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State's history reveals bitter clear-cutting legacy
By Ken Ward Jr.
NONE other than George Washington provided an early description of the untamed
forests that greeted the first explorers and settlers of West Virginia.
On Nov. 4, 1770, traveling on the Kanawha River, Washington wrote in his
journal, "Just as we came to the hills, we met with a sycamore .. .
of a most extraordinary size, it measuring three feet from the ground, forty-five
feet round, lacking two inches and not fifty yards from it was another,
thirty-one feet round."
Nearly 200 years later, Roy B. Clarkson painted a broader picture in his
landmark, "Tumult on the Mountains: Lumbering in West Virginia, 1770-1920."
"When the white men first trod the fertile bottomlands along the rivers
they saw immense oaks, walnuts, yellow-poplars or tulip trees, sycamores
and other hardwoods," he wrote.
"As they ascended the mountains they traversed growths of huge sugar
maples, beech and yellow birch. On the higher plateaus and mountaintops
they encountered forests of red spruce so thick that the forest floor had
not felt the warming rays of the sun fo r centuries."
In just a few decades, millions of acres of trees that took centuries to
grow were wiped out in a flurry of railroad building, sawing and milling.
Today, the trees have grown back. West Virginia's 80-year-old hardwoods
are ripe for another round of cutting.
Now, historians are looking back to see what might be in store for West
Virginia if the state's second forest is timbered as vigorously as the first.
They see another example of the boom-bust economy that has always plagued
West Virginia. They find loggi ng that stripped hills bald and brought horrible
fires and devastating floods.
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Photo from West Virginia and
Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Libraries
Between 1879 and 1920, 30 billion board feet of lumber was produced
in West Virginia. Much of it was hauled out of the state.
Building the railroad
West Virginia's virgin forests remained largely untouched for almost another
century after Washington first saw them.
"Pioneers destroyed valuable trees indiscriminately in clearing land
and constructing farm buildings," wrote historian Otis K. Rice in his
"West Virginia: A History."
"Early industrialists selected choice trees for American and British
shipyards and made millions of barrel staves and hoop poles for Baltimore
and Ohio Valley markets," Rice wrote.
"Their whipsaws, water-powered sash saws, and steam-driven circular
saws, however, had limited capacities and allowed West Virginia forests
a reprieve from the onslaught that occurred later."
In 1870, two-thirds of West Virginia, roughly 10 million acres, was still
covered by native forests.
Industrialization, especially the coming of the railroads, changed all that.
Large-scale timbering was possible after railroads were built to haul the
lumber to market.
By 1875, two major railroad lines crossed West Virginia to connect the nation's
Eastern cities and Midwestern farms. In 1852, the Baltimore & Ohio completed
its line through Wheeling. Then, in 1873, the Chesapeake & Ohio finished
its line through the New and Kanawha river valleys to Huntington.
A third major railroad, the Norfolk & Western, drove through the southern
part of the state in 1888.
At the time, major rail companies would not risk extending their lines any
deeper into the rugged West Virginia forests.
That job was left to a small group of in-state capitalists, including Sens.
Johnson Newlon Camden, Henry G. Davis and Stephen B. Elkins. They financed
smaller railroad systems that branched from main lines into the forest interior.
Timber operators could then bring in heavy steam-powered equipment required
to cut, transport and process giant trees. Vast segments of forests could
be cut clean. Technologically advanced mills with voracious appetites opened
across the state.
The Meadow River mill at Rainelle was the largest lumber mill in the world
in its heyday. It consumed 3,000 acres of virgin timber a year.
In 1909, the peak production year, 83 band saw mills and 1,441 other lumber
mills produced nearly 1.5 billion board feet of lumber. The largest known
tree to fall was a white oak in Tucker County that measured 13.5 feet in
diameter. It produced enough lu mber to fill an entire train.
Between 1879 and 1912, an estimated 20 billion board feet of lumber was
cut in West Virginia. This represented about 8.5 million acres, or 85 percent
of the state's virgin forest, destroyed.
As better and faster saws were used, the cutting increased even more. In
another eight years, the total timber cut in West Virginia reached 30 billion
"This amount of lumber would build a walk 127 feet wide and 2 inches
thick around the earth at the equator or would make a walkway 13 feet wide
and 2 inches thick the average distances to the moon," Clarkson figured.
Rice wrote that, "By 1920, most of the virgin timber was gone, and
the lumber industry began a steady decline.
"Production in the 1950s dropped to about one-fourth that of the pre-World
War I era. In spite of efforts at reforestation and conservation, timbering
and related industries, like coal mining and other extractive industries,
left a legacy of depleted res ources, scarred terrain and fleeting prosperity."
Photo from West Virginia
and Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Libraries
West Virginia forests once contained giant oaks, walnuts and sycamore
trees. In a flurry of logging, most of the virgin forest was destroyed.
