Lumbering Before Pinchot


The short-lived lumber camps that fed the boom hung uncertainly to the slopes of plunging hillsides, and they lasted only as long as the lumber lasted. But while they did exist, they were microcosms of a special kind of life. Far from the reach of any recognizable police force, they were ordered by a code of conduct all their own. The men worked from dawn to dark and were generally too tired to raise hell even if they wanted to.

The lumberjacks came in from all across the Eastern and Northern forests. When the Blackwater Boom and Lumber Company bought out Rumbarger in 1887, it imported French Canadians from the North, who were expert at riding the floating logs that sometimes filled the Blackwater River from bank to bank for twenty-five miles.

Jacks in their suspenders, their Wisconsin cork shoes, and their Richie shirts swarmed into the valley from Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, and from as far away as Austria, Italy, and Sweden.

True to Napoleon’s dictum, this army moved on its stomach. The most important job in the lumbering camps of Canaan, next to the foreman himself, was the cook. He pulled top wages—three dollars a day for a seven-day week. If he was good, he was more than worth it. A cook could make or break a camp overnight.

The typical dinner menu at the talkless tables in the camps ran to boiled or roast beef, port, or steak, tomatoes, turnips, potatoes, beans, hash, cornbread, two different kinds of pies (quartered), and cake and cookies. Breakfasts were no less prodigious: flapjacks, hot biscuits, steak, fried eggs, fried potatoes, oatmeal, cake, doughnuts, and all the Arbuckles—coffee—a man could drink.

A full complement of lumberjacks included swampers (road builders), a cutting crew of sawyers and knot bumpers who felled and trimmed the trees, teamsters who drove the horses that skidded the logs to the road or river, grab drivers to secure the trail of logs, and a blacksmith and a saw filer (both well paid, as much as $2.50 a day—just below a cook’s wages).

Presiding over these crews, which in a typical camp might number sixty men, was the foreman, perhaps the most important man in the conquest of the forest. The autocrat of the camp, he did the hiring and the firing, and nobody questioned his judgment. He was responsible to the woods superintendent, but a good foreman would buck even the super in the interest of his camp.

The waste that attended the obliteration of the spruce and hemlock forest was staggering.

It took such men a bit more than a generation to reduce Canaan Valley to stumps. Shorn of the tall spruce that had kept it dark for centuries, stripped of its ironlike rhododendron understory, the dense valley floor lay open to the sunlight. It dried. And fires followed, enormous raging fires that burned to the bottom of the humus layer and smoldered for months.

One blaze broke out on the thirtieth of May, 1914, in the woods of Blackwater Canyon, three miles above the small lumber town of Hendricks, and burned for months. A man sitting on his porch in the town at midnight that summer could read the afternoon paper by its light.

The waste that attended the obliteration of the forest was staggering. When the large stand of hemlock that coexisted with the spruce ceased to sell during the Panic of 1893, hemlock bark went to the tanneries, and the huge peeled logs were left to decay.

Despite the waste, the Canaan region yielded up more than three billion board feet of lumber. Its one hundred thousand acres were only about oneeiehtv-fifth of the total virgin forest cut in West Virginia in the hectic fifty years of the last and first quarters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But its output represented one-tenth of the thirty billion board feet the state produced in those years. It was a prodigious pocket of timber. And finally it was gone.

“We didn’t leave a stick standing,” one company official boasted.

The lumbermen moved north or west, Davis faded away to the quiet community of eight hundred people that it is today, and the Canaan Valley was left again to silence as profound—if not as awe-inspiring—as the one the lumbermen had first disturbed just forty years earlier.