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The history behind the Colorado Christmas tree lit by JFK, and how it was almost lost

More than 30 years after the fact, a tenacious forest service worker scoured Poncha Pass to reclaim and honor the famous stump
A sign and pile of rocks off Poncha Pass marks the spot where the 1962 White House Christmas tree was harvested in southern Colorado and trekked more than 2,000 miles to Washington, D.C. The sign, seen here on July 4, is tucked into the trees along a path by Silver Creek. (David Krause, The Colorado Sun)

SALIDA — Finding a sacred stump in the forest might seem like a fool’s errand, especially in the high country, but that didn’t keep Jim Dickson from searching for perhaps Colorado’s most celebrated blue spruce.

Coloradans certainly love their trees, especially the state tree Colorado blue spruce, but did you know we gave up a beauty (well, actually two) to let President John F. Kennedy show it off to the rest of the nation? Don’t worry if you haven’t. It’s been memorialized in the backcountry off Poncha Pass.

And you can thank Dickson for that.

In 1996 while working for the U.S. Forest Service and living in Salida, Dickson was given a needle-in-a-haystack assignment: His boss wanted him to find the remnants of the seven-story spruce that served as the 1962 White House Christmas tree. The one lit by President Kennedy just weeks after the Cuban missile crisis.

“All in all, I probably spent six weeks trying to find it,” Dickson, now 80 and still living in Salida, told The Colorado Sun recently.

He started with a general location and then received a picture from a local whose kids posed at the stump the day it was cut down in November 1962.

“I went out there with the picture and looked and looked and looked,” Dickson said. “Part of it was the process of elimination.”

But the biggest problem was the tree was cut so low that only about 10 inches of its base, which measured more than two feet in diameter, was left as a stump. And, after more than three decades, a forest of trees had grown up around it.

After regrouping, Dickson contacted three local men who helped fell the tree 33 years before and continued the hunt. Within weeks they found the almost buried treasure. But, how could they be sure? The group found the pile of rocks placed at the location in 1962 and it had not been disturbed, and “I took samples of the stump and it was confirmed to be about the right age,” Dickson said.

The Forest Service soon put up a sign to honor the giving tree, and a fresh one was put in about three years ago.

Getting there from here

The story behind the tree’s journey to D.C. is almost as charming, if not with a dash of drama.

Then-Colorado U.S. Sen. Gordon Allott offered up a Colorado blue spruce from the Arkansas River Valley. That tree was supposed to come from Cottonwood Pass west of Buena Vista, which is about 25 miles upriver of Salida. But after that original tree was cut, a cable on the crane loading it on the truck snapped, according to reports in the Salida Mountain Mail. The tree fell to the ground “with many of the branches on one side of the tree being smashed,” the newspaper reported, rendering it useless as a national treasure. That was Tuesday morning, and the tree was supposed to be on a train leaving Salida on Wednesday afternoon.

Luckily, four Colorado State University forestry students had picked out three trees in the San Isabel National Forest, and folks from Salida were delighted to offer up the Poncha Pass tree. A larger crane came up from Pueblo on Wednesday morning, a bridge over Silver Creek was reinforced and that tree was cut down. There were rumblings around Buena Vista through the years that their Arkansas Valley neighbors had something to do with the crane failure because Salida wanted the honor of being the origin spot of the White House tree.

“There’s always been a rivalry between Buena Vista and Salida,” Dickson, who was Salida’s mayor from 2013-16, said with a chuckle.

With all that, the second towering blue spruce was moved by truck down to Salida, wrapped in burlap and rope and secured on two open-air train beds for the 2,000-mile journey to the nation’s capital.

Before the train left the station, thousands came to the Salida rail yard to celebrate; schools were let out early and businesses were closed Wednesday afternoon for the “special observance,” according to the Mountain Mail.

The 72-foot spruce made ceremonial appearances at stops in Pueblo, Colorado Springs and then the Colorado capital. The tree quickly became the pride of Colorado. The tree was so valued that a ranger from the Salida district traveled on the train for the entire journey, and police were at every train station where it made a stop on its way east, including Omaha, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

Upon its arrival in D.C. on Nov. 23, nearly two weeks earlier than planned, Allott let the Forest Service in Colorado know in a thank you that the tree arrived in “excellent condition.”

“All Colorado can take pride in the fact that, according to the report, this will be among the loveliest of trees yet supplied for the Pageant for Peace,” he said in the Dec. 6 letter.

Eleven days later, on Dec. 17, 1962, Kennedy lit his only White House Christmas tree; he was assassinated 11 months later (and missed the 1961 lighting because his father was ill).

The 100-year-old Colorado-grown tree, according to The Washington Post coverage, was “conventional, lacking the ‘dancing lights’ of 1961.” It was adorned with 4,000 ornaments and 5,000 lights.

On that night 61 years ago, Kennedy talked at The Pageant of Peace ceremonies about his longing for harmony.

“This has been a year of peril, when the peace has been sorely threatened. But it has been a year when peril was faced and reason ruled,” he said. (You can listen to his remarks from the White House Audio Collection and see more photos via the JFK library files.)

But by all accounts, it was a festive evening, complete with eight reindeer from the National Zoo, the U.S. Marine Band and the Tuskegee Institute Choir (now Tuskegee University) from Alabama, a life-size Nativity scene, and, of course, a giant yule log cake.

Representing in D.C.

The Salida spruce is one of a just few D.C. trees that have made their way from the Centennial State. The U.S. Capitol Christmas tree tradition started in 1964 and has displayed a tree harvested from Colorado four times, the first in 1990 and most recently in 2020.

What makes the remote Colorado landmark off Poncha Pass even more special is the Salida tree is the only one from the Centennial State to be the official White House Christmas tree, a tradition that started a century ago when President Calvin Coolidge pushed a button on Christmas Eve 1923.

But, finding that sign can take a stroke of luck.

There are no signs on County Road 47YY along Silver Creek leading you to the spot, which is marked by the same pile of rocks and a newly installed sign marking the location. But for Jim Dickson’s tenacity, it would be just another random stump in the Colorado high country.

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