By Kinen Carvala
The ongoing forest wildfires remind us of a monument to foresters in our own backyard in Golden Gate Park. The term “foresters” refers to those who plant, manage and harvest trees. Foresters performed an important role in World War I (WWI).
The monument to California foresters is located in Golden Gate Park, just west of the Sharon Art Studio. This photo shows the white marble monument with Robin Williams Meadow in the background. Photo by Michael Durand.
When the U.S. joined WWI in 1917, transatlantic shipping capacity was inadequate to transport all necessary materials that Americans would need for building the Western Front in France. Even before the U.S. joined the war, the German government put warning notices in U.S. newspapers that due to war between the U.K. and Germany, those who traveled on British or British-allied ships did so at their own risk since the Germans suspected such ships of secretly transporting weapons for the British. Even in 1915 when America was neutral, American civilians were at risk sailing on passenger ships like the RMS Lusitania, which Germany torpedoed and sank. Germany claimed the ship was transporting arms. American reactions varied between emphasizing naval readiness and urging restraint and neutrality. Decades later, the BBC reported that the British government discretely warned a 1980s salvage expedition to the Lusitania of the possibility of ammunition without admitting to transporting war material.
By 1917, France’s young men had been fighting WWI for years, and the country had a labor shortage. Foresters from the U.S. needed to be brought in. Timber from France was necessary to build war infrastructure like barracks, telephone poles, trench support, roads and railroads.
The magazine American Forestry‘s special retrospective issue about the war reported on how America cooperated with allies on forestry. Americans, along with the French, British and Belgians, formed a committee to periodically select which plots of land in France to harvest lumber. While American officers on the ground were frustrated over ongoing negotiations with the French about reimbursement, Theodore S. Woolsey Jr., who earned a master’s degree in forestry from Yale, admired the French sustainable forestry and harvesting practices even before the war, especially because they did not have the luxury of virgin lands, as the Americans did. Debates over American government regulation of timber harvesting even during peacetime were informed by foresters’ war experiences, according to the article Forests and National Security: British and American Forestry Policy in the Wake of World War I.
For the WWI effort, these American foresters were first organized in summer 1917 into two U.S. Army regiments, the 10th and 20th Engineers, before being combined into the 20th. The foresters, called Engineers, managed forest growth, felled and logged timber and operated sawmills in various French forests. The finished lumber was then sent to American forces throughout Europe, according to the Forest History Society.
The monument dedicated to California foresters was originally designed to be a fountain for people and horses. Photo by Michael Durand.
More than 30,000 men were in the 20th Engineers on Armistice Day (Nov. 11, 1918), according to the Engineers’ historical summary prepared after the war. Lieutenant Colonel William B. Greeley wrote for American Forestry that earlier American forestry units sent to France had voluntarily enlisted, but later units had not only drafted men, but also experienced volunteers older than the draft age. Many volunteers were experienced loggers familiar with sawmill mechanics.
The Foresters of America Association related to the Golden Gate Park monument was a private fraternal organization. Though the monument is dedicated to members, these 200 foresters were stationed in France as part of the U.S. Army, not as members of the Foresters of America. Not all American foresters who worked in France during the war were part of this organization.
The inscription on the monument reads:
To our brethren who gave their lives
Foresters of America of California
The monument was dedicated on Dec. 4, 1927 with Park Commissioner William P. Humphreys present with representatives from organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Gold Star Mothers.
The monument, made of white Italian marble, was planned to serve as a fountain for people and horses, according to Chris Pollock’s book on Golden Gate Park. A 1951 photo from the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection shows a small metal bowl affixed on the monument wall that may have been a water fountain, but it’s not present today. The large marble basin in the monument’s center bottom is both today and in the 1951 photo filled with plants and dirt, but may have been a horse trough earlier. The 1951 photo has a possible water spout, but that is not present today either.
The monument is in the southeastern part of Golden Gate Park, on the west side of Sharon Art Studio while Children’s Playground is on the east side of the studio. The monument seems only a few feet tall due to being partially buried for landscaping needs (after 1951). The lettering engraved into the marble is faint, so viewers can’t rely on that to quickly identify the monument.
To read more columns by Kinen Carvala on the history of the monuments in Golden Gate Park, click HERE.
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