Book: John Perlin’s “A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization”

Preface.  This contains excerpts from John Perlin’s “A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization”. It’s one of my favorite books about natural resources, exploring the role wood has played in the rise and fall of civilizations since they began.

One of the many reasons cutting forests down crashes nations is that the land is no longer protected from wind or rain and the topsoil blows or washes away, and food production declines precipitously.  Also harbors silt up and are rendered useless.

Wood was the foundation of infrastructure as well as energy for all previous civilizations before fossils came along, and wood is still the largest renewable energy source in Europe and used extensively in America as well to heat and cook with, and generate electricity. about 90 million people in Europe and North America now use wood energy as the main source of domestic heating.

In fact, wood is the main source of energy for the bottom 2 billion poor of the world. Africa uses over 90% of their wood for energy and overall is 27% of their primary energy. In Latin America wood is 13% of their total energy supply, and it is 5% in Asia and Oceana.

In developing countries, wood-based fuels are the dominant source of energy for more than two billion mostly poor people. In Africa, over 90 percent of harvested wood is used for energy. Wood accounts for 27% of total primary energy supply in Africa, 13% in Latin America and the Caribbean and 5% in Asia and Oceania. However, it is also increasingly used in developed countries with the aim of reducing dependence on fossil fuels (FAO. 2015. Status of the World’s Soil Resources. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).

As fossils deplete, wood will again take its place as the main source of energy and material to build with.

As usual, since I’m not paid to write my blog, and because I’m often interested in only certain aspects of wood, these kindle notes have left out some of the most fascinating material from early civilizations such as Mesopotamia, Crete, Greece, the Roman empire, Venetia and so on.

The constant and resounding theme is that there is such a thing as Peak Wood and that this has felled civilizations over and over again.  America was headed that way faster than Europe or any other nation because so many forests were being cut down to feed steamboats, locomotives, factories, and other steam engines, as well as heating and cooking for seven months of the year, and to construct buildings, wagons, and every other use wood has.

But then along came coal and oil, and collapse from decimated forests was delayed for a century or so.  Let’s hope forest fires don’t decimate our remaining trees, we’re going to need them!

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

Perlin, John. 2005. A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization. Countryman Press.

Shortages of wood led to coal becoming king

Shortages of wood spurred most industries throughout Britain to convert from wood to coal. Some cities, like London, began burning coal earlier than others.  Worcestershire managed to use wood as fuel in their salt-works until the late 1670s. By at that point industry had so destroyed the trees in the vicinity that at best enough wood for just a few months could be found.  Hence a switch to coal was made.  Likewise the town of Staffordshire found their woods spent and began to rely on coal for industry, offices, and homes. By the end of the 17th century, glass-houses, salt-works, brick making and malting burned only coal.

The ruling class could see wood shortages approaching and did all they could to protect forests to make them last longer.  But the economic incentives to cut timber illegally were just too great. Fuel cutters and tanners often teamed up. Tanners wanted as much bark per acre as could be obtained for their tanneries while the fuel cutter was paid by the amount of wood cut. In the event they were caught by the manager of the estate, they simply bribed him.

Wood permeated and made possible every aspect of society.  Since water transport was far less expensive than going overland, many miles of canals were built.  But that required wood for the scaffolding, wooden retaining walls on each side of the canal trench to prevent earth from collapsing once water entered, using thousands of pilings of oak.  Where locks were placed, timber was used for their gates.  Canal building used immense amounts of wood.

Wood had many uses in agriculture, including the poles that supported hop vines and the charcoal used to dry the hops.  Cider producers used a great deal of wood to build their barrels.  Aging cheese required very large structures of oak.

Even when water was the main source of power, the waterwheels themselves were made of wood, the shaft of the wheel, the cogs, and spinning machinery.  The mills to make cotton, flour, and other industries required a tremendous amount of wood.

When coal finally became the favored fuel, it too needed a lot of wood. Indeed, the transition from wood to coal couldn’t have taken place without wood to make supports for coal mine shafts, many miles of wooden rails to take the coal in wooden wagons to a port or city.  The coal was so heavy that the wooden rails required constant replacement. And finally the coal was usually brought to markets on wooden boats.

Only when iron could be produced with coal rather than charcoal from wood was dependence on wood dramatically lessened.   Iron rails replaced wood rails, as well as wood bridges, beams, machinery, and ships.

The rise of iron and coal caused timber to lose its status as civilization’s primary building material and fuel and become comparatively worthless lumber.

Madeira and the rise of Portugal


Madeira was so thickly wooded when the Portuguese first set foot there that they named it “isola de Madeira,” or “island of timber, for there was not a foot of ground that was not entirely covered with great trees.  But these forests were doomed when the Portuguese decided that the best use of this land was sugarcane, which requires wood all the way.  Sugar mills are made of wood, as was the mill’s machinery, waterwheels, and the rollers that crushed sugar cane stalks, where it was concentrated by kettles heated around the clock with a wood fire.  By 1494, the island’s sugar industry needed about 60,000 tons of wood just to boil the cane. Four of the 16 mills required 80,000 pack animal loads per year.   In addition, vast amounts of timber were shipped to Portugal for their new navy and merchant fleet. Having an ocean-going fleet enabled Portugal to go to India, and break the Venetian monopoly on Asian commerce, tipping the balance of wealth.  But just 240 years later, a sailor wrote that Madeira was “so miserably burnt by the sun … we could perceive no part of it … that had the appearance of green nor any tree bigger than a small hawthorn, and very few of these.”  By 1851 the rivers had almost dried up.


Other European nations joined in the ship-building frenzy and realized that the Caribbean offered the same ideal conditions for growing and processing sugar as existed on Madeira. The Portuguese soon established sugar plantations in Brazil.  To get the wood to build and fuel these sugar mills, each mill needed to have about eight slaves to cut and carry wood to the mill, and each mill needed about 90 acres of forests per year.  Within 20 years, all of the forests on Barbados were gone.


