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'Honking tree' near Two Harbors cut down

Many locals know the tree as the "honking tree." It's customary to honk when passing the tree after being gone for a long time. No one knows when the tradition started. (1989 file / News Tribune)1 / 2
"We will find who did this and prosecute them to the extent of the law," said John Bray, regional MNDOT spokesman, as he surveys the iconic "honking tree" that was cut down overnight by vandals. Someone from Two Harbors felt strongly about the tree and layed a wreath on the stump. (Bob King / / 2

The tall, lone white pine that has long stood in the grassy median of the Two Harbors expressway, welcoming people driving north to Two Harbors, was cut down by one or more vandals overnight.

"It was reported by a MnDOT worker this morning at 6:15," Lake County Sheriff's Department dispatcher John Brandt said. "He [the MnDOT employee] was driving up to work in Two Harbors here and drove past there. He said something didn't look right, so he turned back around. The tree was laying there. Someone had cut it down with a chainsaw."

North Shore resident Judy Miller feels terrible about the tree's demise.

"I'm just shocked," she said. "Why would anybody do that?

"It's just something you look for when you are going up to Two Harbors. It's one of those things you always expect just to be there."

Many locals know the tree as the "honking tree." It's customary to honk when passing the tree. No one knows when the tradition started.

Some Minnesota Department of Transportation officials know it as "Charlie's tree" for Charlie J. Hensley, who was chief inspector when the expressway was built in the 1960s. Hensley died in 1967.

"He used to sit there [under the tree] and have his lunch," MnDOT regional spokesman John Bray said. "He ordered the contractor to make sure that while the expressway was being built that that tree not be touched.

"In those days we tended to slash and burn -- it was clear cut everything," Bray said. "We didn't have the environmental ethics that we have today. But Charlie had it then. He cared about the environment before the environment was on the tongue of anybody."

Word of the tree's destruction spread quickly through Two Harbors. Mayor Randy Bolen mentioned it at an early morning downtown business association meeting. At the SuperOne store, employee Treasaigh Anderson was stunned by the news.

"It was a tradition for us to honk as we headed home," she said. "The kids would say we had to honk for each one of them as we went by. When I was a kid, whenever I saw that tree I knew I was almost home. I'm almost in tears."

Alicia Larson of Two Harbors stopped on the side of the road near the fallen tree, camera in hand.

"It's like a memorial, everyone knows that tree," she said. "It's been spray painted before but why would somebody just cut it down?"

Plans are already in the works for saving as much of the tree trunk as possible, in a way that will preserve it for the future.

"There are a lot of ideas floating around," said Steve Baublitz, the MnDOT employee who first reported the downed tree. One suggestion has been to carve it into an image to put on display. No decision has been reached yet, but Baublitz said that after the tree has been limbed on site, it will be hauled to a holding yard.

"We'll save as much of it as we can," Baublitz said. "It's probably 60 to 70 feet long, and we probably can't save all of that, but we'll do as much as we can."

MnDOT crews were waiting for the fog to lift this morning. Baublitzz said a driving lane would have to be closed temporarily in order to transport the trunk.

The pine, which stood about three miles south of Two Harbors near the Larsmont Road, was nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Trees, a list kept by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit American Forests.

This is not the first time that vandals cut down well-known pines along the North Shore. In October 1995 two men cut down two of the famous 200-year-old Gunflint Trail gateway white pines just north of Grand Marais. Rewards were offered, and a confidential informant turned in the men from Grand Marais and Tofte. A federal magistrate judge fined each man $750 and sentenced each to spend 40 hours planting trees for the U.S. Forest Service.

The men had each faced a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment and a $5,000 fine.

Anyone with information on who cut down the Two Harbors pine is asked to call the Lake County Sheriff's Office at (218) 834-8385.

Monica Isley of the Lake County News-Chronicle contributed to this report.