The Not So Wild and Wonderful History of West Virginia’s Forests
I have always been interested in studying history, and in West Virginia we have a rich history that holds many secrets and stories. On my mom’s side of the family, I am a descendant of the Lewis family. Perhaps you’ve heard of Andrew Lewis who fought at the Battle of Point Pleasant. His brother, John Lewis was my 8th Great Grandfather. Their father immigrated from Donegal, Ireland in 1732 and settled in Augusta County, VA. My ancestors then later moved west, across the mountains, to Greenbrier County, VA to the area now known as … Lewisburg.
I say this to create a mental image. If you look at pictures of Donegal, Ireland you will be surprised to see striking similarities with our own region. Rolling hills, pastures, and beautiful farmland dot the landscape. My initial thought was “My ancestors moved from Ireland … to Ireland?” However, that isn’t really the case. They recreated their homeland here by transforming the entire ecosystem!
"A wilderness of great extent, presenting the virgin face of nature, unchanged by human cultivation or art, is certainly one of the most sublime terrestrial objects which the Creator ever presented to the view of man........."
Joseph Doddridge, 1824
Early settlers to the area would’ve been presented with a wild, primeval landscape that was just as alien to them as it is to us today. Trees towering hundreds of feet into the air with a canopy so thick one could barely see the sky. These trees were massive! On November 4, 1770, while traveling along the Kanawha River, George 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."
The forest floor was covered in decomposing plant matter. This humus was feet thick in some places and covered with mosses, ferns, and many other types of plants. In many areas it was as dangerous as quicksand and in others thick undergrowth created nearly impenetrable walls. Legend has it that Cheat Mountain got its name by cheating settlers, looking for a shortcut over the mountains, out of their lives. On stormy summer days temperatures on the mountain can easily go from a sweltering 80 degrees to a wet and windy 40 degrees in a matter of minutes.
At first the transformation of the state was slow. Settlers would girdle trees to kill them, and then they would be cut down to build cabins, fences, or burned as firewood. In many cases they were just clearing a few acres in valleys for farm land. Then, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, more land started to be cleared to build early forts and then towns as more settlers arrived.
Skip ahead a few decades until after the Civil War. West Virginia is a state now, and the Industrial Revolution is taking place. The US needs raw materials for building homes, laying railroad tracks, building ships, making paper, and hundreds of other uses. This is when logging in the state becomes industrialized.
The most valuable logging tree in the State was red spruce. It occurred over vast areas on the tops of mountains and on the plateaus. Prior to the logging effort, there was 469,000 acres of spruce in the Allegheny forest. The typical red spruce was 60 to 90 feet tall with a diameter of 2 to 4 feet. The greatest stand of red spruce in the world (in terms of size and quality) could be found along the upper Red Creek in what is now Dolly Sods Wilderness. The distinctive landscape of the region today is characterized by stunted trees, wind-carved boulders, heath barrens, and grassy meadows created in the last century by logging and fires. At one time, the region was burned to bedrock.
The first patent for a band saw in the United States was granted to B. Barker in 1836, and the first band saw mill was erected in West Virginia in 1881. The concept for the band saw was simple. A flat saw blade fashioned into a continuous loop was mounted on two large wheels. One of the wheels was powered by a steam engine. As the steam engine turned the band saw, a log was passed through the blade, cutting a board 16-feet long. Sawdust from the cutting was efficiently drawn down through the floor where it was blown directly into a hopper feeding the steam engine. Some of the larger, more powerful mills had band saw blades with teeth on both sides so cutting could be performed with each back-and-forth pass of the log.
During the forty-year heyday of large-scale logging production in West Virginia, the band saw mill was king. It required 17 acres per day of West Virginia virgin timber to keep a single mill filled with a steady flow of logs. In 1909, at the peak of lumber operations, there were 83 band saw mills and 1,441 other lumbering establishments operating in the state. Nearly 1.5 BILLION board-feet of lumber were produced during just that year alone!
The estimated amount of lumber cut in West Virginia by logging is staggering. The total lumber cut in West Virginia between 1870 and 1920 was more than 30 billion board feet. With this amount of lumber we would build a walkway 10 feet wide and 2 inches thick to the moon!
If logging wasn't enough, the final chapter in the destruction of the Allegheny ecosystem was to be played out by the sterilizing element of fire. The first episode in a long chain of events that led to the complete destruction of the original forest occurred in 1863 when fire escaped from the campfire of Confederate scouts on the Roaring Plains in Randolph County. For many years thereafter, destructive fires swept through the region from the head of the Greenbrier River along the sides and top of Allegheny Mountain through Pendleton, Randolph, Grant and Tucker counties. The slash from the virgin forest (branches, and tree crowns with wood too small to be of marketable use) was extensive. Fire followed fire until the remaining green timber and all new growth destroyed. This was especially true in the spruce areas, where even the deep humus was burned to bed rock. Many stands of virgin hardwood were not cut, but destroyed by fire spreading from areas of spruce slash into areas of hardwood.
Amazingly two areas in West Virginia were spared so you can still get a glimpse of the truly wild and wonderful forest of old. The first area is Cathedral State Park. The park is home to an ancient hemlock forest of gigantic proportions. Trees up to 100 feet tall and 20 feet in diameter form groups in the park. The park is just 133 acres, but it can still give you a taste of what the majestic Allegheny forest must’ve been like 300 years ago.
The second area of virgin forest in the state is the Monongahela National Forest Gaudineer Knob Scenic Area. The story of how this area was “accidentally” saved is pretty interesting. Essentially, prior to the Civil War a speculating land company bought 69,000 acres on the slope of Shaver’s Mountain. Their tract was about 7 miles long going north to south along the east side of the mountain. When the surveyor mapped the land, he failed to account for the variation between magnetic north versus true north on the map. Measuring from the south, this caused a 4 degree error in the measurements. Multiply that error over 7 miles and you now have a V-shaped swath of land that contains around 900 acres. On future surveys, the owners thought that area belonged to neighboring land owners so it was spared. Sadly some of the area was eventually logged and other areas claimed by fire. Now just 130 acres of virgin spruce remain.
Think of that. Out of the over 16 MILLION acres of original forest in West Virginia only 263 acres are standing today. The next time you go for a walk in the woods keep in mind that that forest is most likely only around 100 years old. West Virginia might be “almost heaven”, but it was grown from the ashes of Eden.
I had mentioned before that our ancestors artificially created the Irish-countryside-like appearance of the state we see today. For the most part that is true. They imported grass seeds to grow pastures, farm animals, and the farming techniques of the old country. Also, over time plants from the prairies of the west migrated into the region. (Yes. Plants can migrate. They just move really slowly.) Carried by migrating animals, the wind, or other means, you see the appearance of prairie plants like iron weed, milkweed, black-eyed Susan, and many others. However, leave an area in West Virginia to its own devices, and as if by instinct, the land will once again become forest. It might take decades, but it will happen.
Today, armed with the knowledge of proper forest management, we are possibly looking at the reemergence of the timber industry in West Virginia. There are currently millions of acres of timber in the state ready to be harvested. Let’s just keep our history in mind as we move forward. As the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.