Alexander von Humboldt, explained why deforested lands in the tropics experienced torrid heat and catastrophic desiccation. Trees “affect the copiousness of springs … because by sheltering the soil from the direct action of the sun, they diminish the evaporation of water produced by rain. When the forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America with imprudent precipitancy, the springs are entirely dried up, or become less abundant. The beds of rivers, remaining dry during a part of the year, are converted into torrents, whenever great rains fall, because cutting wood also destroys the grass cover and moss, so rain is no longer impeded, forming sudden and destructive inundations.”


Planters discovered additional changes in the land on account of deforestation. The soil rapidly lost its fertility after its original cover was cleared. After fewer than 30 years of cultivation, the governor of Barbados complained that the land produced by two-thirds of what it once did, and the soil loss was exacerbated by the heavy rains of violent tropical storms “to run away”.  Entire hillsides planted in sugarcane often slid into the valleys below.


The Europeans rid the Indies of their native populations with the same violence that they employed to clear the forests of their trees. The Spanish chronicler Juan Acosta informed the world that by 1588 “there have remained few natural Indians.   With the Indians gone, the planters lacked hands to work their sugar mills, making it “more requisite to send over Blacks”.


The sugar mills would have gone out of business if settlers hadn’t colonized New England, chock full of timber that was sent to the tropics in exchange for sugar and rum. For example, between 1771 and 1773, 240,000 trees were cut in exchange for 3 million gallons of rum.


New England exported wood to many forest-less nations such as Madeira, and eventually Portugal and Spain. A huge ship building industry sprang up as well due to the plentiful wood. One dockyard alone built over 500 ships between 1697 and 1731.  And in turn this huge merchant fleet, which cost far less than deforested European nations, enabled New England to win a greater and greater share of world trade.  In addition, fishing and whaling boats were built.


Enormous amounts of wood raised the settlers’ standard of living considerably, with plenty of wood to build homes and burn for warmth.  Families generally sat close to the fireplace for seven months of the year. The size of the fireplace around was often so large it required logs dragged inside by a horse or oxen.


After building their log cabin, many families built a sawmill along the nearest stream to sell planks and staves in the international market. Each mill destroyed about 14 trees per day. There were so many mills that even in 1719 it was predicted that it wouldn’t take long for settler’s to destroy all the woods in the province.


By the late 17th century, Massachusetts had cut down so much of their lumber that they had no choice

but to obtain fuel from Maine. A whole fleet of sloops worked the Maine-Boston run all year so people living in Boston could cook and heat their houses, and the city’s industries, including its many rum distilleries, could stay in production.


Great Britain needed desperately needed tall masts to retain their mastery of global trade and marine warfare.  Yet it could not furnish itself with masts by the 17th century.  And so Great Britain had to rely on the Baltic states such as Denmark, Poland, and Russia for its mast supply via the Baltic sea.  In 1658 the Dutch had plans to bring the British to their knees by keeping them out of the Baltic Sea by taking control of the narrow sound between Denmark to the south and Norway and Sweden on the north.  Oliver Cromwell, in a speech before Parliament, asked a joint session rhetorically, “If they can shut us out of the Baltic Sea and make themselves masters of that … where are the materials to preserve … shipping? And so 60 ships were sent to keep the Baltic safe for English navigation and it stayed open.


But as early as 1634 New England was already providing some masts and by 1700 provided most of them.  The trees most in demand were Eastern White pines that grew from 150 to 240 feet tall and required 72 oxen to pull to the nearest river for transport.  Trees too distant from rivers cost six times as much to haul out, and consequently were left untouched. Their lumber was light but strong and easy for a carpenter to shape and finish, with the added bonus of being resistant to rot, and desired for homes, bridges, and other structures in addition to shipping.


The Dutch and French were Great Britain’s rivals, and both nations tried to stop the New England Mast trade.  The Dutch captured at least two ships sailing from America’s shores, and the French military tried to sabotage mast trees by giving them three or four chops of a hatchet.  France also paid native Americans for each English scalp brought in, driving the British out of most of Maine and much of New Hampshire in the late 1600s.  Native warriors succeeded in shutting down much of the commerce in masts by destroying all the oxen used to draw masts out of the woods and creating so much fear in most English settlers that they didn’t dare venture into the woods. Eventually England could depend on the Piscataqua River, in all of New England, to deliver masts.


These tall trees were so critical to the British Empire that British surveyor’s went across large tracts of land and emblazoned them with a mark that came to be known as King’s Broad Arrow to be harvested and used solely for ships of the Royal British Navy.


The colonists had their own uses for mast trees and resented Britain’s reserving the best trees for themselves.  This was a hard law to enforce.  Some historians believe that the British laws denying them to use forests they saw as theirs instrumental as the taxation of tea in bringing about the American Revolution.  In the end, these emblazoned marks only helped colonists to quickly find and harvest the best trees in a forest with little chance of being caught.


Many decades before the Revolution, Dr. Cooke, who gave up his medical practice to run his many sawmills, challenged the king’s right to the woods. He insisted that he and his countrymen had the right to dispose of timber resources as they saw fit. In the province of Maine, the king had no right to any trees, not even to those 24 inches or greater in diameter which the revised charter had reserved for the Crown. It had never held that right, he argued, since Maine belonged to a private individual, was purchased by Massachusetts and became its private property before the new charter came into force. As the charter exempted trees growing on property held privately prior to its enactment from the Crown’s jurisdiction, Cooke concluded, Massachusetts, not England, owned all the trees in Maine and could do whatever it pleased with them.  Others argued that they owned the trees through titles bought from Indian chiefs who originally were the original owners.


Meanwhile the iron industry in Great Britain needed a great deal of lumber, and purchasing it was draining England’s hard currency and was a threat to its balance of payments.  England needed more than wood – pitch and tar were essential to waterproofing the Navy, and Sweden put the squeeze on them in 1703 as England was about to battle France.  The Swedes not only raised their prices considerably, they also reduced the amount they’d sell to England, and increased their exports to France.


