Author’s Note: This is the seventh 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 one, two, three, four, five, and six. Read this blog post on why I’ve decided to take on this project.
The price for American westward expansion, economic growth, and job creation would come at the cost of the natural landscape and the wealth of this nation’s virgin tree resources.
In the early 1800s, nine out of every ten jobs in America were on a farm. By the end of the century a series of technological advances would change the economic and job creation landscape in just a matter of decades. These advances included the advent of the steam powered engine and the rail locomotive train. These technologies would allow for two things: 1.) scaling up for mass production by just a few individuals, and 2.) faster, cheaper and easier access to previously hard to reach resources.
James Watt’s steam engines allowed for just a few men to latch onto the faces of mountains and climb to new heights to get to previous unattainable and uneconomic forest resources. A few men could lay waste to a hillside in just a few weeks.
Six men, a steam engine, a rail locomotive, and an obliterated forest hillside
Steam engines companies like the Pittsburgh Steam Engine Company (founded in 1811) were quickly established to take advantage of this new industrial revolution. Fun fact: The Pittsburgh Steam Engine company would later build the steam engine for the riverboat the New Orleans which would become the first boat to travel down the Mississippi River all the way to the Gulf of Mexico via steam power.
Around that same time on March 4, 1826 the Granite Railway located in Quincey Massachusetts became the first chartered railway in the United States. There was only one drawback, it was powered by a team of inefficient horses that were prone to get tired. Shortly thereafter in 1830, the Tom Thumb in Baltimore became the first steam powered locomotive built in America, which to the amazement of its passengers reached a whopping top speed of 10 to 14 miles per hour. Slow down there Tom Thumb let’s not get crazy!
As is the case with most great technological advancements throughout history, it is often not a single invention that causes a market shift, but a series of inventions combined together to revolutionize the way things are done. This was the case with the lumber industry in the 1800s. Combined together, the sawmill, the steam powered engine, and the rail locomotive would form together to create a singular disruptive market technology that would change the game for the lumber industry and help create the Gilded Age of American lumber baron entrepreneurial capitalists. Across the country, the vast wealth of giant virgin trees were set up like bowling pins, and with these inventions now in place, America had the 16 pound bowling ball to knock them down in a matter of an instant.
One of the most epic and sprawling books on this period in history is James Elliot Defebaugh’s The History of the Lumber Industry in America. It’s the “Homer’s Iliad” of lumber industry books covering all aspects of the origins of the American lumber industry during colonial times, up to its blossoming in the 1800s, and full blown unregulated industry at the turn of the 20th century. Another fantastic book, which is a bit more readable and much less academic in nature is Eric Rutkow’s American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation. This blog post will lean heavily on these books, especially James Elliot Defebaugh’s truly awe inspiring volumes.
During the mid 1800s, all along the northern Pennsylvania border contained some of the richest supplies of white pine and hemlock trees anywhere in the world at the time. Logging towns and sawmills seemingly sprang up over night to take advantage. Williamsport in Central Pennsylvania was one of these towns.
People that are most aware of Williamsport tend to first think of the Little League World Series, but what first put Williamsport on the map was lumber. Lumber that would eventually turn many of its early settlers into millionaires.
Those with a deeper intimate knowledge of Williamsport will know that the Williamsport Area School District sports mascot is dubbed the Williamsport “Millionaire”. Check out their high school logo which resembles the attire from Rich Uncle Pennybags from everyone’s favorite family vacation board game Monopoly:
In the late 1800s Williamsport had the highest concentration of millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the world. Fourth Street in WIlliamsport, is one of the prettiest streets you’ll find in America. It’s filled with over 90 mansions from the mid to late 1800s and it’s often referred to as Millionaires Row. Millionaires Row was a direct result of the sawmills, steam powered engines, railroads and the rich supply forests along the northern Pennsylvania border.
Some of the prettiest old homes you’ll find throughout America are from 1800s lumber barons. Check out some of these beauties:
Amazing what one can do with unlimited access to the best building materials in the world and cheap labor.
