During the four-hundred-year history of land use that this book chronicles, the single greatest human activity to affect environmental and cultural change in the southern Appalachians is industrial logging. Where There Are Mountains, An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians, Donald Edward Davis
A northern lumberman admitted to me, with frankness unusual in his class, that "All we want here is to get the most we can out of the country, as quick as we can, and then get out." Our Southern Highlanders, Horace Gephart
Everyone who has seen the havoc and desolation the lumberman leaves in his wake knows how inexpressibly sad he is when he turns and flees from the sight of it. Article in favor of the Great Smokey Mtns. National Park, 1925, Horace Gephart The pioneers who pushed into the Appalachian ridges in the 18th century knew well how to utilize the forest for building materials and fuel. They were used to the exploitation of eastern forests for naval stores for the British fleet. Iron forges and saltworks utilized acres of trees for charcoal. Beginning in the 18th century, many settlers would cut trees in the winter and in the spring thaw would float rafts of logs down rivers to East Coast cities. By the mid-19th century, intensive utilization of Appalachian trees began.
During the period between 1850 and 1870, the center of the lumber industry shifted into northern and central Pennsylvania. Williamsport, with 29 sawmills, became known as the lumber capital of the world. Its great mills, strategically located on the Susquehanna River, were supplied by logs floated down river from tributary streams to the north. The log boom, operated by the Susquehanna Boom Company, stretched seven miles along Williamsport's river front and was credited with a holding capacity of over 250 million board feet of lumber. It is within this period that Pennsylvania was the greatest producing state in the nation.
In the Southern Appalachians, northern lumber entrepreneurs began to send scouts into the forests to purchase hardwood trees which could be cut and transported to lowland mills. This activity did not greatly impinge on the use of the forests by mountain farmers; in fact felling the trees provided a nice seasonal addition to family income. The massive industrial exploitation of the forest riches would wait until the last decade of the 19th century and the completion of railroad systems into the mountains.
The new steel highways allowed timber entrepreneurs of Pennsylvania and the Northeast to set up extensive operations in the southern mountains as the timber resources of their homelands gave out. One Williamsport native, William M. Ritter, "the father of southern hardwoods," began with "a single sawmill on the Norfolk and Western near Bluefield in 1890" and rapidly expanded his company through the forests of five Appalachian states: West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Pennsylvania lumbermen also opened the spruce and hardwood forests of the White Top Mountain district along the Virginia-North Carolina border and created Ritter's two next-largest rivals in the Great Smoky Mountains: the W.B. Townsend Company, which operated in Tennessee, and the Whitmer-Parsons Company, which like Ritter operated in West Virginia before expanding into North Carolina. Appalachia, A History John Alexander Williams (246)
However, the utilizers of the new transportation links for the timber industry by no means came exclusively from outside the southern mountains. West Virginia's industrialist-senators Henry G. Davis, Stephen B. Elkins, and Johnson Newlon Camden knit together the Chesapeake and Ohio passing through the southern portion of the state and the Baltimore and Ohio crossing the northern section with their own railroads through major forest lands. The efforts of these capitalists and others created more than 600 logging railroads in "an elaborate web of rails linking the processing mills along the main lines with the cutting face deep in the forest... [A]t least forty of the fifty-five counties in West Virginia had one or more logging railroads.", (Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920 Ronald L. Lewis, 299)
Similar webs of railroads, of standard and narrow gauge, penetrated the mountains south of West Virginia, and similar groups of investors, local and national, bankrolled the creation of logging camps and sawmill towns in the Appalachian highlands. They gained control of tens of thousands of acres of mountain land, often discovering that they owned not only areas rich in trees, but also rich in coal. The economically-weakening mountain farms lost the ability to allow livestock to range freely in mountain woods while gaining a source of full-time industrial employment.
With the introduction of machine logging technology into the mountains after 1910, the streams and soil of the mountains were increasingly destroyed. In Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers; Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930, Ronald D. Eller describes the process: steep-grade climbing Shay locomotives along with overhead cableway skidders and giant bandsaws allowed operators to cut more timber at only a fraction of the cost earlier methods. But when used with log slides, river flumes, and splash dams, the modern techniques destroyed the streambeds and the reproductive capacities of the land. Great woods fires became almost a yearly phenomenon in the Blue Ridge, as lightening or sparks from machinery ignited sawdust and slash piles left by the loggers. The opening of Champion and other pulp mills provided a market for the smallest tress, lending a new meaning to the term 'merchantable timber.' Entire mountains were clearcut and left to erode with the spring rains. (110)
Clearcut or burnt-over mountainsides from New England to the Great Smoky Mountains led concerned Americans to expand the national forest movement beyond the western United States LINK, and the destroyed acreage negatively impacted dwellers in the mountains. Besides eroded soils and streams poisoned by bark tanneries, sawmills, and paper mills, in the years after World War I mountain communities faced the collapse of the timber boom in Appalachia. The big trees were gone, and the giant corporations had shifted the base of their operations to the Pacific Northwest. A number of towns connected to the lumber industry simply disappeared. The denuded mountains now could not absorb sudden rainfalls, and soil erosion and floods became chronic.
Timbering in the mountains continued on a reduced scale, but with the New Deal, reforestation also became a reality in the mountains, while interest in fostering a fish and game industry aided in rectifying some of the damage from the Lumber Boom.