Rio Grande Cottonwood R.I.P.

Historical Period: 20th Century (1900 & Later)
Historical Topic: Odds & Ends
County: Jeff Davis
Public Access: No longer applicable; tree is dead

For forty years the giant Rio Grande Cottonwood in Fort Davis reigned as a National Big Tree Champion. The pride and joy of Fort Davis, it was lost in 2011, a victim of the Rockhouse Fire—one in a long list of destructive wildfires that raged in Texas that year. The blaze ignited near Marfa on April 9, 2011, and was finally controlled on May 15, 2011. The fire was the result of a “perfect storm” of conditions. The state’s extensive drought combined with heavy winds and an electrical spark; it resulted in more than 314,000 acres burned. Homes and businesses were destroyed and livestock were killed, along with the longtime champion tree.

When last measured (a month before the fire) its statistics remained staggering: 364 inches in circumference, 82 feet tall, and an average crown spread of 115 feet. This gave it a Big Tree Index score of 475 points—a giant in this small West Texas town. Its great size awed the many visitors who stopped by to photograph, paint, or write about it over the years.

Cottonwoods have persevered in Texas for centuries. In the Davis Mountains State Park, near Fort Davis, aboriginal drawings were found on the trunks of cottonwood trees along Limpia Creek. The tree’s tough root wood was used by Native Americans to start fires, and early settlers used the logs for building stockades. Its popularity as a formidable windbreak has been unequalled. The state’s rivers long supported corridors of these magnificent trees, but agriculture and population growth—along with climate extremes—have severely hampered the state’s once plentiful aquatic resources. This riparian tree species is now often found only in fragmented creek habitats; spotting one that soars over 100 feet is becoming less common. Though large cottonwoods were once readily seen on the grounds of old Fort Davis, a frontier military post, and along Limpia Creek, the size of the Rio Grande Cottonwood put it in a class all its own.

TFS Forester Oscar Mestas inspected the tree after the wildfire, assessing its chances for survival. He wrote: “I’m standing underneath our national champion Rio Grande Cottonwood looking for signs of life, and it doesn’t look good. We lose a champion in this region every now and then to a variety of natural forces: lightning, wind, insects, disease or drought. But losing this big tree to this big wildfire is somehow more personal. I’ve had a long relationship with this champ in my career, and I’m sad to see that end. Goodbye, old friend . . . I’m glad to have known you!”

The Rio Grande Cottonwood was located on private property on the east side of Texas State Highway 17, about 2 miles north of Fort Davis.