West Virginia's second forest
Are the state's forests targeted for another 20- or 30-year explosion? Would
that explosion be followed by another timber depression?
Ronald L. Lewis, a professor of history at West Virginia University, was
intrigued by those questions. For the last few years, Lewis, a prominent
coal and labor researcher, dug into timber history. In a series of recent
articles, Lewis questioned the imp acts of turn-of-the-century timbering.
"The cutting of the virgin forest caused the virtual elimination of
entire ecological systems, with profound social and environmental consequences,"
Lewis wrote. "By the 1920s, even the most strident promoters of West
Virginia's industrialization had amp le reason to contemplate its consequences.
"The self-sufficient agriculture that had been the basis of traditional
culture now was pushed aside by a modern commercial system," Lewis
wrote in the WVU Alumni Magazine Summer 1996 issue.
"A new market system that had initially seemed reason for optimism
among farmers in the deforested mountains now placed them in direct competition
with midwestern producers who labored under fewer geographic disadvantages,"
he wrote. "Then, with the tree s gone, the railroads pulled up their
tracks and left the newly market-dependent mountain population stranded.
"When it was all over, the countryside was a forlorn sea of stumps,
industrial refuge and commercially devastated people, abandoned to the more
forgiving forces of nature."
Cutting the giant virgin forest left dry branches and treetops on the forest
floor. This created a tinderbox awaiting a careless spark.
"With heavy steam equipment in the forest, sparks were ever present
to ignite the infernos which repeatedly swept the countryside," Lewis
wrote. "The extent of the damage caused by these fires is staggering.
"In 1908, the number of fires reached 710 and burned an area of more
than 1.7 million acres, representing more than one-tenth of the entire surface
of the state and one-fifth of its forested area.
"Destruction of the deep humus soil that had built up on the forest
floor for thousands of years reduced countless acres of land to bare rock
in the highest elevations of the interior counties," Lewis wrote.
In a 1911 report for the West Virginia Geological Survey, noted conservationist
A.B. Brooks blamed the timber cutting for the increase in flooding across
the state. Deforestation also played a role in droughts, Brooks explained.
"Generally speaking, a woodland soil absorbs more water than naked
ground," Brooks wrote. "The decaying leaves, the roots and stems,
and the more porous nature of the upper layers of the forest soil take up
the rain and melting snow, and hold it for a ti me, permitting it to filter
away slowly and enter the streams gradually.
"Sudden rushes of water down steep slopes after a rain are thus hindered,
and the streams rise more slowly, flow more regularly, and seldom reach
excessively low stages.
"When the same has been laid bare and packed by its own weight and
under the unobstructed beating of rain drops, its surface hardens, its porosity
is lessened, and it sheds water like a roof.
"The West Virginia mountains would, if denuded, be a constant menace
to all the lower valleys," Brooks wrote in 1911. "Floods surpassing
everything known in this region heretofore would be sure to follow. On the
other hand, streams would speedily become dry after the rains had ceased."
Brooks noted that data, new at the time, showed that floods in the Ohio
River at Wheeling increased 28 percent in number over 26 years. Potomac
River floods at Harpers Ferry increased 36 percent in 18 years. The Monongahela
River floods at Greensboro, Pa ., showed an increase of 73 percent in 24
years and Kanawha River flooding 83 percent at Charleston over 20 years.
Further, the increase in low water periods, for the same time period, was:
Ohio River, 39 percent Potomac 40 percent Monongahela, 36 percent and Kanawha
about the same as the Monongahela.
"The increase of the total discharge of West Virginia rivers, in spite
of diminishing rainfall and a greater fluctuation than formerly in the periods
of high and low water, is due solely, so far as available data can be interpreted,
to the deforestation of the mountains," Brooks wrote.
"There is no reason to doubt that a continuation of the timber cutting
and burning will increase the fluctuation of the streams, if, indeed, it
does not permanently reduce the rainfall which is by no means improbable."
Clarkson was even more blunt and harsh in his 1964 book.
"Thus, throughout the State lumbering and its insidious camp follower,
fire, reduced the grandeur of the original forest to a rubble of smoking
sticks and bare stone," he wrote. "The resultant erosion and lack
of flood control have cost millions and grea tly reduced the beauty and
value of the land.
"Who is to blame? - The lumber barons who greedily grew richer as the
land was savaged? The politicians who allowed them to pillage the land?
Or the people of the state who sat by and ignored it all? Future generations
will condemn all of them!"
Lewis offered a more hopeful prediction.
"Our growing environmental consciousness has spawned yet another transition
in the mountains: we now seek to save our woods from the people, because
the passing of the virgin forest, which we thought would save the people
from the woods, pushed mountain culture to the brink of extinction."
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