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Transportation Drives Deforestation

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Early European colonist in North Carolina immediately began clearing farmland – just as the native population had done before them. But their impact on the seemingly endless forests was miniscule. Later, when the woodlands became the basis for thriving export business in naval stores, oak lumber, and shingles, the scale of deforestation jumped significantly. And yet it still seemed as though the forests were so vast they could never be used up. They had always been there; they would always be there. But a century of steam power – especially in the form of railroads – would call that confidence into question.

A seemingly endless supply meets a seemingly unquenchable appetite

The first colonists to settle in what is now North Carolina encountered a landscape that was essentially one large forest. The clearing of land began almost immediately as the newcomers felled trees to clear farmland.  Native Americans had done the same selective clearing – often by fire – for many generations, and as those peoples left, were driven out, or died off from epidemic diseases, their cleared “old fields” were much coveted by European settlers. But even as acre after acre saw its trees fall to the axe in the service of agriculture, the amount of land cleared paled in comparison to the remaining forest.

The process of deforestation kicked up a notch around 1720 with the development of timber-based export businesses.

In an era of wooden sailing ships, pine pitch and turpentine were in high demand. Pine pitch was absolutely essential to keeping vessels afloat, being used to caulk the joints between boards in a ship’s hull. In the mid-1700s, sixty percent of the “naval stores” required by the vast English naval and commercial fleets was provided by North Carolina. The epicenter of this industry – the third largest in the colonies – was the longleaf pine forests of the Cape Fear Valley, where the process of slashing and tapping the trees left stunted and disease-vulnerable trees over thousands of square miles of pine forest.

The oak forests were harvested as well. Oak casks were the principle shipping and storage container for a wide variety of products, including tobacco, wine, flour and pickled deer hides. Oak bark was used in tanning hides, and it was an important ingredient in medicines for the treatment of sore throats, hemorrhages, diarrhea, and consumption. And, of course, oak was popular for use in furniture. 

But as big a business as the export of naval stores and oak products was, the harvest that made it all possible hardly seemed to make a dent in the vast forests. Men wielding axes could only nibble away at the wilderness. However, in the 1800s, with the arrival of new transportation modes – plank roads, steamboats, and railroads – that dynamic would change.



Steamboats first appeared in North Carolina around 1818, when Norfolk, Henrietta and Prometheus began plying the Cape Fear River. The age of steam they ushered in was an era of economic boom times; it was also an era of immense consumption of wood as fuel.

A steamboat on the Cape Fear River
A steamboat on the Cape Fear River

Historian Louis C. Hunter, writing about the economics of steamboats, gave some idea of their wood consumption:

Great quantities of fuel were consumed. The inefficiency of the high pressure engine andits flue boilers, imperfect combustion resulting from poor furnace design and bad firing methods, the relatively low cost of wood, and the pioneer habit of making prodigal use of seemingly unlimited timber resources all contributed to the high consumption of fuel. Steamboats of the smaller classes burned from twelve to twenty-four cords every twenty-four hours, and the larger boats running at mid-century consumed anywhere from fifty to seventy-five cords each day.

Eventually, some 100 steamboats would operate on North Carolina rivers, pausing as needed at wood lots along the bank for the process of “wooding up.”

Plank Roads

In the mid-1800s, with operational railroads still on the horizon, North Carolina seized on a solution to its pathetic land transportation situation: the plank road. Elevated wooden toll turnpikes had lifted wagons out of the mud in Canada and upstate New York – making money for the companies that built and operated them – and they seemed a natural fit for heavily forested North Carolina. Between 1850 and 1860, the state granted charters to 84 turnpike companies for the construction of plank roads. Those charters resulted in 500 miles of plank roads at a cost of some $800,000 (about $22 million in current value).

A hay wagon on a wood plank road
Down the plank road to market

Standard construction for a plank road was as follows: The roadbed was scraped level and graded so as to have sufficient drainage. Four wooden sills of 6″ x 8″ lumber were laid parallel to each other with the outer two sills being approximately 8 feet apart. On top of these sills and perpendicular to them were placed planks 8 feet long, 8 inches wide and 3 to 4 inches thick. The roadway was covered in a layer of sand to cushion the ride and reduce wear on the planks. In North Carolina, pine and oak were most commonly used in plank road construction.

One of the longest plank roads in the world was the 129-mile-long Fayeteville & Western Turnpike connecting the market center of Fayetteville with the western Moravian community of Salem/Bethania. The turnpike was chartered in 1849 and completed in 1854.

There is no doubt that North Carolina’s plank roads spurred the economy. The Fayeteville & Western carried 20,000 wagons in its first year of operation, most of them bound to market. But the toll on the state’s forests was great. No longer were individuals nibbling at the forest with axes. During construction of the Fayetteville & Western alone, steam-powered sawmills along the route produced as much as 50,000 feet of plank road lumber a day. And of course those steam-powered sawmills required wood fuel to keep their big blades spinning.

The railroad ate our forests.

In modern memory, the American steam railroad is an icon of the “age of iron and steel.” The locomotive was the “iron horse” running on steel rails. But the steam-powered railroad was a technology that relied on forests. The iron horse, it turns out, had a monstrous appetite for wood. And not only did the railroad devour forests, it provided the very means by which it could gorge on trees: the railroad allowed logging crews to penetrate farther into the forests and provided the means to harvest and transport larger timber. No to mention more of it.