And so this trade also fell to the American colonists, who began producing very large quantities and a high price, but Great Britain was willing to pay them rather than be dependent on Sweden.  Tar is made by splitting pine into three-foot pieces and placing them around a hole in the center of a kiln, and the heat of a fire burning above the pine wood forced the tar out, where it trickled through the hole to where workers could scoop it up and pour into barrels


Until coke from coal (starting in 1709) rather than charcoal from wood was used to make iron, forests continued to disappear.   With so much wood, it wasn’t long before investors in America built furnaces and forges to make iron, since wood cost 14 times less per cord of wood than in England.  This gave American iron a huge competitive edge.   That led to local manufacturers making goods such as skillets, pots, ladles, chimney backs, scythes, sickles, spades, shovels, hoes, and plows far more cheaply than these products could be purchased from English or Dutch manufacturers.


The rapid growth of the colonial iron industry rounded out America’s potential to become a major power in the world. As much iron was produced in the colonies in 1776 as in the British Isles. Even more important, a certain type of American iron, called “Best Principio,” was judged, “as good as any in the world for making firearms.” In testimony before the House of Lords, Richard Penn, the proprietor of Pennsylvania, informed the lords and all of England of America’s ability to make her own arms. The House was told that the colonists “had means of casting iron cannon in great plenty … and had … made great quantities of small arms of very good quality.


So important had the colonies become to the well-being of England that Benjamin Franklin allegedly suggested that as an alternative to breaking up the English-speaking world, “America should become the general seat of Empire, and that Great Britain and Ireland should be governed by Viceroys sent over from Court Residences either at Philadelphia, or New York, or some other American Imperial City.


“The most striking feature” of the new American nation was “an almost universal forest,” starting at the coast, “thickening and enlarging … to the heart of the country.” C. Volney, a French naturalist visiting America right after its independence, came to this conclusion after journeying “from the mouth of the Delaware [River], through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky to the Wabash river [which today forms the southern portion of the Illinois and Indiana border], northward to Detroit, through Lake Erie to Niagara and Albany.


One of the first native American geographers, Jedidiah Morse, informed his readers of the “stately oaks, hickories and chestnuts which grew in the hilly and mountainous parts of” New Jersey. Upstate New York, according to Morse, was “clothed thick with timber.” Alex de Tocqueville found Morse’s assessment quite accurate, describing the state as one vast forest.


As impressive as the eastern forest was to travelers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, once they passed from states bordering the Atlantic, crossed over the Appalachian Mountains, and descended into the Ohio valley, they were “agreeably surprised on finding nature in a novel and more splendid garb.” Nature had formed the trees “on a grander scale” than anywhere else, according to Edmund Dana, author of an early guidebook for people wishing to settle in the Ohio region. Another person who viewed the forests west of the Appalachians compared the trees to “a grand assemblage of gigantic beings which carry the imagination back to others times before the foot of the white man had touched the American shore.” Dana wrote that “the forest trees west of the Appalachians grow to an uncommon height.


Indiana, at the beginning of the 19th century, was “one vast forest” of sycamore, oak, maple, beech, dogwood, birch, walnut, and hickory. These same trees made southern Michigan, during the early 1800s, one of the most heavily forested areas in the Union and gave Illinois plenty of timber and Wisconsin all kinds of wood of the best quality. None, however, could compare with Ohio’s woodlands, which presented “the grandest unbroken forest of 41,000 square miles that was ever beheld on this continent. Immense forests of pine dominated the northern portions of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.


After the American Revolution, England faced a crisis of being able to get enough wood.  This was when the idea that ships ought to be made out of iron instead, since England had plenty of coal, as did other trades as well, waterwheels began to be made of iron rather than wood, as did bridges and much more.


The first building to go up in the wilderness was usually a sawmill. Lumberjacks either sold their logs to the mill owner or had them sawed into boards or planks, giving the mill owner some logs in exchange for the service. The owner of the mill accumulated wealth through his business and, according to Kendall, with his money “builds a large wooden house,” opens a store, and “erects a still and barters rum” and other goods for more logs.


The woodsmen eventually clear a good portion of the surrounding countryside. Farmers settle on the deforested land and they soon need a gristmill, Kendall observed, which goes up near the sawmill. Sheep are also raised on the farms, requiring a mill to prepare woolen fibers for spinning. More farmers move to the vicinity to take advantage of living near such mills. And to serve the needs of this burgeoning rural community, “a blacksmith, a shoemaker, a tailor, and various other artisans and artificers successively assemble” and the congregation of people now forms a parish.


Manufacturing villages such as the one described by Kendall were scattered over a vast extent of the country, from Indiana to the Atlantic, and from Maine to Georgia.


In the state of New York alone in 1835 there were over 2,000 gristmills, almost 7,000 sawmills, 71 oil mills, 965 mills engaged in preparing woolen fabric, 293 iron mills, 141 sheet iron mills, 69 clover mills, 70 paper mills, and 412 tanneries run by waterpower.


Many manufacturers such as “breweries, distilleries, salt and potash works, casting and steel furnaces, and works for animal and vegetable oils and refining drugs” needed heat to produce a finished product. To create heat required some type of fuel. Fortunately, for America’s future, there was “no limit to our fund of charcoal,” in Coxe’s opinion, because of America’s rich endowment of forest lands which Coxe felt had to be cleared in any case since they impeded “the cultivation of the richest soils.


The bakers and brickmakers of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore commonly consumed prodigious quantities of pitch pine. Hatters of Pittsburgh, on the other hand, preferred charcoal made from white maple. Boats sailed all along the Erie Canal picking up wood to fuel the nation’s largest saltworks, located in upstate New York. Boiling rooms, in which the salt water was evaporated, occupied a three-mile portion of the canal’s shoreline. They produced 2 million bushels of salt per year. The salt went to Canada, Michigan, Chicago, and all points west. Farmers were the largest purchasers, using the salt for preserving meat they marketed. Steam engines, which in the 1830s began to free factories from their dependence on water sites, usually burned wood as their fuel.


