Surrey History: Charlie’s Tree

Comments 53 by Rebecca Bollwitt

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.

Charlie’s Tree

Charlie's Tree
Photo courtesy of Antonio @ Vendramin’s Views.

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.

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.

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.

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53 Comments  —  Comments Are Closed

  1. TracyWednesday, July 11th, 2012 — 9:45am PDT

    I’ve driven by that twice a day for years and always wondered what it represented. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Roberta NeilsonWednesday, July 11th, 2012 — 11:19am PDT

    Thanks for sharing this local piece of history!

  3. John Douglas BelshawWednesday, July 11th, 2012 — 12:01pm PDT

    The fight to save Charlie’s Tree had two other consequences, both difficult to substantiate but highly plausible. First, it created a focus for an embryonic environmental movement in the Lower Mainland. People who questioned the mantra of progress viewed the Tree as a symbol and rallying point. No Charlie’s Tree, no Greenpeace? Probably too much to assume, but there’s a connection in the people involved and influenced. Second, the tree became exactly what the Highways Dept feared it would: an obstacle. As we document in Private Grief, Public Mourning, the killer fogs of the 1960s made for poor driving conditions and the tree was repeatedly hit. Fatalities occured.
    Thanks for digging this one out of the archives!


  4. LisaWednesday, July 11th, 2012 — 8:51pm PDT

    Thanks for writing this!!

  5. JenThursday, July 12th, 2012 — 2:54pm PDT

    What a great story!

  6. Daman BeattyFriday, July 13th, 2012 — 9:27am PDT

    Rebecca I love your Surrey history profiles! I can see you’re a major history buff like me 🙂

  7. WinnaMonday, November 19th, 2012 — 6:45pm PST

    I remember that tree, when we would travel east along the highway to anywhere our trip home was almost over when we would see the tree. It was the becon to us that we would soon be home. I hope that it has that same meaning for others, but most important the rememberance to those that fought for our country. ~Å~

  8. DennisFriday, February 15th, 2013 — 3:17pm PST

    50 years of wondering, now I know! Always wanted to stop and check it out. To bad there isn’t a safe place to stop there. Let’s get a rest area built there. Thanks for your time and caring to post this story

  9. JeanSaturday, February 16th, 2013 — 11:16am PST

    We were just talking about this yesterday, as we passed by! as a child , I remember asking my Dad about it, but really wasnt sure what it was.. yesterday we saw the new bright wreaths,and sign.. ! thank you for sharing this ! now we can share with our children, and I love the old photos!

  10. Richard SaundersWednesday, May 22nd, 2013 — 9:19pm PDT

    Thanks for sharing! Had noticed the “Charlie’s Tree” sign a few months ago on a drive by & had made a note to Google & find out what it was all about. Just did that now — thank you Charlie Perkins for contributing to Canadian heritage and freedom of choice. Definitely a different age now in the iApple world compared to the WW1 era. It’s hokey tapping on a tablet sreen but thanks to ALL Canadian Veterans for the service you have given! Charlie Perkins is a good example of someone who cared.

    Richard Saunders
    Prince George B.C.

  11. Susan HubbardMonday, September 30th, 2013 — 6:41pm PDT

    Like many others I have seen this tree on the side of the highway ever since I can remember. As a child it meant that we were getting close to home and as an adult I found myself wondering just what it stood for. I am so glad that this story was shared and now I know exactly the importance of this particular tree. My children who are now grown with families of their own will now know as well the importance of this tree. My grandfather was in the war and was not fortunate enough to return.When I pass this tree I will now think of him as well. Thank You Susan Hubbard

  12. Shelley S.Sunday, November 3rd, 2013 — 5:53pm PST

    Very cool. Never new this, and I too always wondered when driving by, why it was always covered with memorial items, flowers etc. When family was first building out in Langley, the tree was the one constant on the drive in from Burnaby, and always meant we were close to our destination. Nice to know the history behind it. Thanks!

  13. CherylSaturday, November 9th, 2013 — 10:13am PST

    Thank you so much for printing this. I have wondered for most of my life the story behind this tree 🙂

  14. FionaSaturday, November 9th, 2013 — 10:33pm PST

    Charlie’s tree is a wonderful memorial, our veterans deserve SO much more for what they have sacrificed. I tip my hat and send my sincerest thanks to all veterans for the sacrifices they have made so that I can live the life I am so grateful to be living. Bless them all!

