It has been estimated that, before being touched by early settlers, Pennsylvania was 98% forest. So tall and dense were the white pine, oak and hemlock that their supply seemed endless. But the men who followed the axe from Canada to Maine to New York and into Pennsylvania knew the truth: all of the trees would eventually fall and a new, virgin forest would have to be found.
Pennsylvania's lumber industry is as old as the commonwealth itself. The first sawmills appeared in the 1680s. By 1760 there were 40 in Philadelphia County alone.
White pine, the "royalty" of Pennsylvania trees, was used for ships' masts in the 1700s. So prized was it by the British that they passed laws protecting it. Other species were marketable, but nothing was more valuable than a blemish free, 200-foot-tall white pine.
Transporting any size tree could be difficult. Most cutting occurred in the winter when the frozen soil provided a packed surface across which the logs could be dragged by man or horse. It was not uncommon for the heavy loads to skid out of control, endangering or killing men and animals. Once safely out of the woods, the logs were taken to rivers and streams where they were kept until the spring thaw when they were floated to the sawmills.
The same waters upon which the logs were floated powered early sawmills. In the winter when the water froze, the sawmills were non-operational. Felling the trees in the winter and transporting them in the spring provided year-round employment.
The advent of steam power in the early 1800s resulted in rapid growth of Pennsylvania's lumber industry. Nothing, however, matched the impact of the Williamsport boom.
The purpose of a boom was to bring the sawmills to the logs rather than the logs to the mills. This was accomplished by sinking huge piers into the Susquehanna River, which acted as a dam for the timber. Large steam mills soon lined up on the banks near the boom to process the hundreds of thousands of logs it held.
The origin of the boom dates to 1845 when James H. Perkins and John Layton arrived in Lycoming County. They decided upon Long Reach as the perfect spot for their boom and petitioned the legislature for a charter. It was granted on March 17, 1846. In the fall of 1849 construction began on the massive Williamsport boom. Within four years expansion was required increasing its capacity to 300 million board feet. It was reported that, come springtime, there were so many logs packed into the boom that you could walk them from one side of the Susquehanna to the other. Within a short time Williamsport became the "lumber capital of the world," a title it held for three decades.
Many other Pennsylvania counties experienced the prosperity that their lumber generated, as well as the economic void caused by the depletion of their forests. Clinton County in 1860 produced about 100 million board feet and employed several thousand men in the process. Clearfield County, between 1862 and 1874, produced 240 million board feet annually. Sawmills in Bradford County could be counted by the hundreds - and some say thousands. So many trees succumbed to the axe in Warren County that its lumber industry peaked in the 1840s. By the 1870s most of Pike County's pine, oak, ash and hickory had nearly disappeared.
Most of the timber cut in Pennsylvania was sent down waterways via rafts, logs lashed together, with oars attached at either end. A crew of hands maneuvered the raft under the experienced guidance of a pilot.
The principal lumber markets along the Susquehanna River were Harrisburg, Middletown, Marietta, Columbia, Wrightsville and the Maryland town of Port Deposit. Once at Port Deposit the lumber could be shipped via the Delaware River to southern markets.
By the 1870s Pennsylvania's forests were disappearing. By the 1890s the need to protect and replenish the wooded regions was recognized by the federal government. It created the Division of Forestry and the concept of forest reserves was soon-after established.
As Pennsylvania's forests faded so did the importance of the town of Williamsport. In May of 1889 its decline was cemented by the collapse of the once-celebrated boom. When the boom broke it set hundreds of millions of board feet of lumber loose on the Susquehanna. Temporary saw mills were set up along the riverbanks and amazingly most of the logs were recovered. Not so for Williamsport's "lumber capital" reputation, nor Pennsylvania's lumber industry. That honor, and the men with their axes, had already started the move westward to Michigan. ~SH