Throughout the nation charcoal-burning iron mills produced 19 million tons of iron between 1830 and 1890. During the heyday of the British charcoal-burning iron industry, which dated from the 1540s to the 1750s, the entire nation produced in a sixty-year period somewhat more than 1 million tons of iron.


Michigan, famous for its iron ore and pine forests, had one furnace that smelted 9,500 tons of iron each year.


The average annual output for a single English furnace amounted to around 350 tons


In 1790 the U.S. had only 4 million people living in its territories. This doubled to 8 million in 1810, and by 1880 there were over 50 million inhabitants. All these people needed housing and the great majority resided in dwellings built of wood.


Wood was the principal material from which all land-transport vehicles were built. Carriage makers and wagon-wrights made axles out of hickory and wheel spokes from white oak. White oak also formed the waggoner’s very flexible whip.


Roads were made passable by setting logs ten to twelve feet long across marshy or muddy portions. Vehicles could only advance over the log-covered sections in leaps and starts.


A more refined type of wooden pavement, plank, enhanced travel comfort by eliminating the roads’ extremely dusty condition in summer and their muddy state in winter. Unlike log roads, any stretch covered with plank was welcomed by travelers.


The necessity of crossing the many watercourses while traveling entailed a tremendous amount of bridge building. Bridges were usually made of wood, owing to its cheapness, according to an engineer. Many were quite large. The one that spanned the Schuykull River in Philadelphia measured 1,500 feet long. The bridge that crossed the Delaware River at Trenton was twice that length.




Because the rivers and lakes made it possible to travel by water through almost the entire territory that comprised the American nation in 1783, Jedidiah Morse felt that “the United States … seems to have been formed by nature for the most intimate union.” Canals rounded out what nature “forgot” to do. The Erie Canal connected Lake Erie to the Hudson River, making it possible to sail from the Atlantic to the foot of the Rocky Mountains.


The vast network of watercourses in the United States allowed woodsmen to cut timber thousands of miles away from their markets without worrying about transportation problems. During winter, loggers felled trees, dressed them into logs, and dragged them with teams of oxen over hardened snow to the nearest stream. “When the ice thaws, the logs … are launched into numerous streams in the neighborhood in which they have been cut and floated down into the larger rivers where they are stopped by … a line of logs extending the breadth of the river. Then every lumberman searches out his timber and forms it into a raft, floating it down the river to its destination.”


Pine logs from Minnesota and Wisconsin headed south in this fashion, floating from tributaries of the Mississippi into the main river. “The river from end to end was flaked with … timber rafts,” Mark Twain recalled. He nostalgically remembered “the annual procession of mighty rafts that used to glide by Hannibal”. Each raft had “an acre or so of white, sweet smelling boards, a crew of two dozen men or more, three or four wigwams scattered about the raft’s vast level for storm quarters …,” according to Twain. Just like Huck Finn, Twain, as a child, would “swim out a quarter or third of a mile” with his friends and “get on these rafts and have a ride.”


Timber was not the only cargo floated down the Mississippi. Many rafts carried grain produced by the many new farms that had sprung up along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries. To minimize carrying costs, the grain was first milled and then loaded onto rafts, called flatboats, for the long haul to New Orleans where the produce would be sold and freighted by oceangoing vessels. Once rid of his cargo, the flat-boatman had to sell his boat as he could not float back home against the current: it would be broken up for timber. He returned home by foot, usually walking thousands of miles to return.


The flatboat and other rafts suffered a major and insurmountable defect: they could only sail with the current. When farmers in the lower Ohio valley began producing large quantities of crops and could find no other market but Pittsburgh, a method of navigation was needed to transport produce upstream. The development of the keelboat initially solved the problem. Running boards from bow to stern on either side of the boat distinguished the keelboat from all others. Five men on each side held poles, set in sockets, that reached into the water. They placed their poles near the bow, faced the stern, and with bodies bent, walked slowly, poles against their shoulder, along the running board to the end of the boat, and then raced back to the head of the boat for another round. With the pilot steering, they propelled upriver in this fashion these long, narrow boats with twenty to forty tons of freight on board. Each man in a keelboat could push forward two or three tons twenty miles per day upstream while a team of five packhorses and one man could transport only half a ton at the same speed.


Steamboats beat out all competition. A round-trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans by keelboat took six or seven months while the same voyage by steamboat was accomplished in a little more than three weeks.  Keel boats became obsolete.


Comparing steamboats to land transport, a writer in 1842 showed their advantage:   If each wagon carried two tons of goods, you’d need 25,000 wagons to hold what one steamship can carry.  And steam boats not only go ten times faster than wagons, they can travel around the clock.  To match them you’d need 250,000, or a wagon every 106 feet of the road for 5,000 miles.


The number of steamers plying the Ohio, Mississippi, and their tributaries grew rapidly between the 1810s and the outbreak of the Civil War, greatly exceeding the number of steam-powered vessels traversing the Atlantic. So many were afloat that when night fell, an observer on the riverbank could see “steamer after steamer” sweeping by, “sounding, thundering on, blazing with … thousands of lights, casting long, brilliant reflections on the fast rolling water beneath.” At times, the traffic thickened to such a degree that one after another would pass, appearing to someone standing on shore “like so many comets passing in Indian file.


François Michaux pointed out to Robert Fulton the difficulty he would face in trying to obtain coal along the routes his new steamships would take. Fulton quickly responded that his ships would burn wood instead. Relying on wood to power his ships would definitely resolve the fuel problem, he told Michaux, since “the banks of the Mississippi were almost uninterruptedly covered with thick forests.


Great quantities of wood were needed for fuel. The large steamboat Eclipse, for example, had an array of fifteen boilers. To keep them heated “required wood by the carload.” When steamboats first appeared on the rivers, there was no organized system for provisioning them with fuel. Once north of Natchez, Mississippi, crews depended on driftwood or getting wood at settlements along the river. Sometimes they had to tie up at a village for several days before enough wood was found. On other occasions, crew members had to land the boat near a forest and go into the wilderness to cut wood.