In Williamsport, possibly none made more millions in Williamsport than the lumber barons who invested in the Susquehanna Boom Company which constructed a giant lumber boom on the Susquehanna River. The boom was used to collect and harvest millions upon millions of trees from upstream rivers and streams while keeping one side of the river open to traffic.
Susquehanna Boom at Williamsport
At height of industry in Williamsport in the 1870s and 80s it was not uncommon to have upwards of one to one and half million logs per year travel through this boom. Estimates of upwards of a total of 8 billion feet of lumber came out of Williamsport up until the early 1900s making Williamsport the self proclaimed “lumber capital of the world” producing the finest quality of white pine one could find. All this lumber would be shipped down the Susquehanna River via boat or put on rail for sale on the market for the rapidly expanding construction industry across the country.
Just like Williamsport along the Susquehanna River, the Allegheny River and Pittsburgh would also capitalize on massive logging operations upstream along the northern Pennsylvania border. Pittsburgh would get its lumber from upstream by floating white pine down from upstream rivers and streams. Significant quantities of lumber that made it to Pittsburgh came from the region that now occupies the Allegheny National Forest in the Tionesta Creek and Clarion River/Big Mill Creek watersheds on the eastern side of the Allegheny River. Here is an interactive map I made of these watersheds:
The scene along these rivers looked much the same as compared to the Susquehanna River at Williamsport. Logs upon logs stacked as-far-as-the-eye-can-see both upstream and downstream. True-to-form, real-life “log jams” all ready to shipped down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh.
To give you a sense of just how lucrative this industry was back in the 1800s, the men who rafted lumber down down the Allegheny River would sometimes skip Pittsburgh and float 2,000 miles all the way to New Orleans where they could fetch much more value for their prized high quality lumber. Once they got there and collected their earnings, many of them would walk back to Pittsburgh on foot.
Can you imagine walking from New Orleans to Pittsburgh just to earn an extra buck? By the way if you’re interested recreating this walk, Google maps says take Natchez Trace Pkwy for a non-stop 360 hours of walking. Hey, at least on you can stop off in Nashville for some hot chicken at about the halfway mark.
From James Elliot Defebaugh:
Perhaps the most interesting part of the early lumber history of Warren County (Pennsylvania) has to do with the rafting and boating of lumber down the Allegheny…The best quality of pine brought in New Orleans what was then the enormous sum of $40 a thousand feet. The men who took these flat boats almost to the mouth of the Mississippi, guiding them more than 2,000 miles through the wilderness, were of hardy body and daring mind. Most of them walked all the way back from New Orleans…
Another fascinating nugget of lumber history are the abandoned lumber towns in Western Pennsylvania that are now no longer in existence. Take for example, Arroyo, Pennsylvania. This is what Arroyo looked like during the height of its lumber boom in the mid to late 1800s. Take note of the barren and treeless hillsides in the background:
Here’s what Arroyo looks like now from aerial imagery on Google Maps.
Much like plastic products are today, in the mid to late 1800s and into the 1900s lumber was literally used everywhere in all forms of life. American trees turned the gears of the American economy. Constructing homes and furniture, fueling blast furnaces, building railroads tracks and bridges, powering steam boats and train locomotives, used as preservatives for leather tanneries, and pulp-wood in the production of paper.
If trees were there for the taking, they were cut down without regard in order to fuel the rapid American economic growth. Regulations? Ha, not a chance. There were no regulations or any form of checks and balances between industry and the land. The Broad Arrow Law and the American Revolution were still relatively fresh in the minds of Americans (see part 5). America was founded on freedom of the individual and industry. The Biblical doctrines of “filling and subduing the land” were ingrained into the American DNA via our Christian upbringing roots (see part 3).
But in the mid 1800s the mindset of the forest clearing “to fill and subdue the land” shifted. It shifted from a nobler smaller “freedom of the individual” mindset centered around farms and agriculture, to a greed driven “capitalist business” mindset centered around large lumber companies. Companies that would go on to clear cut swaths of forests to stoke the flames of the American economy in the name of profits.