Logging by mule team and by railroad
Logging by mule team and by railroad - a matter of scale

The railroad's uses for wood were diverse.


Like the steamboats that had come before them, mid-1800s locomotives required wood with which to fire their boilers. English trains of the era burned coal because that was a plentiful resource in Britain. America had forests to burn, so when the first railroad engines were imported from England, they were converted to wood-burning technology, and that became the standard.

A locomotive of the mid 1800s burned about one cord of wood every 25 miles traveled. (A cord of wood is 128 cubic feet, often thought of as a stack of cut wood 4′ deep by 4′ high by 8′ long.) Nationally, Americas railroads consumed 5 to 7 million cords of wood a year as fuel, requiring the cutting of around 100,000 acres of forest annually.

The trains of the North Carolina Railroad burned 6,000 to 8,000 cords of wood per year, seasoned hardwoods and pine preferred.

Bridges and trestles

English bridges of the 19th Century were predominantly made of iron and masonry.  There again, those were the resources available in a largely deforested country. In forest-rich America, engineers developed a truss and trestle geometry that allowed great strength in even very long, tall wooden bridges. Iron began to replace wood for bridges after the Civil War – later in the war ravaged south than in the north – but coming into the 20th Century there were still 2,000 miles of timber trestles in service in the United States. The collective value of these remaining wooden trestles was $60 million, or about twice the value of all steel bridges at the time.

(As an indication of just how skilled American engineers came to be with wooden railroad trestles, the Civil War trestle pictured below was constructed in just forty hours.)

A Civil War wooden railroad trestle
A Civil War wooden railroad trestle

And while we think about trestle bridges as spanning a river or ravine, some early railroads were built on low trestles as a way to even out grade changes or traverse swampy ground. The entire 1830 Charleston & Hamburg Railroad – the longest railroad in the world at the time – was constructed entirely with raised track. And a section of the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad around Goldsboro was elevated on a low wooden trestle in order to cross swampy land near the Neuse River.

Ancillary construction

The economic activity spurred by the railroads caused a building boom up and down the line, including railroad depots, railroad cars, shipping warehouses, hotels, barns, fencing and telegraph poles. In additional to individual buildings, sometimes the railroad triggered construction of a whole new town, such as Thomasville, Goldsboro, High Point, and Spencer.

Crossties. Lots of crossties.

Railroad fuel, trestle bridges and construction of buildings called for prodigious quantities of firewood and lumber, but those uses paled in comparison to the production of railroad crossties (also known as “sills” or “sleepers”). Here again, American railroads departed from the English custom of using stone pillars as support for the rails, and they adopted wooden crossties. Vast forests were all around for the taking, and besides, wooden ties gave the unsprung rail cars a smoother ride.

The numbers on crossties are staggering. Each mile of railroad track required 2,500 ties, and in an era before wood preservatives, the lifespan of a tie in contact with the ground was short. (In the late 1880s, the invention of creosote would dramatically reduce the railroads’ appetite for lumber by simply extending the life of the crosstie.) The preferred woods were white oak and chestnut because they held a spike well and they were relatively rot-resistant. But even they had a useful life of only 10 years. No matter the species of tree used, it was widely believed that the best wood for railroad ties was found in heartwood from second growth trees, and each young second growth tree produced only one 8-foot-long, 8-inch-square crosstie.

An 1873 report on the national railroad network offered these numbers:

It is estimated that the number of railroad ties in present use in the United States are 150,000,000. And as young timber is mostly used, a cut of 200 ties to the acre is above rather than under the average, and it, therefore, has required the product of 750,000 acres of well timbered land to furnish the supply. Railroad ties last about five years, consequently 30,000,000 ties are used annually for repairs, taking the timber from 150,000 acres.

In North Carolina’s hot, humid climate, crossties had and average life of only four or five years. White or post oak were the best species, while red and black oak were found to decay too quickly. Use of heart of pine was permitted in the east, where pines dominated the forests.  Given the short lifespan of the 490,000 crossties in the North Carolina Railroad’s Goldsboro to Charlotte run, the railroad had to replace 90,000 ties each year.

Out of Deforestation, Nascent Conservation

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, North Carolina had gone from virtually solid forest to around one third forested. The remaining timber was primarily in the western mountains, and significant amounts of that would be harvested in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

A 1910 logging operation loads harvested trees onto railroad cars.
A 1910 logging operation loads its harvest onto railroad cars.

But in that latter period, there was a dawning realization of the extent of the deforestation and of the health of the remaining woodlands. In 1892, George Vanderbilt was building his magnificent Biltmore Estate on 100,000 mountain acres near Asheville, when his landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, advised him to exert stewardship over his extensive forest land. Vanderbilt brought in European-educated forestry experts – Gifford Pinchot and, later, Carl Schenck – who introduced the concept of scientific forest management, including the deployment of forest rangers. It was the beginning of an approach to our forest lands that recognized both that they were a finite resource and that they had immense value outside commercial exploitation.

The photo of the Civil War railroad trestle is courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The photos of the plank road and of the steamboat on the Cape Fear River are courtesy of North Carolina Archives & History.

The photo of a logging operation is courtesy Robert C. Whetsell

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