Eventually, thousands of wood yards were set up along the banks of every navigable river simply to provide steamers with fuel. Backwoodsmen brought the timber they had cut to these depots and hacked them into proper size for the ships’ furnaces. To the civilized eye, many of these men had the appearance of being “half horse, half alligator, all wild originals to a man.” At night, the owners of these wood lots kept gigantic fires blazing so those onboard the boats could see the yards and fuel up. Stopping every two hours or so to take on fuel and then waiting several hours more for it to be loaded on board wasted many precious hours. To eliminate such delays, flatboats piled with wood waited in the middle of the river for a steamer to approach. If the steamer needed fuel, its crew lashed the flatboat to theirs and as they pushed upriver, “the logs were thrown aboard.


Boats passing up and down the Mississippi bought around fifty thousand cords a year from them, paying $1.25 a cord.


Wood ranked high among the cargoes transported by steamboat. From Michigan, steamers on Lake Huron transported timber, lumber, and shingles to the Atlantic states which, by the 1830s, did not have enough wood of their own. New England’s local supplies had become scarce by 1835 due to “200 years of occupation and settlement, with the pursuit of shipbuilding and other industries, having nearly cleared the primitive forests from such parts of the country as were accessible from water courses,” according to a 19th-century authority on shipbuilding.


Of the 38,619 ships that were in service in 1880, only five or six were built of iron. The rest were constructed almost entirely of wood.




Trestles and ties are expected to be of wood. But rails? Yes, in the early days, the rails of most lines were wooden. William Nowlin lived in Michigan during its settlement and as a youth watched the building of a railroad through his neighborhood. He described the way the railroadmen constructed the rails. “They took timbers as long as trees … hewed them on each side and flattened them down to about a foot in thickness,” Nowlin recollected, “then laid them on blocks which were placed in the bed of the road. They were laid lengthwise … far enough apart so that they would be directly under the wheels of the cars.” The tops of the timbers were covered with a thin strap of iron, saving the railroads much money by reducing their expenditure for iron.


When building any railroad in America, Mackay added, “it is seldom that the Americans have to look far, or to pay much for timber.” The availability of cheap wood was one of the main reasons American railroads cost much less to construct than those in England. In America, according to David Stevenson, “wood, which is the principal material used in their construction, is got at very small cost,” while “with us, in the construction of a line,” Mackay added, “timber figures as an item of expense by no means insignificant.” Mackay estimated that the English had to pay six times more than Americans to lay a mile of track.


English locomotives burned coal. With plenty of timber growing along the right-of-way of most railroads in America, or at least close by, American trains used wood as their only fuel up to the Civil War. Fuel needs of New York Central engines required the line to put up 115 woodsheds along its track. If the woodsheds were stacked against each other, they would have covered almost five miles. An Indiana railroad that ran north-south from Lake Michigan to the Ohio River placed its “wood-up” stations 20 to 25 miles apart. The largest one was located at Lafayette, Indiana, and could hold fourteen carloads of wood. The wood yard at Columbus, Nebraska, dwarfed Lafayette’s, measuring a half mile in length and having a capacity to hold 1,000 cords of wood.


Trains usually stopped every two hours to take on wood for fuel.


Railroads liberated Americans from their dependence on waterways for shipping freight and personal travel.  Canal traffic rarely moved faster than four miles per hour and proved quite costly. The railroads not only slashed expenses but saved much time.


America’s supply of timber provided pioneers with all their needs. Upon arriving at the usual 160-acre spread in the middle of the forest, the pioneer family constructed a temporary shelter, building a shanty from hemlock boughs. Once that was standing, giving the family a modicum of protection, they began to build a more permanent structure, chopping down enough logs to construct the four walls of their house. Peeled bark roofed the house, split logs served as flooring, and the door was made of hewed plank which was locked with a wooden latch. The house was furnished with wooden stumps for chairs and even hinges were made from wood.

With the house constructed, pioneers began fence building. The land to be turned into fields had to be protected from animals, including their own livestock. A good worker could, in one day, split approximately two hundred fence rails after felling the trees and cutting them to proper size.

In the Midwest, where most of the early pioneers settled, during winter “a fire [had to] be kept going constantly lest the room be chilled at once,” an early settler recalled. When feeding such a fire, William Nowlin, the child of a pioneer, recalled, Father “would tell us children to stand back and take the chairs out of the way. Then he would roll the log into the fireplace.” Nowlin wrote that the logs his father brought in were usually twenty inches thick and five to six feet long.

Leaves falling from the hardwood forests every autumn for millennia greatly enriched the soil the settlers farmed. As Edmund Dana informed those wishing to cultivate lands in Ohio, “Nature has provided for the husbandman … inexhaustible support and sources of wealth,” exempting him “from that tedious and expensive process of manuring, to which farmers of old settled countries, rendered sterile by a long course of cropping, are necessarily subjected.”

What farmers did with their felled timber depended on where they settled. If they owned land in the Northeast, pioneers could bank on selling it for cooking and heating fuel, which was in great demand, especially by city dwellers. The money earned from the sale usually paid for the property. In fact, land sellers used this as an enticement, stating in advertisements: “Brace up, young man. You have lived on your parents long enough. Buy this farm, cut off the wood, haul it to market, get your money for it and pay for the farm. … The owner estimated there will be five hundred cords of market wood.”

Farmers could sell their timber for other uses, too. The son of an Indiana settler wrote, “what had to be cut … of the white oak … for the clearing of fields was made into staves for cooperage.” Hundreds of barrels were fashioned from these trees in which pork and flour were eventually packed.

Sometimes settlers could find no market for the logs they had to cut. Such was the case for the Nowlins before the railroad came. In those times, they just burned the timber where they had felled it. The younger Nowlin estimated that enough wood had been set ablaze “to have made 5,000 cords of wood.” Throughout America, settlers engaged in such practices when no one wanted to buy their wood.

Wood, not quality of soil, played the deciding role in where settlers established their farms. If the land west of the Appalachians and east of the Great Plains had also been all prairie and hence timberless, “though unconceivably fertile, it would [have been] uninhabitable by man,” an early encyclopedia on life in America pointed out, “by reason of lack of fuel, fencing and building material.