The national consumption of tree and lumber resources in the mid to late 1800s and into the 1900s was truly incredible and almost unfathomable. Let’s take a look at some industries:
The vast majority of homes in America during the 1800s were made using white pine. It’s the tree that built America. White pine is light weight, durable, attractive looking, and nails stick to them like glue. I love my old wide plank white pine floors in my early 1900s Wilkinsburg home. Many of the older stock homes in Pittsburgh are built using a lot of soft lumber. To give an example of one city, using meticulous records from lumber mills, James Elliot Defebaugh estimated that Pittsburgh consumed “in the neighborhood of 600,000,000 board feet of lumber per year” “principally white pine and hemlock” for the construction of homes.
To give us a sense of how many trees that is let’s do some quick back of envelope math. A board foot is 12″ x 12″ x 1″ piece of wood. According to Ohio State, a 36-inch diameter tree about 40 feet tall would produce 970 board feet of lumber. 600,000,000 divided by 970 would be roughly 600,000 three foot diameter 40 foot tall trees per year. Keep in mind, this is just one blossoming American city. Many eastern and midwestern cities in America are undergoing similar growth and have a great need for lumber resources to house newly arriving immigrant populations.
The railroad industry was a massive consumer of forests. According to Eric Rutkow’s American Canopy, the amount of cord wood burned in railroad engines likely peaked at seven million cords per year in 1870 before switching primarily to coal in 1880 due to dwindling forest reserves. There are about 30-40 of cords of wood in an acre of mature forest. Doing some quick math, seven million cords would be about 200,000 acres (1,000 square miles) of forest per year to fuel steam locomotive engines. For perspective how large of an area this is, Pittsburgh is 50 square miles; the state of Rhode Island is 1,200 square miles. Crossties in the construction of railroad tracks were also a massive consumer of forests. Again from Rutkow: “consumption likely peaked around 1880, when railroads consumed 60 million ties (about 2 billion board feet) for new construction and repairs of worn-out track.” You can do your own math on the amount of trees and board feet that equates. Hint: it’s a real lot.
1800s Earthen Mound Charcoal Production
Up until the 1890s blast furnaces in America primarily used charcoal. 30,000 to 35,000 acres of forest were needed to produce the charcoal to fuel a single iron furnace. In total, it is an estimated 3 to 3.5 million acres of Pennsylvania forests were cut repeatedly for charcoal production. This equated to roughly 50,000 square miles of forest clear cut to heat iron furnaces during this era.
Leather tanneries and their army of lumberjacks stripped the bark from hemlock trees for its rich source of tannin that was then used in creating more durable/wearable leather. After stripping the hemlock clear of its bark, early lumberjacks simply discarded the unprofitable hemlock logs on the ground to rot and waste. And tanning industry did this at almost an unfathomable rate in the late 1800s within northern Pennsylvania. Some of the largest tanneries in the country were located in Warren County in present day Allegheny National Forest along Tionesta Creek. From Defebaugh:
Through Elk (county), the southwestern corner of McKean and the southeastern corner of Warren runs the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad. Along the line of this road, as it passes through this portion of the timber belt, are located the largest tanneries in the United States. These are consuming the hemlock of this region at an enormous rate, and, in addition to the vast amount of bark which they consume, large quantities are shipped out of the region by railroad… the present rate of consumption the hemlock of [Warren] county can hardly hold out twenty years longer…
At the industry’s peak around the turn of the 20th century, hemlock was being cut and wasted over a million acres per year across the entire United States.
A Peeled Hemlock Forest and Wasted Logs
Pulp wood and the advent of the paper industry
Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania Paper Mill Post Card
Of all the revolutionary technological advances that occurred in the 1800s, the one to me that is most under appreciated is the advent of the wood-pulp paper industry. In America, nearly all paper was made out of cloth rags up until the latter half of the 1800s. The origin of a newspaper being called a “rag” is directly linked to this era of paper production. It’s weird today to think of paper being made out of anything but trees but so were the times during the mid 1800s in America.
