One early Pennsylvania settler from England was dismayed by his newfound home.
It was “not a land of prospects,” he declared. “There is too much wood.” At the top of a hill, he elaborated, the view “generally is nothing but an undulating surface of impenetrable forest.”
That such vast woodlands could be transformed to a wildfire-plagued wasteland seemed unimaginable. Yet it happened. And the story of that transformation — and subsequent recovery — is told at the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum, nestled in the second-growth forest of Potter County in the northcentral portion of the state that was ground zero for the timber boom.
The museum, administered by the state Historical & Museum Commission, allows visitors to experience a reconstructed lumber camp, complete with a sawmill, support buildings and a logging era steam locomotive.
But exhibits inside the visitor center put those into context. “We’re really looking at human beings and our relationship with the forest over time, and how that has changed,” said Joshua Roth, the museum administrator.
Human intervention began with Native Americans, who used the woodlands for food, fuel and building materials. They managed forests, using fire, to promote the growth of desired trees and clear the land for agriculture. But their impact was small, and an estimated 90% of the state was forested when William Penn arrived in 1692.
New settlers saw forests as a source of fuel and building materials but also as an obstacle to farming. Yet Penn recognized their value, at least to a point, urging settlers to “leave one acre of trees for every five acres cleared.”
Nonetheless, the era of deforestation began shortly after settlement. The museum largely focuses on the lumber boom that started in the mid-1800s.
That was made possible, in part, by the state’s large rivers — the Susquehanna, Allegheny and Delaware — which provided ready transportation routes to get logs to the market. Initially, large rafts moved logs downstream. But that method gave way to log “drives,” putting the logs directly into the water and floating them en masse downstream. Booms built across waterways at sawmill towns would catch the logs.
Managing the drives was dangerous. Men would walk atop floating log piles that would occasionally become jammed on the rivers — hence the word logjam. They would look for logs causing the blockage and use hand tools to free them — along with the mass of backed-up logs waiting to rush downriver. “I’m sure you had to be brave and skillful in order to accomplish that and make it out alive,” Roth said.
Through photos, hands-on exhibits, dioramas, displays of tools and accessories, the museum reveals stories of the people and places that thrived, and sometimes died, during the height of the logging era.
Williamsport, on the West Branch of the Susquehanna, was one that thrived. It had its first sawmill in 1834 and its first log boom in 1851. For a time, it had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. In 1875 alone, it produced 190 million board feet of white pine.
The museum shows how technology shaped the lumber industry. At first, boards were cut by two-man teams using a saw pit, with one man in the pit and one on top working a saw. The man at the bottom was fated to a day of sawdust falling on his face. “That’s where the expression ‘it’s the pits’ comes from,” Roth said.
The pits were replaced by steam-powered, up-and-down saws, then circular saws. Each technological improvement allowed more wood to be cut and sold, driving more harvest. As woods near rivers were cleared, timbering operations moved upstream, empowered by new specialized steam engines that could haul heavy loads along narrow, steep tracks in the mountains.
As white pine diminished, attention gradually turned to hemlocks, valued in part because their bark was rich in the tannin used to tan leather hides. By 1880, Pennsylvania had nearly 900 tanneries, the world’s largest concentration.
Other uses were developed for the smaller hardwood trees left behind, such as the production of wood alcohol, charcoal, fertilizer, firewood and other products.
There was little regard for the impact of widespread forest clearing and related industries. Huge photos on the museum walls drive home the extent of the devastation. “The best [swimming] holes — those in the Cedar Run below the tannery — were unfit for bathing on account of the waste from the tannery,” lamented one resident of the tiny town of Leetonia.
Bigger impacts became evident as clearcut wastelands became tinder for massive and frequent wildfires. “There’s an account from Theodore Roosevelt where he was taking a train from Washington, DC, back up to New York state and wrote that he couldn’t sleep at night because it was as bright as day outside with all of the fires that were burning all across Pennsylvania,” Roth said.
That gave a boost to the fledgling conservation movement and for fresh thinking about forests. At the forefront was Joseph T. Rothrock, commissioner of the newly created Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry from 1895 to 1904.
Forests were in such poor condition they often couldn’t regenerate on their own, so Rothrock created a system of nurseries to help replant trees. During his tenure, the state acquired 600,000 acres of degraded woodlands — 30% of today’s state-owned forest — sometimes for as little as $2 an acre. The Mont Alto Academy was created to educate a new generation of foresters, one of the country’s first such schools.
Depleted forests took an economic toll. Once-booming lumber towns disappeared as the industry moved on. By the 1920s, 75% of the wood needed by Pennsylvania paper pulp mills had to be imported from other states.
“By the time we get to the depleted forest era, we’re down to about 30% forest cover,” Roth said. “However, that 30% is largely homogenous in terms of the type of species, and in terms of age, and not really useful for lumber production, or any other type of forest product production.”
Restoration efforts got a boost from the Civilian Conservation Corps — President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “tree army.” Enrollees earning $25 a month fought fires, planted 50 million trees in the state, erected 86 forest fire towers, built and repaired 6,300 miles of roads and trails, constructed 98 small dams and helped to control the spread of tree diseases.
Moving to the present, exhibits show that today’s forests, occupying about 60% of the state, face continuing challenges from nonnative insects, disease, wildlife overpopulation such as deer, and lack of regeneration.
Modern forests are also different from those seen by settlers. No longer dominated by conifers, they are largely hardwoods. Pennsylvania exports nearly $1.2 billion in hardwood lumber and wood products each year, much of it produced from industrial forest lands which, unlike the past, are managed to sustain production over time. Plus, the industry employs about 80,000 people. On the 2.2 million acres of state-owned forest lands, management considerations include not just harvest, but recreation and wildlife.
After learning the history, museum visitors step outside to experience a bit of the boom era through a reconstructed logging camp. There is the shack of the “filer” who maintained sharp saws, the blacksmith shop, the laundry shed (Sunday was laundry day), the bunkhouse and the mess hall. And, of course, there’s a sawmill featuring a steam-powered circular saw.
A highlight is the 1880s Shay locomotive, a specially geared engine designed to climb steep mountain grades and haul harvested trees.
Outdoor exhibits also showcase the work of those who sought to restore the state’s woodlands. In addition to a CCC cabin, there’s the primitive cabin that was home to forester and outdoor enthusiast Bob Webber and his wife, Dotty, now set up to tell the story of their contributions to the state’s forests.
The journey puts a focus on those changing perspectives. From settlers, who thought forests were as inconvenient as they were inexhaustible, to industrial-scale destruction, and finally to recovery.
“We can’t cut every tree down and use it, and we can’t leave every tree standing,” Roth said. “We’ve got to balance both of those aspects to make sure that we have a forest that is meeting all those different needs in perpetuity.”
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