at the end of its species’ expected natural life.

Early area settler Michael Demott operated a tavern near the tree during and after the Revolution. Patriots would likely have carried beer out to drink under the tree as they talked about taxes and revolution, Newburgh city historian Mary MacTamaney says. “People met in the shade of the tree even then, because by then it was a 50-year-old tree,” she says. “There are a million legends about it, but of course, it did not spring from George Washington’s riding crop, as I was told as a girl. It predates Washington, predates all of us.”

The Balmville Tree would live on to be admired by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The young Roosevelt would see it when visiting his Delano relatives, who lived nearby. In fact, FDR’s aunt, Annie Delano Hitch, helped organize a group that included the servants of the area’s big estates, the Heart and Hands Society. Its clubhouse was in the area, MacTamaney says, and members would’ve walked around the bend to the Balmville Tree for Bible classes or singings.

The Balmville Tree in 1900. (Photo: Courtesy Heather Henricksen-Georghiou / Newburgh Free Library)

For decades, people would process out to the grand old tree from the City of Newburgh weekly, and it was a popular destination for bike rides, including by Newburgh’s Wheelmen’s Club. “We would ride our bikes as far as the Balmville Tree. I remember it as kind of a destination,” MacTamaney says. “I know it was a day’s outing for a generation or two before me. My grandparents would go out to it in a carriage.”

In the 1970s, when there was talk of clearing the area for a highway, Margaret Mead and Pete Seeger were among the prominent advocates who rallied opposition to the plan.

The Wheelmen’s Club at the Balmville Tree, a popular cycle trip from Newburgh, circa 1894. (Photo: W.C. Peck / Newburgh Firemen’s Association)

By the early 1990s, it was almost axed. After a 45-foot branch fell from it, the Newburgh Town Council voted to cut down the tree. But another big furor was raised. Residents raised more than $15,000 and voted out multiple representatives who’d advocated for removing the tree. (And yes, Scenic Hudson offered to represent the tree in court.) Central Hudson Gas and Electric Corp. wound up shipping a steel column 20 inches thick from the Midwest to shore it up, and members of the electrical workers’ union volunteered to install it. 

In 2000, the Balmville Tree was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It was even made the smallest official State Forest.

State authorities finally removed most of it in 2015, saying its deterioration made it a hazard to anyone passing by — but they acknowledged taking it down “with great sadness.” When it was cut, the massive trunk revealed itself to be mostly hollow. The Balmville Tree gave and grew until it had nothing left.