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Author’s Note: This is the sixth part in a series of blog posts looking at the historical big picture of modern day urban flooding and the importance of trees. Go here for part onetwothreefour, and five. Read this blog post on why I’ve decided to take on this project.

Jobs. American jobs. Right here in America. Jobs.

If you want to become the President of the United States someday (first off, are you insane?), you better have a platform ready that is centered around jobs and growing the economy. It’s the American way.

The economic mindset of job creation during the formative years of the United States of America was not all that different when compared to the mindset of today. Early American ambitions were to expand westward, put the newly arriving immigrant population to work and create jobs. Grow the economy. Be productive and subdue the land. The only difference between today and the 1700s and early 1800s was the type of job. In the early 1800s, nine out of every ten Americans lived and worked on a farm.

Leading up to and immediately after the American Revolution, the Ohio Company and Virginia Company, had eyes on the vast untapped profitable resources of the Ohio Valley/Western Pennsylvania region. Namely its tree resources, rich agricultural land, animal furs, and advantageous position for the transportation of goods and further expansion into the Mississippi River network. Early America and its investors were eager to push west to increase profits.

Throughout the 1700s, a series of treaties were signed between the English colonists and the severely weakened populations of remaining Native Americans. The history of these treaties were rife with exploitive practices, mistrust, and war. If you want to read more about this subject, I would recommend James H. Merrel’s Into the American Woods: Negotiations on the Pennsylvania Frontier which goes into stunning detail about this period of North American history.

These treaties significantly reduced conflicts in the westward expansion by the colonists. A westward expansion that would be justified in the name of Manifest Destiny. And like the story of the United States of America up until this point, the move westward and the establishment of these new towns and settlements was largely dependent upon the harvesting of its unrivaled supply of forests and trees.

American Progress (1872) by John Gast

One of the leading edge technological advancements during the initial westward expansion was the water powered sawmill. A technological advancement not yet deployed on much of the vast forests of North America. One of the more poetic and vivid descriptions of the early westward pioneers and the use of sawmills is from James Elliott Defebaugh’s massive two part volume historical work The History of Lumber in the United States.

In many instances it was the superior growth of timber that drew settlers from the older sections to the untried wilderness. The sufferings that these sturdy pioneers underwent are almost inconceivable at this day, and their recital alone would fill a large volume. They suffered the attacks of wild animals in search of food and of the savage Indians in search of white men’s scalps; many died from the rigors of the climate; for clothing they wore the skins of beasts; for food, at times they were compelled to mix the bark of trees with their corn meal so it would hold out the longer, and also at times they dug up the potatoes they had planted so near were they to starvation. Furniture they had none, except rough boxes and boards; some rode, if fortunate enough to possess a horse, or walked, miles (in some cases 100 miles) to the nearest grist mill to have their handful of corn ground, while others did their own grinding by means of the hollowed out stump of a hardwood tree and a stone, or a wooden pestle. But in spite of their hardships they persevered, and within a short time thriving villages dotted the forests, and the hum of the sawmills and the shouts of the raftsmen told of the business the forests were creating a business that later placed Pennsylvania at the head of the great lumber producing states of the Union.

The water powered sawmill used during this era is/was fascinating piece of human ingenuity and engineering. If you’re not quite sure how one works, check out this 6 minute Youtube video:

Yes, the engi-nerd inside of me approves of this video.

Just about every newly established westward pioneer establishment would have a sawmill with its roots firmly established in timber harvesting. Some of these small outposts and settlements would go on to later become towns and even major cities. Pittsburgh, for example, started as a lumber town. Again from Defebaugh:

Boatbuilding was at one time an important business at Pittsburg, though it has since greatly declined. It was of early origin in that section, and marked the beginning of that industry in the West as any territory west of the Alleghenies was then known. Boatbuilding was intimately connected with the lumber trade, not only because wood was the material used, but because boats were in demand for the movement of lumber.

The first newspaper west of the Alleghenies, The Pittsburgh Gazette, in its first number mentions the Saw Mill at Saw Mill Run. Again from Defebaugh:

In the autumn of 1785 the first printing press was carried across the Allegheny Mountains and from it, on July 29, 1786, was printed the first number of the Gazette, the earliest newspaper printed west of the Alleghenies.

“There is a rock known by the name of McKee’s rock, at the distance of about three miles below the head of the Ohio. … As you ascend the river from these rocks to the town of Pittsburgh, you pass by on your right hand the mouth of a brook known by the name of the Saw-mill run. This empties itself about half a mile below the town, and is overlooked by a building on its banks, on the point of a hill which fronts east, and is first struck by the beam of the rising sun. At a small distance from its mouth is a sawmill, 1 about twenty perches below the situation of an old mill built by the British, the remains of some parts of which are yet seen.”

The first sounds of the metal saws ringing out from the sawmills would be the warning siren for what was to come for the forests in the Pennsylvania frontier and beyond. Over the next century, sawmills and lumber yards would be constructed all across Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes region.

Early westward pioneer settlements like Pittsburgh gained their foothold with the use of technology like water powered sawmills. Modest enterprises directly linked to this technology, like boat building, provided a key economic cornerstone for future growth and expansion. However, economic gains were modest since power to cut move and cut logs was dependent upon animals and water. Shipping of lumber products was limited to the main form of transportation at the time, waterbodies such as rivers and canals. Additionally, much of the finest lumber was located on the highest mountain elevations and thereby difficult to reach without tremendous back breaking effort and sacrifice.

What the pioneers needed was another revolution to overcome these barriers to economic advancement.

This time it was not a revolution centered around the independence of a nation using the musket, but a revolution centered industry using the steam engine. A revolution that would satisfy the thirst for more American jobs and provide a previously untapped source of power for doing the work of several hundred horses. James Watt’s steam engine and his equivalent new form of “horsepower” from engines would ignite this revolution.

Portrait of James Watt (1792) by Carl Frederik von Breda

New towns and settlements all across North America would soon take part in the Industrial Revolution using thousands of steam engines at unrivaled production and output. The lumber industry would quickly abandon the water powered sawmill and use steam power to slice and dice trees into profitable lumber at rates previously thought unfathomable.

Centuries old trees all across North America would come down by the billions thereby drastically altering the landscape and the Earth’s water cycle (see Part 1).

All this would happen in the blink of an eye in comparison to the entire course of human history.

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