LONGWOOD, Fla. -- An early morning fire -- suspected to be the work of an arsonist -- on Monday destroyed one of the world's oldest cypress trees and a Seminole County landmark that sprouted some 3,400 years before there was a Seminole County.
Officially named "The Senator," it was simply "The Big Tree" to most Central Floridians.
It was named after the man who donated what is now Big Tree Park to the county, Moses Oscar Overstreet, a state senator from 1920 to 1925.
Firefighters responded to the park on General Hutchinson Parkway about 5:50 a.m. and had to string 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 burned for several hours from the inside out -- almost like a chimney, Wright said.
While Wright initially said it appeared that there had been a brush fire that spread to the tree, a state forestry official said it is more likely that twigs and debris were piled near the base of the tree and ignited.
"From my observations it appears to be arson," said Mike Martin with the state Division of Forestry. "It looks like the fire was concentrated right where the tree was."
There have been reports of homeless people hanging around the park, leading to speculation that the fire could have been started by someone trying to stay warm. But Martin said it is unlikely that anyone setting such a fire would do it so closely to the tree.
Martin said law enforcement investigators with his agency will handle the case.
Once the fire was out, about 20 to 25 feet of the tree was still standing, Martin said.
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.
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.
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Back in the 1960s, there was a gift shop at the park and souvenir items such as pennants and jewelry boxes show up from time to time on the online auction site eBay.
"It was a tourist attraction," recounts Jeff Serraes of Sanford, Fla., 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."
"The Senator" was one of Central Florida's leading attractions before the arrival of the region's theme parks and while the park was in neither city, advertising associated it with Sanford and Longwood.
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 while "The Senator" is not a national champion, it is the largest native tree in Florida.
Big Tree Park, located on General Hutchinson Parkway between U.S. Highway 17-92 and State Road 427, north of Longwood, was dedicated in 1929 by President Calvin Coolidge, making it one of the area's oldest parks.
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