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Lumbering Before Pinchot

June 2024
5min read

The short, loud death of Canaan Valley

When the Europeans first saw the New World, their overwhelming impression was of trees, an endless forest covering a continent. And even in the boundless timberland that was eastern North America, West Virginia’s Land of Canaan was extraordinary, for it contained the finest stand of climax red spruce in the world.

The canoe-shaped Canaan Valley itself, 150 miles west of present-day Washington, D.C., was not big—little more than 14 miles long and 3 miles wide. It was boxed in by three rugged mountain ridges, shrouded in misty fog, and utterly silent. The novelist Rebecca Harding Davis, writing in 1880, called the region’s absolute stillness “strange and oppressive as noonday” and wrote that “human voices were an impertinence in the great and wordless meanings of the woods.”

To the lumbermen who rode in with the railroad half a decade later, the meanings were clear enough. A good stand of hardwood timber in West Virginia yielded fifteen thousand board feet per acre. Exceptional stands would yield as much as twenty thousand. The finest stands of white pine in the great northern forests of Michigan and Minnesota produced forty thousand. From parts of Canaan Valley the lumberjacks would haul eighty to a hundred thousand board feet per acre of red spruce.

For four hectic decades the boom times the lumbermen thrust upon this stillness were to rival the gold and silver rushes of the West in brawling intensity and in return on investment. And when it ended, Canaan Valley and its surroundings would be utterly destroyed.

It would have been an outcome inconceivable to the awed members of the survey party that discovered the valley. On Monday, October 13, 1746, a group that included the thirty-eight-year-old Col. Peter Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s father, climbed to the top of Cabin Mountain and looked down on Canaan’s forest for the first time. The next day the party plunged into the valley itself.

It took a bit more than a generation to reduce the Canaan Valley to stumps. After the clearing, fires would smolder for months.

A surveyor named Thomas Lewis wished he had never come. He wrote in his journal that “from the … time We Entred the Swamp I Did not See aplain Big Enough for aman to Lye on nor a horse to Stand.”

The party encountered a vast clutching understory of eight- to ten-foot-high “loral” (rhododendron) that twisted across the forest floor, “all most as Obstinate as if Composed of Iron. Our horses and often our Selves fell into Clefts & Cavitys without seeing the danger Before we felt the Effects of it.”

On leaving, Lewis made a last entry: “Never was any poor Creaturs in Such a Condition as we were in nor Ever was a Criminal more glad by having made his Escape out of prison as we were to Get Rid of those Accursed Lorals.”

Many early settlers felt the same way. A century later one wrote that the valley was “as perfect a wilderness as our continent contained … a howling wilderness of some twenty or thirty miles’ compass, begirt on all sides by civilization, yet unexplored.”

The valley was a relic of the last glacial age. When the Wisconsin ice sheet had crept down from the North to within a hundred or so miles twenty thousand years before, Canaan became a frost pocket, high and cold—perfect for red spruce.

Nobody knows how the valley got its name, but in time, under the battering of West Virginia usage, the biblical “Cane-un,” with its accent on the first syllable, became “Kah-nane,” with the accent hard on the last syllable.

As late as the mid-1880s, on the eve of its destruction, the forest was virtually as Lewis had seen and hated it.

Henry Gassaway Davis changed that. In 1866 Davis, a railroad man and politician, convinced the West Virginia legislature to incorporate his Potomac and Piedmont Coal and Railroad Company with powers, rights, and franchises to do almost everything. By 1881 Davis, then a U.S. senator, had involved so many of his colleagues in his enterprises that the line working its way toward Canaan Valley came to be known as the “senatorial railroad.” On November 1, 1884, the last spike was pounded into the stretch of the senatorial railroad that ran into the brandnew town of Davis on the rim of Canaan Valley. Not long afterward a Pennsylvania lumberman named Jacob Leathers Rumbarger built a band-saw mill on the Blackwater River between Second and Third Street. The first of some thirty-one miles of logging railroads began to push their twisting way into the once impenetrable valley. From a population of two in 1884, Davis swelled to four thousand—a town that in time came to include seven churches, an equal number of saloons, a tannery, two banks, a second major sawmill, two butcher shops, two undertakers, five doctors, two dentists, five restaurants, and four hotels.

In the mid-nineties, a twelve-hundred-seat opera house went up on the corner of Henry Avenue and Second, within easy hearing of the sawmill’s exhaust engines. Under the illumination of that pale and flickering novelty, the electric light, audiences watched Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ten Nights in a Bar-Room .

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.

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