Since height is one of the tree’s annual distinguishing characteristics, you’d think it would be pretty easy to document. That's what I assumed, anyway, when I thought it would be simple to make this little chart. Turns out there’s a fair amount of uncertainty in the historical record. The architect of the Capitol keeps a good list, but the three most recent trees are erroneously stuck at 65 feet.
So I looked for other lists and discovered it's less clear-cut than you'd expect. The Wikipedia entry has even more discrepancies — and, remarkably, lists the 1989 tree, a similar Engelmann Spruce from the Kootenai National Forest in northwest Montana, at a whopping 89 feet. Is it possible this year’s tree isn’t the tallest after all?
This list from the National Forest Service confirms the 1989 tree was 60 feet. But that’s not the whole story. When I looked for contemporary newspaper accounts, I found this AP story:
The same account was printed in a number of papers around the nation, but without any other details about exactly what happened.
Some other years with uncertainty or changing heights:
For many years, 60 feet was the maximum height for shipping reasons. In 1986, the first tree to come from California was an 103-foot Shasta Red Fir from the Klamath National Forest. But instead of using the whole tree, only the top 60 feet were cut off, and it ended up on the list as 54 or 55 feet tall.
In 1991, New Mexico delivered a live 60-foot Blue Spruce with a 30-ton root ball to honor the 100th anniversary of the national forest system. It was planted in the National Arboretum after the Christmas season.
In 1996, an Engelmann Spruce from Utah was the first to break the 70-foot mark.
There’s an odd discrepancy with 1999’s “Millennium Tree,” a White Spruce from Wisconsin. Nearly all the local, contemporary newspaper accounts say it’s 70 feet. But it’s on the AOC list and described at the lighting ceremony as 60 feet. (Since it’s possible for trees to get shorter after they’re cut, I went with 60 in the chart above.)
There’s a similar issue for the 2005 tree, an Engelmann Spruce from New Mexico. All local press described it as 80 feet, but it’s on all the lists as 65 feet, or sometimes 60. (Since I was unable to figure out why there’s a difference, it’s on the chart at 65.)
The 2008 tree is described as both 70 and 78 feet, even in different press releases from the same Montana politicians. Most new reports described it as 100 feet before it was cut; it’s not clear whether that was just an estimate, or whether it was cut shorter than the full height. (It’s on the chart above at 78 mostly because this New York Times story made a big deal of that specific number.)
This year, at least, the tree was consistently reported as 88 feet tall, and we can confidently say it's the tallest ever on display at the Capitol.