Eventually rag shortages would hit America due to competing demands between the Civil War and proliferation of the newspaper industry. Many newspapers were in danger of going out of business due to rising costs of rag paper production. In stepped the American Wood Paper Company in 1863 located just outside of Philadelphia to harness America’s rich forest supply for paper production. Eventually in the 1870s wood-pulp paper would revolutionize learning and literacy making cheap affordable newspapers. From Rutkow’s American Canopy:
The New York World first featured wood-pulp paper in 1870. The Providence Journal and the Brooklyn Eagle followed a year later. The New York Times first tried wood-pulp stock in late August 1873, and by the year end had changed over completely…Nearly every large-circulation paper had shifted to wood pulp by 1882, avoiding the apocalyptic predictions of a worldwide rag shortage.
The great supply of American forests would go on to dramatically slash the cost of newspapers due to cheap supply of wood-pulp based paper. America’s vast supply of trees would be directly responsible for cheaply educating large swaths of newly arrived immigrants. Again from Rutkow:
One newspaperman wrote in 1881: “The invention of wood pulp . . . has brought good books, good newspapers, and writing paper within the means of thousands of common people who could never have afforded such luxuries had rags remained the only available material for papers of good quality.”
The education of the common public was undoubtedly a huge positive and massive advantage in the birth of this nation’s educated workforce. It’s likely many generations to come would later reap the benefits of this technology by educating themselves out of poverty with low cost wood-pulp paper. The advent of wood-pulp paper put even more strain on the America’s forest resources. Around the turn of the century paper companies were removing 625 square miles of spruce land per year to supply the demand. Allegheny County is 745 square miles for comparison. No company was bigger than International Paper Company, the world’s largest supplier of paper, who owned over 1 million acres of American forest and 1.5 million acres of Canadian forest.
Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania (pictured above) is located about 120 miles north of Pittsburgh along the Clarion River and has a long history in paper making which is still active as of today in August 2020 at the massive Domtar Paper Mill.
I’ve highlighted mostly Pennsylvania industrial forest logging in this post but the rest of the country was not alone in this behavior toward our nation’s forest supply. The national mindset to trees was to “clear and get out”. The story of America’s forests could fill many large volumes as proven by James Elliot Defebaugh’s History of Lumber in the United States. And his volumes only cover up until about the 1920s up until his death. He never finished it and continued working on his volumes to the end. The stories within the volumes would be filled with sorrowful accounts of the removal of a once proud Native American population from their lands, heroic tales from newly arriving poor immigrants just trying to survive and make a living, wealthy capitalists harnessing industrial technology and scooping up lands by the millions of acres, common working class labor unrest due to poor pay and working conditions, and the environmental destruction of a continent’s virgin forests. These stories are in essence the birth of America and American cities and towns.
If you want to go further down America’s industrial forest logging rabbit hole look into the story of American German immigrant Friedrich Weyerhäuser, the Mississippi River Logging Company of Chicago, and the Weyerhaeuser Company, which today is still the world’s largest supplier of timber.
Friedrich was the American lumber baron “crown king” and a capitalist business tycoon of the late 1800s American Gilded Era. He was the Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates of the country’s timber industry. He scooped up forest land throughout the country for as little as $5 per acre, taking advantage of government loopholes in the process by using newly arriving immigrants to purchase land on his behalf, and thereafter laying waste to centuries old virgin forests in states all across this country especially in the northwest. He died in 1914 and even today he is still the eighth richest American of all-time at a net worth of $85 billion dollars. Just an absurd amount of wealth accumulated by exploiting the rich virgin forests of America. But Friedrich Weyerhaeuser’s story I will save for the subject matter for another time.
The fundamental truth to the American lumber industry during this era was that it was a system that had no form of checks and balances. There was no attempt to create a symbiotic relationship between the nation’s great supply of virgin forests and a collection of absurdly wealthy and greed driven capitalists. By the time checks and balances were put in place by government it was much too late for most of the country’s virgin forests. Much of the nation’s virgin forests outside of a few remaining pockets were gone by the early half of the 20th century. What was once thought as an endless forest of “pernicious weeds” impossible to clear by the first English colonists had been for the most part successfully eradicated by the mid-20th century.
The damage has been done. A select few made their millions and the forests we count on as part of the carbon and water cycles (see part 1) were significantly altered in the process.
But a change of consciousness with respect to our nation’s forests and trees would soon be coming…