The True Cost of a Pennsylvania Camp Fire

You can’t even say “Pennsylvania” without talking about the woods. Literally. The Latin word “Sylvania” (woodland) has been embedded in the very name of the state since it was chartered in in the 17th century.

Before Europeans arrived in Pennsylvania, 99% of the landscape was covered in forests like this one. Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 6.20.

Pennsylvania’s woods have been many things to many people. For some its a home, others a place to visit as often as possible. It has made many fortunes and provided for the livelihood of even more. The woods’ resources have supplied the needs of individuals, communities, and industries in the state and around the world, and its been a place of inspiration to all its visitors. Its hard to understate its importance to our region.

But when it comes to our view of the woods, Pennsylvanians have had very different perspectives and ideas. The thought of the woods as a natural wonder in need of respect and protection would have seemed alien to many Pennsylvanians living a century ago. Instead, the woods were an obstacle to be conquered so that civilization could advance. Millions of seemingly unlimited acres of timber stood in the way of progress, profit, and comfort.

The Big Trees Gone
“The Big Trees Gone, Looking up Big Moshannon Creek Towards the Mouth of Six Mile Run, Centre County,” 1912. Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 6.20.

By the early 20th century, Pennsylvania’s woods were devastated. Clear cutting, industrial timbering, and frequent forest fires destroyed virtually every viable acre of forest state-wide.

State Forester Joseph Rothrock famously called the northern and western parts of the state a great “Pennsylvania Desert.” In 1904 the U.S. Geological Survey lamented the loss of more than 60% of the timber that used to blanket Pennsylvania: “the entire region has been deforested. Save for a scrub thicket and immature trees, which may at some distant date produce timber, the hills are bare. There are few places in the East where the natural beauties of mountain scenery and the natural resources of timber lands have been destroyed to the extent that has taken place in northern Pennsylvania.”

Deer damage to Plantations
“Damage to Plantations Near the McGeorge Road, Moshannon State Forest District, Clearfield County,” 1928. Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 6.20.

When we think about deforestation in Pennsylvania, our minds usually turn to the voracious timber industry that harvested billions of board feet of lumber. Historian Paul Wallace is one of many who has documented the invasion of this “army of loggers.” It only took a few generations of intensive timbering before “the trees came down, like tall grass before a giant scythe.”

However, its important to listen to the voices of ordinary Pennsylvanians too. Their attitudes towards the woods and the trees are equally telling and can provide lessons for us as we try to save the world’s forests today.

A Log Home in the Black Forest
“A Log Home in the Black Forest, Cameron County,” c. 1900. Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 6.20.

From the time Europeans landed in what is now Pennsylvania, they worked ceaselessly to remove the forests that surrounded them. Rothrock cited the arrival of Swedish colonists in the 1630s as the beginning of this process called “clearing.” “‘Making a clearing’ was simply removing the timber to make room for the farms ‘that were to be.’ What timber was not needed for immediate use was burned to get it out of the way.” According to Rothrock, the original meaning of the term “log rolling” was when men would work together to pile giant logs together “so that they might be speedily and completely burned.” As Pennsylvania’s population grew and spread in the north and west, many more hands made light work of the dense woods.

Fast-forward to the 1850s and Pennsylvanians had the same ideas about their woods- the trees were an obstacle to be cleared to make room for other activities and work. When conservationist George Washington Sears moved to Wellsboro (Tioga County), he witnessed the same “log rolling” community spirit still drove his neighbors to clear and waste many a tree.

Decades later he lamented the waste in entertaining detail:

“Summer boarders, tourists and sportsmen, are not the only men who know how to build a camp-fire all wrong.

When I first came to Northern Pennsylvania, thirty-five years ago, I found game fairly abundant; and, as I wanted to learn the country where deer most abounded, I naturally cottoned to the local hunters. Good fellows enough, and conceited, as all local hunters and anglers are apt to be. Strong, good hunters and axe-men, to the manor born, and prone to look on any outsider as a tenderfoot. Their mode of building camp-fires was a constant vexation to me. They made it a point to always have a heavy sharp axe in camp, and toward night some sturdy chopper would cut eight or ten logs as heavy as the whole party could lug to camp with hand spikes. The size of the logs was proportioned to the muscular force in camp. If there was a party of six or eight, the logs would be twice as heavy as when we were three or four. Just at dark, there would be a log heap built in front of the camp, well chinked with bark, knots and small sticks; and, for the next two hours, one could hardly get at the fire to light a pipe. But the fire was sure though slow. By 10 or 11 P.M. it would work its way to the front, and the camp would be warm and light. The party would turn in, and deep sleep would fall on a lot of tired hunters- for two or three hours. By which time some fellow near the middle was sure to throw his blanket off with a spiteful perk, and dash out of camp with, “Holy Moses! I can’t stand this; its an oven.”

