Appalachian Timber Boom, 1870s

From The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2013), Kindle pp. 43-45, 47:

With the South eagerly rebuilding after four years of bitter destruction, timber was in great demand, and the Tug River Valley had it in spades. Indeed, there was not only a seemingly inexhaustible expanse of timber, but also an easy way to transport it: logs could be floated down brooks, streams, and rivers—the Levisa and Tug forks of the Big Sandy and the Guyandotte River in West Virginia—to sawmills on the Ohio River, and from there the lumber could be shipped around the nation.

Giant tulip trees—native only to the East Coast and China and, at two hundred feet, North America’s tallest trees—blossomed in spring, catching sunlight in brilliant lanterns. The mountain men, who called them yellow poplars, put them to the ripsaw and ax. They also felled and floated other hardwoods—steely hickories, dense elms, and sprawling walnuts—on westward rafts. Sawmills on the Ohio hummed, turning these trees into the lumber that was building America. At the international Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, the state of West Virginia would proudly display at its much-visited exhibit samples of its wide array of commercial lumber: from cedar, spruce, and white walnut to chestnut, sugar maple, white ash, and black cherry.

To construct a raft of logs, the loggers floated or sledded their timber to a cofferdam in a river bend. There they interspersed floaters—logs of lighter wood, like poplar, chestnut, basswood, or sometimes pine—with those of the denser ash, oak, hemlock, hickory, maple, or walnut to keep them buoyant. Once the logs were in line, they fastened oak or hickory binders to the ends with hardwood pegs. Over time, metal chain dogs, wedge-shaped steel points joined together by short chains, replaced the wooden pegs. Then the men attached rigging made from ropes or grapevines.

A timber merchant could harvest land he owned, or he could buy trees for a dollar apiece, or two dollars for an especially good specimen (though the most prized wood, walnut, cost up to ten dollars per tree). The price of the labor to fell the trees, peel them—all logs were floated to the mills without their bark—haul them to a waterway, build the raft, and then float it to the mill was a dollar a day per man.

High-quality poplar brought sixteen cents a cube (twelve inches in length by eighteen in diameter). Oak and sycamore and many other species brought in ten to twelve cents. Top walnut went from twenty cents to a dollar a cube. Walnut was so valuable that men would go back and dig up the stumps to sell for veneer.

Those selling timber had their tricks, sometimes concealing rotten cores with solid pegs. Logs with bad knots or holes were locked into rafts with the blemishes facing down to avoid detection. Buyers had their own stratagems: some were known to squeeze their calipers together when measuring logs to trim an inch here and there, which, when compounded across a raft, added up.

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Filed under Appalachia, economics, labor

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