  15. Lisa SmithSunday, November 10th, 2013 — 8:22am PST

    Thank you so much for sharing this story! I hope that someday what’s left of Charlie’s tree will be a National Historic Site.

  16. SharaSunday, November 10th, 2013 — 9:34am PST

    That’s a beautiful story. The City of Surrey has a slightly different version on their website.

    Charlie Perkins Memorial Tree (Significant Tree Site #200)
    Known by the Perkins family as the “Big Tree,” this was a 210 foot Douglas Fir that was located
    on the Perkins farm, and was too big to be horse-logged. Three of the Perkins boys signed up
    for service during the First World War. Charlie Perkins joined the expeditionary forces and was
    assigned to the Royal Flying Corp, trained in Camp Borden in Ontario, and became a flying
    instructor at Camp Borden and Forth Worth, Texas. All three boys were fortunate to return home
    from the war. Charlie planted ivy at the base of the “Big Tree” in 1919 as a personal memento to
    the memory of the young cadets who had died in training crashes and the pilots who had died
    overseas. In 1960, the surveys for the #1 Highway right-of-way included the “Big Tree” on the
    south edge and it was slated to be removed. After many stories and publicity locally and across
    Canada, and a visit from Highways Minister Phil Gaglardi, it was decided to go around the tree.
    Charlie believed progress was needed and one should not stand in the way and was a happy
    man when the tree was saved. He placed a wreath at the tree on Remembrance Day for several
    years and later the Canadian Legion took over. In the years to follow, the tree was vandalized
    twice by fire and the Highways Department had to cut the ailing tree to 12 metres in 1968. To
    this day, ‘Charlie’s Tree’ still stands in tribute to those who lost their lives.

  17. RaySunday, November 10th, 2013 — 5:10pm PST

    Greenpeace was not an environmental group to begin with, it was an anti nuke group. When they were successful in getting countries to stop nuke testing they became an organization looking for a cause to keep the money coming.

  18. MelissaSunday, November 10th, 2013 — 8:04pm PST

    Love the story always wanted to know the story behind the Charlie tree

  19. Matthew CliveSunday, November 10th, 2013 — 10:35pm PST

    This is my Great Grandfather’s Tree and I would really like to say thanks for sharing the story of the tree. I know everyday 1000’s of people drive by and do not know the significance and it is great that now more people will know. Thanks

  20. HeatherMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 1:31am PST

    one of the first things I learned about B.C. when I moved here 30 yrs ago.

  21. Janice Dorozio ( née Driediger, ‘Driediger Farms’ )Monday, November 11th, 2013 — 8:21am PST

    I have loved that tree all my life! I was born in Langley in 1955. This majestic tree symbolized many things to me over the years. Home, incridible symbol of the forest- important enough to have a major highway detour around it, memorial to our brave soldiers, sadness in seeing it be vandalized, +++, Thank you for posting this story. One tree can inspire millions!

  22. dianne clementMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 8:39am PST

    thank you for sharing lovely tribute

  23. Nicole weghsteenMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 9:33am PST

    I grew up in Langley in the 60s and in our family that tree was known as “the spanking tree” as mom once had to stop there, cut off a switch and remind all three of us kids to behave.

  24. Suzanne SiemensMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 10:25am PST

    As a child,I always looked for this special tree travelling with parents,as an adult when it as chopped down,it upset me,when the stup was removed,I thought WHY??
    Now,I know where to look,but I will always remember the tree…

  25. Yvonne BrienMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 11:00am PST

    Thank you for sharing this. I too, never realized the significance of Charlie’s tree until now. I had gathered that it was a memorial but figured it was one, albeit a very old one, among the many that you can see along the highway memorializing highway deaths. I hope it stands for eternity!!

  26. friendMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 12:07pm PST

    i always thought it was a memorial for someone who got into an accident and passed away there. i finally know the heart warming story behind it, and i am amazed that people actually care enough to divert the highway around such a special meaningful area. the rest of the world should take notice and realize we are all human and that there is hope for all if we just try.

