Driving East along Highway 1 through Surrey you may have spotted what used to be a tree, now covered in ivy, a Canadian flag, and sometimes a sign or two. Ever since I was little, and we would drive out to my grandmother’s house in Langley, we would pass this tree and I wondered — was it a memorial? What made this tree special? Turns out, it’s Charlie’s Tree.
Many decades ago Charlie [Perkins] and four of his chums used to splash and play in a small swimming hole near that tree. All five went into battle when the First World War began. Only Charlie, a flight instructor with the Royal Flying Corps, returned. As a remembrance of his friends he planted ivy around the base of the tree and dedicated it to the memory of his friends.
Then, in 1960, Highway 1 began to be built through Surrey. Its proposed route would put it right through the little glade Charlie had cleared. The memorial tree would have to go. Charlie, now a senior citizen, protested, and friends and neighbors joined him in that protest. They were heard by Highways Minister Phil Gaglardi, and the highway engineers curved the road to go around the tree.
This is perhaps the only instance in Canadian history where a major highway was diverted to avoid harming a tree. You can see the bend in the road to the right of the eastbound lanes of the Trans-Canada between the 176th Street and 200th Street exits. [Source: KnowBC, Chuck Davis]
Charlie’s bold act to save a 210 foot Douglas Fir changed the course of the Trans Canada Highway as we know it.
When plans were announced for the Trans-Canada Highway (now Highway 1), Charlie learned it was set to run right through his property – and the area including the tree. A fight began to save it.
“Dad started to get the community up and support him to save the tree,” said Larry. “With a lot of letter-writing and support from friends and neighbours, he finally contacted ‘Flying’ Phil Gaglardi, head of the highways department. I recall being there when he came out. Dad and I and he walked down the skid road to the base of the tree and dad explained the whole story.
“He just took a look at the map they had and said, ‘Well, we’ll just go around it.’ And they did. And that was that.” [Source: Amy Reid, Surrey Now]
In 2005, MP Nina Grewal (Fleetwood – Port Kells) began a campaign to get Charlie’s Tree recognized as a National Historic site.
@Miss604 Two views of the tree from September, 1964. pic.twitter.com/e3x1W3hT
— Heritage Surrey (@HeritageSurrey) July 11, 2012
Charlie’s Tree doesn’t look much like a tree anymore as vandals set fire to it years ago and as a result, it was topped. However, every year the Whalley Legion places a wreath at the tree and recently a sign that reads “Charlie’s Tree” has been added. Some leave flowers, flags, or other tokens near the site. Next time you drive by, just East of the 176th exit, you can think of our veterans, cherish your friends, and remember Charlie.
Thanks to Alex for emailing me about Charlie’s Tree and to Antonio for letting me use his photo in this post. Read more local history stories here.
Charlie’s Tree Falls
Update: A very sad update, July 31, 2016: Charlie’s Tree has fallen.
Breaking: Charlie's Tree (memorial to Canadian soldiers) has fallen on HWY 1 in #SurreyBC. pic.twitter.com/E7lOleowr4
— Bruce Claggett (@BruceClaggett) July 31, 2016
At 8:47pm on July 30, 2016, DriveBC reported “#BCHwy1 tree down across eastbound lanes at #192nd, left and HOV lanes open.” It is indeed Charlie’s Tree.
Update: August 2, 2016: Charlie’s family will be replanting the ivy from the tree, reports The Now.
Cloverdale’s Mike Perkins was struck with sadness when he got the news that his grandfather’s First World War memorial tree fell over on the weekend.
But he said his grandfather, veteran Charlie Perkins, would’ve had a positive spirit about it.
“My grandfather was a realist,” Mike told the Now Tuesday. “If he was still alive he’d say, ‘That’s just nature doing its thing.’ He was a naturalist long before the term really existed.”
Time will tell what becomes of the site, said Mike, but he’s encouraged by the community support since the tree fell.
A Replacement for Charlie’s Tree
Update November 2016: It has been announced that in the coming weeks, a permanent stone replacement for Charlie’s Tree will be put in place. From News 1130:
“The replacement at this point will actually be a stone marker,” says Fleetwood-Port Kells MP Ken Hardie.
Hardie says Perkins’ family has worked closely with the family of former premier Bill Vander Zalm to design it and build the new tribute.
“They wanted to create a stone marker that will be put up at the site. This could be within the next few weeks that everything is put in place. I’m sitting here looking at a draft design that will be carved into a stone.”
Since the tree toppled, due to natural causes, the site has remained intact, with signs, crosses, flowers, and the tree stump. I’ll post an update when news of the design and/or installation is revealed.