USA — LONGWOOD The cause of an early-morning fire in Seminole County that destroyed one of the world’s oldest cypress trees remained a mystery Monday, but an investigator is convinced it was not the work of an arsonist.
An investigator with the state Division of Forestry has listed the cause of the fire as “undetermined” but has ruled out arson as the cause, said Cliff Frazier, a spokesman for that agency.
Frazier said he could not speculate on a cause and said the investigation is ongoing.
The tree that sprouted some 3,400 years before there even was a Seminole County was officially named The Senator but was simply “The Big Tree” to most Central Floridians.
It was one of Central Florida’s leading attractions before the arrival of the region’s theme parks, and though the park is in neither city, advertising associated it with Sanford and Longwood.
A billboard on U.S. Highway 17-92 boasted of the tree’s age and pointed motorists toward Big Tree Road now General Hutchinson Parkway.
“It was a tourist attraction,” recalls Jeff Serraes of Sanford, who visited the tree as a kid in the 1960s. “It cost 25 cents to get in.”
Serraes said his family visited the tree as often as once a month.
“There was nothing to do in Sanford back in those days,” he said. “You had the zoo and Big Tree Park.”
Back in those days, there was a gift shop at the park, and souvenir items, such as pennants and jewelry boxes, show up from time to time on eBay.
Firefighters responded to the park about 5:50 a.m. Monday and had to run more than 800 feet of hoses through the woods to reach the fire.
At about 7:45 a.m., a 20-foot section of the top of the tree fell off, Seminole County Fire Rescue spokesman Steve Wright said. By 8:15 a.m., more of the tree had collapsed.
“It’s a nightmare,” he said.
Later, a sheriff’s helicopter was used to dump water on the smoldering tree.
The tree, which was hollow, burned for several hours from the inside out almost like a chimney, Wright said.
Initially, everyone suspected arson. There was no lightning in the area Monday morning and there is no electrical wiring in the area of the tree.
But the investigator could find nothing to support the theory.
The Senator was named after Moses Oscar Overstreet, a state senator from 1920 to 1925 who donated what is now Big Tree Park to the county.
The tree was estimated to be 165 feet tall before a hurricane took off the top in 1925, according to research conducted by county historians.
Once the fire that destroyed the tree was out Monday, about 20 to 25 feet of it was still standing, said Mike Martin of the Division of Forestry.
The American Forestry Association bored a small hole in The Senator in 1946 for a core sample that gave the tree an estimated age of 3,500 years.
The park was spruced up and rededicated in 2005. At the time, a companion tree was located and verified to be about 2,000 years old, said former Seminole County Commissioner Randy Morris.
As part of a contest, Geneva Elementary School students named that one Lady Liberty, he said.
Experts think there once were four trees in the area that were 2,000 years or older, but only the two had survived, Morris said.
“She [Lady Liberty] is now all that’s left,” he said.
Florida recognizes the largest tree of each species within the state in the Florida Champion Tree Register, and The Senator is on that list. The Florida Forest Service reports that though The Senator was not a national champion, it was the largest native tree in Florida.
Big Tree Park was dedicated in 1929 by President Calvin Coolidge, making it one of the area’s oldest parks.