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Living WWI Memorial marks its centennial

Sign: "Liberty Oaks - A Living Memorial to World War I Soldiers - This nine-mile chain of approximately 850 Red Oaks and bronze plaques bears the names of Cleveland area fallen soldiers - Dedicated May 1919"
Liberty Row sign in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, commemorating the local are lives lost during WWI. USDA Forest Service photo.

OHIO – Memorial Day marked the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Liberty Row Trees, a living memorial to honor WWI soldiers from the Cleveland area who lost their lives during the war. Planted along Rockefeller Parkway in Cleveland and winding nine miles southeast through Shaker Lakes in Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights, this stretch of red oak trees was dedicated in 1919 to honor the fallen soldiers.

Greater Cleveland was one of the first communities nationally to envision a multi-mile chain of trees as a memorial to fallen soldiers. This memorial followed the suggestion of American Forests Association Board Chairman Charles Lathrop Pack, who in November 1918 called for “a new form of monument – a memorial that lives.” American Legion posts, garden clubs, students and families who lost loved ones promoted this concept of planting trees as a memorial.

In Cleveland, coordinated efforts for the memorial began even before the Armistice to end the war was signed in November 1918. The project established reforestation as a conservation measure in a city that had been clear-cut throughout the Industrial Revolution and was in search of its original identity as the “Forest City.”

The memorial and the road were rededicated as Liberty Boulevard (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) on Memorial Day in 1919. Between 1919 and 1924, more than 800 oak trees were planted, each with a bronze plaque at its base engraved with the name of a fallen soldier.

Over the past 100 years, many of the oaks have died and some of the plaques have been lost or damaged, however, there have been several restoration efforts in recent years. In 2016, the City of Cleveland Heights installed three signs along North Park Boulevard to draw attention to this rich history. More recently, Holden Parks Trust has been replacing lost trees within the City of Cleveland city limits.

Members of the Sustainable Cleveland Forest City Working Group have initiated an inventory of the remaining Liberty Row Trees as part of their efforts to develop a Landmark Tree Program. Development of this program supports a key objective of the Cleveland Tree Plan, approved by the City of Cleveland in 2016.

In 2015, the City of Cleveland finalized the Cleveland Tree Plan, a comprehensive assessment of Cleveland's current urban forest and a unified strategy to reclaim the City's lost canopy (currently at 19 percent). The Plan used county-wide i-Tree urban tree canopy assessment data and analysis using several equity parameters to prioritize planting needs and outline various measures to rebuild Cleveland's urban tree canopy through partnerships and collaboration. This includes mitigating the impacts of canopy loss caused by the emerald ash borer which has killed nearly 7,000 mature ash trees in Cleveland’s public right of ways since 2014. The City of Cleveland has already removed 5,800 dead ash trees with more than a thousand remaining throughout the city.

The USDA Forest Service, State and Private Forestry continues to support the Sustainable Cleveland Forest City Working Group and the Cleveland Tree Plan through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative program. To date, and, in partnership with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Urban Forestry program, the city has planted 1,973 large caliper canopy trees and plans to plant 200 more this year to replace the dead ash removed through its ash replacement program.