The fall to the ground of “Charlie’s Tree” along Highway 1 in Port Kells attracted a lot of attention last week.
The 300-year-old Douglas fir came to public attention in the early 1960s, when it was scheduled to be cut down to make room for the new freeway. Highways Minister Phil Gaglardi, who had been compared to Roman road builders by his boss, Premier W.A.C. Bennett, was determined to have a straight-as-an-arrow road running into the Fraser Valley.
However, he hadn’t reckoned with Charlie Perkins. The longtime Port Kells resident and First World War flying corps veteran had a special area at the rear of his 96 Avenue property that was dedicated to his fallen comrades.
Here’s how he described it when speaking to Fern Treleaven, author of The Surrey Story.
“So many of my chums had been killed and I missed them. There was a beautiful big tree back on our place and I planted ivy around that tree and made a little natural park. There were beautiful ferns, and the vine maples when they turned red and gold in the fall made it a lovely spot.
“I didn’t put their names on anything. It was just my own tree and my own memory. A big fire went through my place (shortly after the war) and they pretty much lost me and my dog but I managed to keep the fire from getting my park.”
Naturally, after 40 years of paying tribute to his comrades at this special place, he wasn’t ready to just let it go just because a highway was being built nearby. He met with Gaglardi and also let the media know what was planned.
Gaglardi was willing to relent. He agreed to let the highway curve around the tree and preserve at least a portion of Charlie’s park area. However, it was now cut off from the remainder of the Perkins property and wasn’t easily accessible from the highway, which was designed for through traffic and not roadside stops.
Nonetheless, people made their way to the tree anyway. For many years, there have been a number of informal tributes to veterans placed on the site. Some vandals also did damage to the tree, which was now viewed by thousands of people each day. It was topped many years ago. It fell on the night of July 30.
The Perkins family would like to see some sort of memorial to veterans continue at the site. Grandson Mike Perkins said the real tribute to veterans was the ivy his grandfather planted. He said the area will inevitably be developed and it would be good if there is access to the area and a park or some other sort of memorial near the site of “Charlie’s Tree.”
He has a great idea. Unfortunately in Surrey, veterans only get the most basic lip service of remembrance. While the city has created a great memorial plaza outside the Surrey Museum, where the original First World War cenotaph is located, it rarely gets much use, other than on Remembrance Day, Nov. 11.
The veterans themselves also get little attention. Although their names are on the cenotaph, few are remembered in any other way. A notable exception is Arthur Thomas Fleetwood, whom the community of Fleetwood is named after.
“Charlie’s Tree” has once again attracted a lot of media attention, as it did more than 50 years ago when Highway 1 was built. This would be a great time for the city to take advantage of that attention and make some concrete plans to honour veterans with a memorial near the site of the private park that Charlie Perkins set up so many years ago. It needs to be accessible from city streets, likely 184 Street north of 92 Avenue.
It would be a fitting tribute to him and all those who have served in the Armed Forces.
Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.