The difference in settlement patterns of this forested region and the Great Plains demonstrates the importance of trees in the choice of a homestead. While over a million people had settled such states as Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana by 1860, the combined population of Kansas and Nebraska did not exceed 40,000 at that time. Even in these two states, the existence of forests influenced where people settled. The majority of Kansas’s population in 1860 lived in the river valleys of the northern and eastern sections of the state where quite a lot of oak, black walnut, cottonwood, and hickory grew. During the early part of the 19th century, settlers and Indians agreed that the lack of timber growing in the Great Plains would severely restrict settlement. Zebulon Pike, the first American to explore the area, observed that on the banks of the Kansas, Platte, and Arkansas rivers and their tributaries, it would be “only possible to introduce a limited population … the wood now in the country would not be sufficient for a moderate share of the population more than 15 years and it would be out of the question to think of it in manufactures.

In contrast with the pioneers living in forested areas, who never lacked wood for fuel, fencing, and building, anyone trying to set up a farm on the prairie could not even find an armful of timber to pick up. Buffalo chips were the only fuel found in large quantities, but the supply varied with the animals’ migration habits. Francis Parkman discovered this on his famous ventures along the Oregon Trail. The first year out he found an endless supply of chips to burn; the next year, after traveling along the Platte for four days continuously, he could not find a single chip.

Farmers on the Great Plains had to fence in their land to protect their crops from herds of wandering cattle. The huge outlay of capital required to minimally fence their plots threatened to break the many young settlers who ventured there “with strong hands and little cash.” Although they could buy an entire spread for under $20, the cost of fencing it averaged around $1000.

The railroads’ ability to provide the Great Plains with a reliable supply of timber made the region more attractive for settlement than forested areas, in the opinion of John Wesley Powell, head of the United States Geological Survey in the 1870s, since farmers did not have to waste precious time and energy clearing land for cultivation. The ground here awaited immediate plowing and planting. People moved to the plains en masse once they could get enough wood.

From the end of the Revolution to the beginning of the Civil War, America grew into a great nation.

Not many appreciated the role wood played in this development, but Increase Lapham, a respected scientist, did. “Few persons … realize … the amount we owe to the native forests of our country for the capital and wealth our people are now enjoying,” he wrote. “Yet without the fuel, the buildings, the fences, furniture and [a] thousand utensils, and machines of every kind, the principal materials for which are taken directly from the forests,” Lapham informed his readers, “we should be reduced to a condition of destitution.” He therefore maintained that when evaluating the factors that had led to America’s astounding prosperity, “anyone who studies closely and carefully the elements that have contributed to that greatness will find cheap lumber and cheap fuel [wood] the greatest of all factors.” This was because “Cheap houses, cheap bread and cheap transportation for passengers and freights, are among the fundamental elements of a nation’s growth and prosperity … A nation that produces the raw material for manufacture at low cost … which moves its people, its products and manufactures quickly and cheaply, is in the best position” to prosper, Lapham concluded.

Lapham found that the manner in which Americans had exploited the woods to achieve such material success was a cause for serious reflection rather than celebration. The devastation he saw as a consequence led him to write in 1867, at the request of the legislature of Wisconsin, his Report on the Disastrous Effects of the Destruction of Forest Trees Now Going on So Rapidly in the State of Wisconsin. His report discussed “the experience of other countries, ancient and modern, whose forests have been improvidently destroyed … the effects of clearing land of forest trees, upon springs, streams and rainfall … how [forests] temper winds, protect the earth … enrich the soil and modify the climate … the economic value of forests in their relation to cheap houses, cheap fuel, cheap bread, cheap motive power, cheap transportation and cheap freights … [and] the propagation and culture of trees…

Almost 5 billion cords of wood had been consumed for fuel in fireplaces, industrial furnaces, steamboats, and railroads. To obtain 5 billion cords meant the cutting of about 200,000 square miles of woodlands, an area nearly equal to all the land that comprises the states of Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Half of all these cords were consumed in the 17 years that preceded the publication of Lapham’s work.

The amount of timber felled for building between 1810 and 1867 was minuscule when compared with the quantity removed for fuel. Still, approximately 25,000 square miles of forest went to build houses, ships, railroads, bridges, wagons, waterwheels, and thousands of other necessary objects. At first glance, fashioning railroad ties did not appear to make great inroads on the forest. But because only vigorous young trees were selected for ties, great quantities of potentially valuable timber were being prematurely plucked out of America’s timberlands, imperiling future supplies.

Fuel cutters usually cut relatively young trees that measured, near the base of the trunk, between twelve and twenty inches in diameter since the small ones took less effort to chop down.

Clearing land for cultivation also contributed to the deforestation problem. In just one decade, from 1850 to 1860, farmers destroyed 31,250 square miles of timberlands in order to plant crops.

Pasturing of livestock in the forest also inflicted great damage to the woodlands. Cattle, horses, and sheep consumed large amounts of seedlings, destroying future growth. They also ate bark, which debilitated and many times killed sizable trees. Hogs rooted up young pines and other species to get at their roots and also gorged on the seeds of a wide variety of trees, showing a preference for the nuts of beeches, chestnuts, pine, and white oaks over inedible seeds of other species, seriously changing the natural growth in the woods, especially in hardwood forests.

“the pasturage of the forest is not only enormously expensive in the destruction of young plants and seeds, but the habit induces the burning over every year of great tracts of woodlands, which would otherwise be permitted to grow up naturally in order to hasten the early growth of spring herbage … all undergrowth and seedlings are swept away … and not infrequently fires thus started destroy valuable bodies of timber.

The amount of forests lost due to pasturage and felling trees to clear land for cultivation, for lumber, and for fuel increased over time, accelerating from 1,600 square miles per year in 1835 to 7,000 square miles 20 years later. As the pace of deforestation picked up, the area of land covered by dense forest declined considerably. In 1850, 25% of the land area of United States was densely forested; 20 years later, this figure had dropped to 15%.