  27. Lynn ConradMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 1:01pm PST

    Once the freeway was put in, we would drive past that tree. I am guessing that my parents told us about it because I always remembered that it was for the veterans. I didn’t realize who did the memorial or the exact reason but I did know that it was for the veterans who died in the war. Every time we drove past it, I always thought about it. Even today it is very special to me. Thank you Charlie for doing this in memory of your friends and thanks to our government for rerouting the freeway so it could stay.

  28. Bella PohlmannMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 1:28pm PST

    I have been driving past that tree for 44 years. Thank You for sharing this information.

  29. Betty EvanoMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 3:51pm PST

    I too always wondered about the tree that our family drove by for so many years. I also hope that the Highway of Hero’s is the reason for the sign in the median. Too bad that progress had to destroy the surrounding forest, it took away the beauty of the memorial.

  30. seanMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 4:02pm PST

    I too have wondered about this single monument. good for Charlie. it should be a national memorial.

  31. Susan Cale-LeBlancMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 4:06pm PST

    I so remember driving by that tree and asking my parents about it. My mother told us the story as she was born and raised in Vancouver. I was back there this summer and my first thought was I wonder if the tree is still standing. Thank you for sharing this story for all to read.

  32. margueritaMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 5:08pm PST

    I had no idea and I will be sure to look for it the next time I’m driving out that way

  33. Anna SotirisMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 6:41pm PST

    As a kid I have always wondered who was Charlie :0 Just like to say THANK YOU 🙂

  34. Anna SotirisMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 6:42pm PST

    As a kid I have always wondered who was Charlie 🙂
    Just like to say THANK YOU 🙂

  35. Ben woestenburgMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 6:49pm PST

    Ever since I heard the story of Charlie’s Tree, I’ve felt it should be commemorated as a stamp to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first world war.

  36. BrendaMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 8:04pm PST

    I remember my dad driving by Charlie’s tree. We were very young at the time. He told us the story of how the tree got its name. Although it’s a very sad story, it’s one that needs to be told over and over. I told my boys the same story when they were little. I know that as they begin having their own children, they to will share the story with them. I have every confidence that this sad but beautiful story of the love between a father and his son will carry on for future generations.

  37. gina kaushakisMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 8:32pm PST

    Very heart warming…always remember ♥

  38. MeikeMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 9:01pm PST

    Thank you for sharing this. I’ve passed by it for years as well and it’s nice to know the history behind this monument.

  39. BethMonday, November 11th, 2013 — 11:53pm PST

    November 10, 2013 at 5:10 PM

    Greenpeace was not an environmental group to begin with, it was an anti nuke group. When they were successful in getting countries to stop nuke testing they became an organization looking for a cause to keep the money coming.

    Ray, you are cynical and not apart of Canada. Go and move into the states since you love that country so much.

  40. MaxTuesday, November 12th, 2013 — 12:45am PST

    My job involves a lot of Highway 1 travel and I see Charlie’s Tree every workday or night. Thank you for providing us with the story of the tree.

  41. canuckarchyTuesday, November 12th, 2013 — 8:41am PST

    Thanks for sharing this story, however I disagree that this site has achieved the level of a national historic site and it should not be recognized as such. While it’s a charming story, I do not see it with the same national significance as Quebec City’s fortifications, Vimy Ridge, or Inukshuk Point. Platitudes like this from a conservative MP are disappointing, but not surprising. The link is broken and I doubt they intend to follow that through the House.

  42. SusanTuesday, November 12th, 2013 — 11:19am PST

    All that is needed on the sign for Charlie’s Tree is the apostrophe, it’s missing. What a lovely story and fitting memorial.

  43. Lisa HamiltonTuesday, November 12th, 2013 — 1:00pm PST

    Thank You for solving the mystery that I’ve been so curious about for so many years ! I also like many others didn’t know the story behind this tree. I thought it was a memorial for some one that lost their life in an accident. But what a great story behind the history this holds! I hope Its still around for many more generations to come. So that they too can be thankful, for the many who fought in the war.

