Once New England had the greatest forests and the tallest trees in the world. They were a major attraction for English colonists and their sponsors, who coveted the huge white pines as masts for the King’s Royal Navy. The Crown reserved the biggest pine trees, which government agents marked with three slashes called the King’s Broad Arrow.
The laws protecting the trees for the King were honored more in the breach than in the observance. Pine trees became a symbol of resistance, and images of them appeared in flags.
Tall trees exercised a fascination over people apart from their political context. Societies formed to identify champion trees. And today, many states maintain registries of their tallest and biggest trees.
In 1940 a nonprofit called American Forests started the National Register of Big Trees and named the Wye Oak in Maryland as the national champion for more than 60 years. But measuring the tallest trees isn’t always an exact science, and most champions yield their place to new specimens. Either another tree grows taller or the champion is felled by disease, weather or real estate developers.
We did our best to identify the tallest tree in each state. But who knows? A storm could have felled it since it was last measured. If you know of a tree taller than the ones mentioned – or if any of those trees have fallen – please comment below.
Connecticut’s Gold Standard
The most famous tree in Connecticut, other than the Charter Oak, is the 104-foot-tall Pinchot Sycamore in Simsbury. It’s 28 feet around and at least 200 years old — if not 300 years old. It was named after Gifford Pinchot and officially dedicated to the conservationist in 1965.
The big old sycamore sits on the east bank of the Farmington River near the base of Talcott Mountain. Floodlights illuminate it at night, and canoers can launch their boats nearby. For a while the Pinchot Sycamore tied the largest sycamore with a specimen in Bath County, Virginia, until a bigger one in Ashland, Ohio, surpassed them both.
The Pinchot Sycamore, though, is not the tallest tree in Connecticut. That honor belongs to a 144.6-foot-tall white pine in a small forest in West Cornwall called Gold’s Pines, named after the man who purchased it in 1870, Theodore S. Gold. The forest grew to 46 acres, and then 56. It now belongs to the Housatonic State Forest as one of the few old growth forests in Connecticut.
“Here, even on the brightest of blue sky days, the gentle wind makes a thunderous noise as it passes through,” wrote one hiker who waxed elegiac about the canopy of the ancients.
You can reach Gold’s Pines on Rte. 128, just right of the Little Guild of St. Francis animal shelter. Gold’s Pines also boasts a 127.8-foot-tall Tulip tree.
Maine’s Unofficial Champ
There are no reliable height measurements in Maine available, according to the Monumental Tree index. Maine has its own registry of big trees, which it updates periodically but is considered unreliable. Maine residents nominate trees for the honor of appearing in the registry. The 120-foot white pine in Morrill is the unofficial tallest tree in Maine.
Maine, however, can claim the tallest chestnut tree in North America. The tree is 115-feet high, 20 feet higher than its closest competitor. Only a few dozen chestnut trees remain in Maine, as chestnut blight wiped out large stands of the trees from Maine to Georgia in the early 1900s.
The chestnut was discovered last year in a forest in Lovell, near the New Hampshire border. The forest was once part of an artist colony, Hewnoaks, founded by artist Douglas Volk (1856-1935) and his wife. Volk’s wife donated the property to the University of Maine Foundation.
Maine was once home to the largest Dutch elm tree, nicknamed Herbie. Planted in 1793 on Main Street in Yarmouth, Herbie grew to 110 feet tall with a circumference of 20 feet. Children watched some of its diseased limbs being cut off and cried, “What are you going to do to Herbie?”
Herbie finally succumbed to Dutch elm disease and fell to the ax and chainsaw on Jan. 19, 2010. A section of the trunk’s base was displayed at the 2010 Yarmouth Clam Festival. You can now see it outside Yarmouth’s town hall.
The tallest tree in Massachusetts has a name: Jake Swamp. It’s a 163.2-foot white pine in the Trees of Peace Grove in Mohawk Trail State Forest. The forest, located in Charlemont, Hawley, and Savoy, has 83 trees reaching 148 feet, the largest collection of tall white pines in New England. It was discovered by Robert Leverett, a big-tree hunter and co-author of The Sierra Club Guide to Ancient Forests of the Northeast.
