Majestic Trees Towered Over Area In 1850
W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, November 24, 2004, p. A14.
It is indeed sad that the reader could not have lived for just 30 minutes in the East Texas long leaf pine forests in 1850 and viewed the giant sylvan monarchs that were 50 inches in diameter and rose halfway to the sky. Cotton farmers crossing the Sabine River into Texas in 1850 were disappointed to find 30,000 square miles of such forests, forcing them to travel west beyond Brazos River to find open farm land.
Perhaps even worse, the few steam sawmills of that period generated only 25 horsepower. Actually the sawmill machinery needed to slice the giant pines either had not been invented yet, or else it was not being manufactured. In 1846 the first Page circular sawmill went on sale in Houston, but it choked down in logs wider than 16 inches. In 1856 Jacob DeCordova wrote: “It must seem strange indeed that we are compelled to import so large an amount of lumber into Texas. ...Even the ties for the Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad had to be imported from the state of Maine...”
Even if there had been sawmills capable of cutting the big trees, there was still no rail system to carry the lumber. Internal transportation was largely limited to river steamboats, and a thousand feet of lumber occupied the same space as five bales of cotton, transportation of which produced twice as much revenue. Hence a steamboat carried lumber only as a last resort.
There also are many photographs that attest to the huge size of the logs. On page 164 of “Timbered Resources of East Texas” (Tyrrell Library), logs lying in the yard of Kirby’s Woodville sawmill in 1902 averaged 45 to 48 inches in diameter. Logs on the Olive, Texas, tram trains of 1895 were so large that a log car could carry only three logs at a time to the mill (Texas Gulf Historical Record, XXVI, 45).
The Enterprise of Aug. 3, 1927, carried a photo of one of the largest logs ever cut in East Texas. The log was 30 feet long, 61 inches in diameter at the butt end and 54 inches in diameter at the other end. The log was cut at the New Blox log camp, three miles north of Jasper in April 1927, and it required two eight-wheel Martin log wagons to haul it out of the woods. The log was cut into 7,000 feet of lumber.
In 1900 Mexican shingle makers cut down a short-leaf pine tree in Nacogdoches County that had 283 growth rings in it. The tree was already a sapling when the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving. They cut the tree into 23,000 shingles (Beaumont Journal, Nov. 13, 1904). In 1905 a short leaf pine tree still stood in the W.R. Pickering timberland reserve in Shelby County that was 33 feet around. It required seven men with arms outstretched to reach around the tree (McCoy, “Shelby County Sampler”).
Also about 1905, a huge cypress tree stood on the bank of Sabine River at East Hamilton. A photo on page 14 of “The 35 Best Ghost Towns” shows a man measuring around it, and it was at least two feet wider in diameter than the man was tall. The tree easily could have been cut into between 8,000 and 10,000 feet of lumber.
One of the joys of driving past Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches is to see the long leaf pines of a dimension never otherwise seen in the East Texas of today. And one of the sorrows to many East Texans is to see a forest of saplings, none of them larger than a fence post, being clear-cut and converted to wood chips.
Today it is likewise a joy to know that 635,000 acres of our East Texas forests now make up four national forests, and the timber there now can receive the protection that is needed.