The Rope Swing Tree

-- By Joe Hage

Sycamore Islander, November 2002

I had heard of this rope swing even before I took this job on the island, but I soon realized that it was more than just a nuisance for attracting risk-taking revelers. This rope swing had become a thing of local legend. True, it's reputation as a place to drink and party was spreading to an increasingly bold and rowdy crowd but I also found as I talked to the many teenagers that would stream past the ferry landing that this had been a favorite swimming hole for at least two generations. During my first days here on the island I had heard it said, with no small sense of pride, that this was the best rope swing on the entire Potomac River. As I began to meet the members of the club I would hear stories about the first time they took their children up to challenge themselves on the swing or how they as children or even as adults had first swung from this magnificent tree.

I began this job in early August and as I ferried the members back and forth to the island in the sweltering heat I would look up stream and catch glimpses of the tree and the many kids swinging from it. I looked forward to the day when I would have my chance to try out the swing. Then tragedy struck. The inevitable accident at the swing had occurred. A seventeen-year old girl, having fun with her friends on a Saturday afternoon, had somehow gotten the rope caught between her legs as she sailed off the swing. The rope burned and ripped and cut her flesh and punctured the femoral artery in her leg. The emergency technicians were called and she was quickly taken to the hospital where she was helped to survive her trauma. Later that day the Park Police had the rope swing cut down.
That night I decided it was time for me to finally visit this tree that was the object of so much attention and the unwitting cause of so much pain. I was not prepared for what I found. Not only was I unprepared for the heavily blood stained clothes strewn along the base of the tree but I was also unprepared for the awesome size and beauty of this majestic tree. It was completely horizontal with only half it's roots holding it to the shore. Its trunk was half buried for twenty-five feet until it reached the bank where it jutted out powerfully over the river. Its massive, sculpted limbs arched and twisted out over the water until their tips were nearly one hundred feet from the shore. Even in the dim light of my headlamp I could see the brilliant white and soft, colorful hues so characteristic of these riverside trees. This tree was a natural phenomenon. I was not surprised that so many were drawn to it.

On September 10, 2002 this wonderful, and very healthy sycamore tree was unceremoniously cut down. I guess the fear of litigation forced the National Park Service to rid themselves of this possible liability. It is truly the end of an era. No longer can we appreciate its beauty and solitude in winter or it's thrill and challenge in summer. This tree lived for 170 years, witnessing the many moods of this historic river and also the many landmarks, good and bad, of our own brief history along it's banks. This tree was here long before the Sycamore Island Club was founded and will forever be a part of its history.