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The 125 year old American elm tree, known as Stampede Elm standing in a parking lot near downtown on March 24.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Long-time Calgarian Daorcey Le Bray remembers biking side by side with his five-year-old daughter, holding her hand as they cruised along the downtown cycle track during the strange calm of the pandemic. One day, as part of their father-daughter adventure series to discover inner-city gems, he led her into the Calgary Stampede parking lot.

Growing on a small patch of grass, surrounded by concrete parking spaces, was one of the city’s oldest residents: an American elm tree planted in the early 1900s that is lovingly referred to as the Stampede Elm by locals. Mr. Le Bray and his daughter leaned their bikes against the tree and posed in their matching jean jackets. Looking at the photo last week, he said it’s a reminder of a “moment of joy” during an otherwise difficult time.

“We had the biggest of smiles,” he said. “There are things, like pieces of architecture or public art or nature, that can become really special because they’re unique. What a great joy it is to be able to include them in your life in some way.”

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Twisted branches of the Stampede Elm, that has been cut down to make way for the new downtown event centre.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The Stampede Elm, which had been a fixture in Calgary for roughly 125 years, just north of the Saddledome arena, was cut down Monday to clear the site for a new event centre. City experts determined the tree would be unlikely to survive relocation, so a construction crew put an end to its long life in Victoria Park, where it had witnessed Calgary’s transformation from cowtown to booming metropolis.

The tree was planted at the intersection of four backyards near the first major hospital in Calgary, now marked by the Rundle Ruins, and survived significant development in the area, including the construction of the Saddledome in the 1980s. It was one of only five American elms listed in the City of Calgary’s historic tree inventory.

But, in some ways, it will live on forever.

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As a way of preserving the Stampede Elm, branches were cut from the tree in 2021 and have since been growing in a city nursery.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Branches were cut from the tree in 2021 and have since been growing in a city nursery. There is hope among city staff that rooting and leafing will begin this spring, which, if successful, means genetically identical trees can be planted in the city’s urban forest. Approximately 150 seeds were also collected from the Stampede Elm, which have since grown into young plants between six and 18 inches tall.

Paul Atkinson, an urban forestry and policy planner with the city, said the preservation of the historic tree had been the focus of conversation for years as city hall and Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. haggled over a new event centre, which is now being partly funded by the province.

“Ultimately, the tree is at centre ice,” he said. “You just can’t design around that location.”

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The place where Calgary's 125 year old Stampede Elm tree stood lays baren with the Scotiabank Saddledome looming in the background on April 9.LOUIS G M OLIVER/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Atkinson said it was important to harvest the senior tree’s seeds and branches because it had proven to be resilient in Calgary’s climate and its offspring have a good shot at growing just the same. He added that expanding the city’s canopy is a challenge, owing to climate-related changes, such as drought, and housing development.

“It took 125 years to get to be as big and significant as it is, so in order to do that again, we can’t think in five- to 10-year time spans,” he said.

The Stampede Elm has also been preserved virtually using a three-dimensional scanner.

Peter Dawson, a professor in the department of anthropology and archeology at the University of Calgary, said most heritage projects have “straight lines and right angles,” but this was among the first living heritage objects he has mapped. Using a terrestrial laser scanner, his team created a 3-D image, capturing every single leaf and branch with submillimetre accuracy.

He said elm trees are rare in Calgary – and across Alberta – because Dutch elm disease, caused by a fungus that clogs the tree’s water system, wiped out a lot of them in the 1970s.

Prof. Dawson said the scan will not only be an educational resource for the community, biologists and botanists, but it can also preserve memories for people with personal connections to the tree.

On the university’s preservation page for the Stampede Elm, one community member honoured the tree with a short poem, titled Number One Fan. “For one-hundred and twenty-five years I have stood here, watching the game grow. I am the biggest fan. In the name of progress, I make the ultimate sacrifice for the love of the game,” Vian Esterhuizen wrote.

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