In 1996 Leverett helped found the Eastern Native Tree Society. Its members search for old stands in remote places and for giant trees in parks and cemeteries. When Leverett discovered the tallest white pine in Massachusetts, he named it after Mohawk Chief Jake Swamp Tekaronianeken.
Jake Swamp founded the Tree of Peace Society in 1982. He traveled around the world planting Trees of Peace near places such as the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and Constitution Hall in Philadelphia. A year after his death in 2010, trees were planted around the world on October 18 on what would have been his 70th birthday. A Tree of Peace was planted in his honor in Huntington Park, Mass.
Reader Norman Schell personally measured another giant tree in Massachusetts: the Sycamore on Rte. 47 in the center of Sunderland. A sapling when the United States ratified the Constitution, it measures 32 feet in circumference. It is acknowledged as the oldest and largest Sycamore tree east of the Mississippi.
New Hampshire’s Skinny White Pine
The tallest tree in New Hampshire is a white pine measuring 166.1 feet tall on a private estate in Claremont. It was declared the new New England champion by the Native Tree Society. It’s a mystery to us who owns the estate, but if you’re in Claremont just look for a tall stand of white pines. The tallest one is ‘extraordinarily skinny,’ according to Robert Leverett, one of the men who measured it.
There were also extraordinarily tall white oaks in the Claremont stand. “The 115.2-foot white oak blew my mind,” wrote one big tree hunter. “The growing conditions have to be superb to support such a height for white oak so far north.”
Additionally, the Bradford Pines Natural Area in Bradford has trees over 200 years old and over 150 feet tall. Randy Redford believes they may be the tallest trees in New Hampshire, if not all of New England. They even have lightning rods on them.
A sugar maple in Ossipee was believed to be the biggest in New England until it fell in 1846. It yielded 3,300 board feet of lumber and nine cords of firewood.
According to legend, a pine cut on the site of Dartmouth College reached a height of 240 feet. But many doubt the species can grow so tall.
The Mighty Tulip
Several tulip trees have been identified as Rhode Island’s tallest tree.
According to the Cranston Herald, the tallest tree in Rhode Island is at 975 Warwick Neck Ave. in Warwick. The Rhode Island Champion Tree List of 2014 shows a Warwick tulip tree measuring 126 feet high as the tallest in the state.
The Native Tree Society, however, claims a 115.7-foot tulip tree on the ‘Nathaniel Green’ site in Kingston. They could be referring to the University of Rhode Island Campus.
The tulip tree has large flowers that sort of resemble tulips. Sometimes it’s called a tulip poplar or yellow poplar, but it’s actually related to the magnolia. Indians hollowed out its wood to make canoes from its light wood, and sometimes people refer to it as a canoewood tree.
Vermont’s White Pine
Vermont’s tallest tree is a 143.4-foot white pine in Arlington, according to the Eastern Native Tree Society. It’s tucked in among one of the state’s best collections of large-diameter white pines, the Fisher-Scott Memorial Pines Natural Area. There they are safe from development.
The Fisher-Scott Memorial Pines Natural Area was a 1975 gift to the state from the heirs of Vermont writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Fisher, a tireless social activist, promoted education and prison reform. Though originally from Lawrence, Kansas, Fisher adopted Vermont as her home state.
The Arlington property that is now a protected wildlife area served as Fisher’s writing retreat during a career that produced more than 40 books, both nonfiction and fiction (largely set in Vermont).
Vermont takes its champion trees seriously. The state keeps a registry of its biggest and tallest trees by town and species, from the Dwarf Chinkapin Oak in Bridport to a giant Cottonwood in Hubbardton. To check it out, click here.
You can visit the Fisher-Scott Memorial Pines Natural Area on Route 7A just north of Arlington.
Photos: Pinchot sycamore: By Msact at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48227856; Tulip tree: By Timothy Valentine – http://www.flickr.com/photos/el_ramon/3583585898/in/set-72157614131871676/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6945589; White pine bough, By DigbyDalton – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28948041. This story about the tallest trees in New England was updated in 2020.