  44. Jadine KelseyTuesday, November 12th, 2013 — 2:55pm PST

    As with most of us, I first noticed this Memorial as a child driving by with the vantage point only a child could have, looking up out of the window as we traveled the freeway. I saw it for years and years as I grew and always only knew it was a remembrance of some sort. This finally answers that small child’s question and warms my adult’s heart. Making this a national monument would be wondeful, not for the fancy architecture as there is none, but for the dedication and love so many of “Us” have for this site even before we knew it’s true meaning.

  45. Gary KenyonTuesday, November 12th, 2013 — 6:46pm PST

    Thank you for sharing this story. I have often wondered about the tree. Now with this article I remember this happe ning.

  46. Rebecca BenedictTuesday, November 12th, 2013 — 9:04pm PST

    Thanks so much for this. I live in Albert now, but as soon as I saw the tree I placed it exactly where it is. It stands out. Now I know why. Thank you, Charlie – and your 4 buddies.

  47. HazelTuesday, November 12th, 2013 — 10:32pm PST

    Yes this tree has been a favorite marker for many. If you have ever had to bargain with Hwy’s it’s nice to see this outcome. I didn’t see when they cut the top off. what year did that happen? (sorry I had to read the first post again.).

  48. DebbieWednesday, November 13th, 2013 — 12:59am PST

    I have driven by this tree most of my life. It is so great to read the history of this Tree. Now every time I go to Chilliwack which I do often, I will always say thank you to Charlie for his part in my freedom. <3 <3

  49. Doreen MercerWednesday, November 13th, 2013 — 8:16am PST

    thank you for the story I had seen a article of the news a few years ago about it I think it is a great idea to have there and it makes a lot of people think when they drive by. I like the idea that was suggested here to have a rest stop there so more people can enjoy it. Maybe there could be a display with the story put up.

  50. Gina coveyWednesday, November 13th, 2013 — 3:35pm PST

    This is from my Dads sister. My Dad, Darryl, past away 29 years ago. Thought i would share another story n love for this tree
    OMG! “I soooo Remember the tree!” Gina you have just taking “ME” back to my childhood with all the fun and great memories that tree gave Daryl and I. Why, because the tree was on the very back of our property line in Port Kells were we lived when I was little and Daryl would often take me there with him. Also it was as far as we were allowed to go. So it was kind of like a secret hideout for him but because we were so close even though I was little he would show me the way there when the wild Easter lilies were in full bloom so I could pick some for mom. She would always ask us where we got them but we wouldn’t tell. As they only grow around the great tree! Then when they build the highway around it we were so happy and always called it “OUR TREE” every time we drove by. Even if we didn’t live there anymore! In fact the last time I was up there and driving past where I thought it should be I was looking for it, as it always reminded me of Daryl and the love we shared. So thank you so much for posting this, I really enjoyed reading about it’s history as I had no idea it was called “Charlie’s Tree”! To me….it was and always will be “Daryl’s Tree”!

  51. Patrick HarrisThursday, November 14th, 2013 — 5:42pm PST

    I am glad you took the time to post the story about the tree. I grew up with Flyin Phil and WAC Bennett, their names were said in admiring disgust in our household, they said they were going to do something, you may not have agreed with the decision but those two got the job done.

    Bennett and Gaglardi did what was good for the People of BC, not the corporate BC, more and more of today’s decisions and announcements are for Corporate BC / Canada and elsewhere, the Deas Tunnel replacement isn’t about local conditions, rather Panamax freighters going up the Fraser. Our schools and hospitals are paying the price for this lack of the people of BC first policies. The hospital you know about, start asking your school and the Boards about funds available just to run the schools, let alone improve their lot and I do not mean salaries, daily necessaries, paper, books and repairs to aging infrastructure. We are forgetting too many lessons learned.

  52. MarkMonday, November 25th, 2013 — 6:50am PST

    Flying Phil and WAC Bennett must have had a lot of respect for Charlie and everyone around the decisions made to detour Hwy 1 at that time. Total respect for all involved.
    Beautiful respect to our history as British Columbians. British Columbians are some of the finest people in the world.

  53. AdrienSaturday, February 15th, 2014 — 10:37am PST

    I have also driven by since I was a child. I knew it had something to do with the war but I didn’t which war or the name of the tree. Now I do. What a touching story. I’m moved by Charlie’s story. School children should be told this. Thx for sharing

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