Man standing next to big tree.JPG
Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 6.20.

Another (in the coldest corner of shanty)- “What’s ‘er matter- with a-you fellows? Better dig out- an’ cool off in the snow. Shanty’s comfor’ble enough.”

His minority report goes unheeded. The camp is roasted out. Strong hands and hand-spikes pry a couple of glowing logs from the front and replace them with two cold, green logs; the camp cools off, and the party takes to blankets and once more- to turn out again at 5 A.M. and inaugurate breakfast. The fire is not in favorable shape for culinary operations, the heat is mainly on the back side, just where it isn’t wanted. The few places level enough to set a pot or pan are too hot; and, in short, where there is any fire, there is too much. One man sees, with intense disgust, the nozzle of his coffee-pot drop into the fire. He makes a rash grab to save his coffee, and gets away- with the handle, which hangs on just enough to upset the pot.

“Old Al,” who is frying a slice of pork over a bed of coals that would melt a gun barrel, starts a horse laugh, that is cut short by a blue flash and an explosion of pork fat, which nearly blinds him. And the writer, taking in these mishaps in the very spirit of fun and frolic, is suddenly sobered and silenced by seeing his venison steak drop from the end of the “Frizzling stick,” and disappear between two glowing logs. The party manages, however, to get off on the hunt at daylight, with full stomachs; and perhaps the hearty fun and laughter more than compensate for these little mishaps.

This is a digression. But I am led to it by the recollection of many nights spent in camps and around camp-fires, pretty much as described above. I can smile today at the remembrance of the calm, superior way in which the old hunters of that day would look down on me, as from the upper branches of a tall hemlock, when I ventured to suggest that a better fire could be made with half the fuel and less than half the labor. They would kindly remark, “Oh, you are a Boston boy. You are used to paying $8.00 a cord for wood. We have no call to save wood here. We can afford to burn it by the acre.” Which was more true than logical. Most of these men had commenced life with a stern declaration of war against the forest; and, although the men usually won at last, the battle was a long and hard one. Small wonder that they came to look upon a forest tree as a natural enemy.”

Rolling Logs Unto Skidway
“Rolling Logs Unto Skidway, Leetonia, Tioga County,” c. 1900. Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 6.20.

For ordinary men and women living in Pennsylvania’s forests the trees were a resource, but not one that needed to be conserved or used responsibly. If Sears’ recollection of this encounter is accurate, then its small wonder that conservation wasn’t pursued in earnest in the state until it was too late to save most of the old-growth forests.

In the early 20th century forest conservation grew in popularity and support thanks to the work of national figures like John Muir, and also because of the increased interest in protecting wooded areas at the state and local levels. In Pennsylvania, the Chestnut Tree Blight and harsh reports like the 1904 Geological Survey spurred leaders to protect the forests. In 1895 Pennsylvania created a state department of agriculture with a Division of Forestry to monitor and report on the health of state forests. In 1897 legislation was passed that let the state purchase land for forest reservations. The Pennsylvania State Forest School was founded at Mount Alto and trained scores of foresters to help preserve and regrow the state’s wooded areas. Yet the lumber industry could not be stopped, and it consumed privately-held woodlands with an insatiable appetite.

Joseph Rothrock
Rothrock and his dog atop Pulpit Rock in 1917, today part of Michaux State Forest in Franklin County. Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 6.20.