When Mannaseh Cutler entered Ohio in 1787 to explore the region, he encountered “innumerable herds of … elk and buffalo … sheltered in the groves.” These animals had all but disappeared by the 1840s as the great forest land that was their home faded away. Nowlin correctly credited people such as his father with destroying what “was a few years before … the hunting ground of the Red Man.” On account of the work of people such as the Nowlins, the Indians could no longer “get venison to eat or bark to make huts, for the beasts are run away and the trees cut down,” a surviving Native American complained. The Great Seal of the State of Indiana succinctly sums up the metamorphoses of the flora and fauna of the Midwest as a result of American settlement. A tree stump lies on the ground as a pioneer fells another tree and a buffalo flees to escape the havoc.

Seventy years later another report on the condition of America’s forests appeared in the census of 1880. The author, Charles Sargent, wrote of protecting the trees, rather than indiscriminately chopping them down. “Forests perform … important duties in protecting the surface of the ground and in regulating and maintaining the flow of rivers,” Sargent informed his readers. “In mountainous regions they are essential to prevent destructive torrents, and mountains cannot be stripped of their forest covering without entailing serious dangers upon the whole community … Inroads have already been made into these forests,” he warned: “the ax, fire, and the destructive agency of browsing animals are now everywhere invading them … [and] if the forests which control the flow of the great rivers of the country perish, the whole community will suffer widespread calamity which no precautions taken after the mischief has been done can avert or future expenditure prevent.” “The American people must learn,” Sargent professed, “that a forest, whatever its extent and resources, can be exhausted in a surprisingly short space of time through total disregard in its treatment,” A detailed look at the condition of the forests east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio from facts compiled by Sargent for the census report showed reason for such a warning. The forests of New York, Sargent found, “are no longer important as a source of general lumber supply … White oak … has become scarce … Elm, ash, hickory, and other woods are reported scarce …” As for Pennsylvania, “merchantable pine has now almost disappeared … manufactures using hardwood report great deterioration and scarcity of the material.” As a consequence, it “must soon lose with its rapidly disappearing forests, its position as one of the great lumber producing states,” Moving west to Ohio, Sargent reported that its “original forest has now been generally removed … everywhere the walnut and other valuable timbers have been culled, and Ohio must soon depend almost exclusively for the lumber which it consumes upon the northern pineries …” Conditions were no better in neighboring Indiana. “The forests of the state have been largely removed,” according to Sargent, and “no large bodies of the original timber remain … at the present rate of destruction the forests of the state must lose all commercial importance … Serious inroads have already been made upon the forests of Michigan,” the dismal compilation continued: “the hardwood has been generally cleared from the southern counties … and timber remaining in this part of the state … can hardly suffice for the wants of its population.” As for the great pine forests of northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, the extent of their stands had become “dangerously small in proportion to the country’s consumption of white pine lumber,” leading Sargent to conclude that “the entire exhaustion of these forests in a comparatively short time is certain.

Another alarming report preceding the 1880 census by only three years claimed that “the states of Ohio and Indiana, and the southern part … of … Michigan, so recently a part of the great East-American forest, have even now a greater percentage of treeless area than Austria, and the North-German Empire, which have been settled and cultivated for upward of a thousand years.” By the time the 1880 census came out, it had become increasingly clear that the forests in the northeastern quadrant of the United States were going to become just another chapter in humanity’s piecemeal destruction of the planet. One of America’s leading forestry authorities, N. Egleston, lamented this fact, writing in an 1882 issue of Harper’s Monthly, “we are … following … the course of nations which have gone before us. The nations of Europe and Asia have been as reckless in their destruction of the forests as we have been, and by that recklessness have brought themselves unmeasurable evils, and upon the land itself barrenness and desolation. The face of the earth in many instances had been changed as the result of the destruction of the forests, from a condition of fertility and abundance to that of a desert.” Hoping that education might prevent the same happening to America, Egleston felt that “The mass of the people … should have set before them the warnings from history.” We, too, must learn from what has happened in the past, and by doing so, we can help save what remains of our world’s forests.

In 1890, when Pinchot returned from studying forestry in Europe, he found to his shock that in America, instead of the practice of forestry, “the most rapid and extensive forest destruction ever known was in full swing.” “The American Colossus,” Pinchot accurately observed, “was fiercely intent on appropriating and exploiting the riches of the richest continents—grasping with both hands, reaping where he had not sown, wasting what he had thought would last forever.

“At long last, however, the reaction began,” reported Pinchot. John Muir described that reaction: “Lovers of their country, bewailing its baldness, are now crying aloud, ‘Save what is left of the forests!’” Opposition to the American style of forestry—“Get timber by hook or crook, get it quick and cut it quick”—was quite justified in Pinchot’s opinion. “Any great evil eventually gives rise to protest.” At first, public opinion dismissed those trying to break the onslaught of forest devastation “as impractical theorists, fanatics, more or less touched in the head.” A flurry of articles sympathetic to the views of Muir and Pinchot, such as those appearing in America’s premier magazines like Harper’s Monthly and the Atlantic Monthly during the last three decades of the 19th century and continuing into the 20th century, helped change that opinion. Through these articles, people learned how intact forests protected much of America, especially in the West. Muir articulated well the importance of forests to the welfare of the nation. “It has been shown over and over again that if mountains were to be stripped of their trees and underbrush, and kept bare and sodless,” Muir wrote, “both lowlands and mountains would speedily become little better than deserts compared with their present beneficent fertility. During heavy rainfalls and while winter accumulations of snow were melting, the larger streams would swell into destructive torrents; cutting deep, rugged-edged gullies, carrying away the fertile humus and soil as well as sand and rocks, filling up and overflowing their lower channels, and covering the lowland fields with raw detritus.

