Ask Wellington: What is the Whalebone Tree?

Whalebone Tree Ellensburg

The famous Whalebone Tree in Ellensburg

Ask Wellington: I read that a longtime CWU professor once owned a house in Ellensburg that had a tree in front that contained a whalebone. Is this just a big fish story?

Chalk this one up in the weird-but-true category. Yes, Dale Otto, who taught in Central’s education department from 1971-1998, once owned a house at 603 East Fourth Avenue in Ellensburg, that boasts a jawbone of a whale embedded in an elm tree.

Otto, who lived in the home for nearly a quarter-century (he sold it in 1999), discovered the misplaced mandible shortly after moving into the house, which dates back to 1887 (it was originally a parsonage).

Despite years of searching for answers, Otto and his wife, Elizabeth, never could figure out how the massive jawbone ended up partially enveloped by a tree in his front yard.

“I don’t know if there’s a way to solve this mystery,” he told the Ellensburg Daily Record the year he sold the house.

Earlier accounts claim the tree originally had two whale bones but one was cut out in 1929 and given to the owner of the Ellensburg Lumber Company to hang in his office. In a 1976 article about the tree, the Daily Record traced the earliest remembrances about the existence of the whalebone in the elm to 1909.

The whalebone tree briefly became a national curiosity in the late 1990s, when it was mentioned on Art Bell’s “Coast to Coast AM” syndicated radio show by Mel Waters, the namesake for “Mel’s Hole,” an alleged bottomless hole located somewhere in the mountains west of Ellensburg.

Waters explained to Bell that an old Basque had once told him that the whale bone was a marker left behind by Basque whalers. No explanation was provided, however, as to why Basque whalers would be wandering the streets of Ellensburg.

While no one is quite sure how the giant bone became attached to the tree, the most popular theory is that at some point an ex-sailor had moved into the house and brought the bones with him.

According to this story, he set the bones outside, apparently leaning against the tree, to signal to any other sailors that it was a place where they could stop by. Over time, the tree apparently grew around the bone.

Another hypothesis is that a pastor who once lived in the parsonage brought the bones, laid them against the tree, and eventually the tree grew around them.

So, the mystery of how a whale jawbone, found more than 100 miles inland from the ocean, ended up embedded in a tree remains unresolved.

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