You might expect all the blame for deforestation to fall on the lumber barons, furnace owners, and other industrialists who depended on timber. But the industry’s rank-and-file were also partly responsible. Late in his life, former wood hick Hiram Cranmer recalled fellow loggers using reckless deforestation as a tactic to ensure fair working conditions and wages. According to Cranmer, the threat of forest fires was an effective way to get unscrupulous owners to treat workers fairly. Forest fires were a regular occurrence at the turn of the century- sometimes caused by accidentally by refuse left behind and industrial logging activities, other times maliciously by spurned loggers. In either case, there were few resources to protect the forests once a deadly blaze was sparked.

Cranmer described several occasions where fellow lumber men set the forests ablaze in the name of justice and fair wages:

“In the hemlock woods the men had a powerful weapon, “the red-horse let loose in the slashing” (Fire). It happened more than once when a company foreman tried to cheat a man, for the man to reach in his pocket, get a nickel, hold it up and look the foreman in the eye and say, “that will buy a box of matches!” This would bring a satisfactory settlement. In 1893 Goodyear paid his contractors and some of them absconded without paying their men. Goodyear wouldn’t pay the men their bark-peeling wages. Fire broke out all over his slashing in Bog Moore Run in Potter Co., PA. In vain Goodyear offered four dollars per day for firefighters. The men jeered him. Helplessly he watched a million dollars go up in smoke.”

Walter Moore bought a track of hemlock timber in Cameron County, Pa., built a camp and proceeded to peel the bark. He forced his men to work in the rain. When the bark was peeled his men drew their pay. Next day fire broke out all over his cutting. His investment of twenty thousand dollars went up in smoke in less than one hour.”

Once a fire started, it was not long before utter destruction followed. Dozens of fires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries burned hundreds of thousands of acres of trees in Pennsylvania, often destroying entire lumber camps and whole towns along with them.

Early on it seemed that Pennsylvania’s forests would never end, that its timber would always be plentiful and an unlimited resource. At the same time, the forests were obstacles to progress and profit, to be cleared as quickly as possible to make way for homes, farms, and industry. Looking back, conservationists like Rothrock realized that the only thing that had saved the forests was the lack of capable loggers. It was a manpower and technology issue: In the early 1800s “the drain upon our forests, which were honestly thought to be inexhaustible, was not large. The end, however was nearer than we thought.”

Even though before the middle of the 19th century Pennsylvania did not yet have the population or industrial capacity to destroy all of its forests yet, it did foster an attitude amongst its residents that ignored the value of forests and encouraged timbering at a voracious pace. When population levels rose and innovative technology introduced, these old reckless attitudes towards the forest finally were capable of totally destroying the woods.

When we’re thinking about the causes and consequences of massive deforestation in Pennsylvania, its easy to look at the industrialists as the root cause and main culprit. “There is no more shocking example of greed and utter disregard for public welfare,” agricultural historian S.W. Fletcher wrote in 1955, “than the ruthless devastation of the forests of Pennsylvania by the lumber companies between 1840 and 1900.” I suggest we take a larger view of deforestation and consider the world-views of all the people living in the state at this time, especially ordinary people living within Pennsylvania’s forest regions and the bottom-rung workers in the timber industry.

Berks 400 Year Old Herman Oak
“Berk’s 400 Year Old Herman Oak,” c. 1920. Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 6.20.

If Charles Goodyear, Peter Herdic, and the other Pennsylvania lumber barons had grown up in communities that knew the forests were finite resources, would they have been so eager to clear cut and make no effort to reforest? If the woods were not seen as an obstacle to progress would conservation taken hold sooner and the state government more involved in regulating sustainable forestry and timbering? If the ordinary men and women living in the forests did not see their surroundings and say “we can afford to burn it by the acre,” would forest fires have been as common?

If we can educate everyone on the value of forests and on the importance of responsible timbering today, perhaps we can learn from Pennsylvania’s experiences and ensure that the next generation carries the right values into the forest with them.

Black Willow
“Black Willow on Farm of Mr. B. Porter, Fayette County,” 1921. Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 6.20.

***Update: I just found this interesting quote about the Pennsylvania oil industry published in the Pithole Daily Record in 1866. Different natural resource in the state, but the exact same 19th century attitude towards natural resources. No wonder the oil virtually ran dry after just a few decades of drilling:

“Nature is a kind and beneficent mother, and her resources are inexhaustible. She is capable and willing to supply all the wants of man. He has only to apply the unlimited stores which she has provided for him to wholesome and useful purposes.”


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