Drought and barrenness would follow.” In contrast, Muir continued, “the cool shades of the forest give rise to moist beds and currents of air, and the sod of grasses and the various flowering plants and shrubs thus fostered, together with the network of tree roots, absorb and hold back the rain and the waters from melting snow, compelling them to ooze and percolate and flow gently through the soil in streams that never dry. All the pine needles and rootlets and blades of grass, and the fallen decaying trunks of trees, are dams, storing the bounty of the clouds and dispensing it in perennial life-giving streams, instead of allowing it to gather suddenly and rush headlong in short-lived devastating floods.” Pinchot agreed with Muir’s assessment. He wrote that “successful irrigation involves and demands the preservation of forest,” and emphasized, as Muir did, that the government should set up forest: reserves in the west where “preservation is essential.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science came to agree with arguments such as those presented by Muir and Pinchot for the establishment of government-protected forest reserves. The organization therefore urged President Harrison to withdraw from sale all timberlands in federal hands. Surprisingly, Harrison complied. His proclamation taking millions of acres of forestland off the market and placing them in reserve ended a century of government giveaways, primarily for the enrichment of powerful corporate entities. The establishment of these reserves set the foundation for today’s National Forests.

Subsequent presidents added to these first reserves. By 1899, they totaled 43 million acres. Gifford Pinchot was now chief forester of the United States. Pinchot wrote A Primer of Forestry to guide the wise use of America’s newly acquired forestlands. He began by describing the many functions of forests: they serve as home to many animals, “tend to prevent floods and droughts, supply fuel,” which Pinchot noted was “one of the first necessaries of life,” and provide lumber, “without which cities, railroads and all the great achievements of material progress would have been either long delayed or wholly impossible.” In fact, Pinchot let his readers know, “From every point of view [forests are] one of the most helpful friends of man. Perhaps no other material has done so much for the human race.” Despite its utilitarian value, the forest is as beautiful as it is useful, according to Pinchot.

While Pinchot advocated the provision of timber as one of the functions of the forest reserves, as did John Muir, he carefully instructed, “Draw from the forest while protecting it.” He was emphatic, though, in his stand against what then was called “clean cutting,” known today as clear-cutting. In one speech, he made it definitely clear that though he was “a cutter down of trees, it by no means follows that the face of the land should be denuded.

Old growth occupied a special place in Muir’s and Pinchot’s hearts.

“The Big Trees,” the giant Sequoias remained a special delight to both Muir and Pinchot. Muir described the species ecstatically as “nature’s forest masterpiece.” Pinchot regarded them as “the grandest, the largest, the oldest, the most majestically graceful of trees.” He deemed them “beautiful and worthy of preservation” and their destruction “as complete and deplorable as the untouched forest is unparalleled.

At first Pinchot thought that cooperation between the timber industry and the government for the benefit of America’s forests could be achieved. As the years wore on, Pinchot soured on the idea when he realized that the lumber industry “is trying to fool the American people” into believing that the industry “has given up the practice of forest devastation.” As a consequence of the destructive practices of the timber industry, Pinchot pointed out, “Of 822,000,000 acres of virgin forest only about one-eighth remains.

Army Major George Ahern, the man Pinchot commissioned to write an exposé of the timber industry’s destructive policies, described the problem in more human terms. “The facts tell a moving story,” wrote Ahern, “of forest devastation, abandoned towns, abandoned farms, the closing down of hundreds of wood-using industries, as the centers of lumber production shift from the Northeast to the Lake States, to the South, and finally to the last stand in the Pacific Northwest.” “Public control of lumber is the only measure capable of putting an end to forest devastation in America,” Pinchot came to believe. “Without it forest devastation has never been stopped anywhere. Without it forest devastation cannot be stopped in the United States.” Despite his best efforts, however, just the opposite happened. Private timber interests gained de facto control of the Forest Service after World War II and perversely proved Pinchot a prophet.

With industry calling the shots, all conservation values, which served as the basis for the founding of the United States Forest Service, fell to the wayside. The new generation of foresters working for the Service knew that failure in all environmental areas, but success at turning out more board feet of lumber, would bring a raise in pay and position. And the converse was true as well. Hence, foresters saw only lumber waiting to be harvested when they looked at the trees. Water quality and soil integrity no longer mattered. It was all about the tree cut.

Advances in technology conspired with the new ideology to destroy what even the nineteenth-century “freebooters” couldn’t get their hands on. Terrain and distance from markets had restricted the amount of destruction possible in earlier days, especially in the mountainous western National Forests. The chain saw, which came of age after World War II, could cut down far more trees per hour than axe or saw. Timber growing on any slope could now be cut as Caterpillars, winches, or even helicopters could pick it up and pile the logs in yards, where trucks maneuvered up roads cut by “dozers,” loaded up, and headed for the mill. Such capital-intensive forestry demanded taking down as many trees as possible in one fell swoop in order to maximize profits.

The greed of the 1980s, combined with “conveyor-belt” lumbering, brought devastation to a new level. As reported in Fortune and other magazines, the leveraged buyout of Pacific Lumber and its consequences was a cautionary tale that not even the most wild-eyed conservationist could invent. Before the takeover, the company had carefully stewarded the land. On its property grew 193,000 acres of redwoods, most of which were from 200 to 2,000years old, the largest as tall as twenty stories with trunks measuring up to 15 feet in diameter. The original company had cut only a few large trees from each stand to avoid flooding and silting of neighboring salmon-filled rivers. Practicing such judicious logging left Pacific Lumber holding hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of timber.

These jewels attracted corporate raider Charles Hurwitz. To purchase Pacific Lumber, Hurwitz borrowed nearly a billion dollars from junk bond dealer Michael Milken. To pay the loan back, he had to cut the forest down.

Studies have shown that forests and their soil contain 400 times more carbon than that emitted by the burning of fossil fuels each year.  In addition, human-induced loss of forests and their conversion to other uses since 1850 has contributed more carbon to the atmosphere than any other source but the burning of fossil fuels, which are for the most part, very old plants and trees.


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One Response to Book: John Perlin’s “A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization”

  1. I produced a YouTube video “Wood the under-appreciated renewable natural resource” on my channel Bradford Townsend Forward Research. My great grandparents Hoosiers— would tell me stories of the endless forests, and flocks of birds that blocked out the sun. Five or six generations of settlement have completely transformed Indiana.