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Despite being branded as ‘wild and wonderful,’ the sad reality is that West Virginia’s present-day forests are but a frail shell of what was once a majestic and unimaginably dense woodland — a vast and mysterious expanse which both sweetened and haunted the dreams of many early settlers.
One of the earliest men to write of the state’s ancient forests was a surveyor by the name of George Washington.
On November 4, 1770, while plotting the Kanawha River, he wrote in his journal, “Just as we came to the hills, we met with a Sycamore… of a most extraordinary size, it measuring three feet from the ground, forty-five feet round, lacking two inches; and not fifty yards from it was another, thirty-one feet round.”
Bill Grafton, president of the West Virginia Native Plant Society stated, “In Pre-Colonial times, the 15 million acres of West Virginia were almost entirely forested.”
The trees, centuries-old colossal mammoths, towered proudly over the Mountain State — standing like skyscrapers of the ancient world, reigning for thousands of years over the majestic and unconquerable land. Older than the Mayflower, many of West Virginia’s white oak and hemlock trees were more than half-a-millennium old – an unimaginable spectacle for the European colonists who first laid eyes on the trees.
As their Native American predecessors who first inhabited the land, the early colonists who topped the mountain ridges which had protected the enchanted land for ages, lacked the resources or will to destroy the hallowed trees of old.
Unfortunately, within a few generations, the western world had been thrust into an era which came to be known as the Industrial Revolution; soon, man’s appetite for tangible goods had reached a level that had previously been unthinkable.
Seeking to profit from society’s thirst for stuff, sawmills sprang up throughout the mountains of the newly created state, as armies of rough, strong and desperate men set out, hewing down the ancient landmarks of old. The workers themselves were not villains, but immigrants, laborers, husbands and fathers of hungry children; unaware of their own strength.
By 1920, the state, which is now celebrated for its natural beauty, had been reduced to an abhorrent desert, more closely resembling a bombed wasteland than a mountain wonderland described as being “almost heaven.”
For the first time in its history, West Virginia was viewed as an eyesore. One visiting writer described the state as “a monotonous panorama of destruction.”
Recognizing the dangers wrought by absentee landownership and unregulated devouring of the state’s forests, West Virginia leaders would move, in the coming years, to reforest the mountains which lay between the Old Dominion and the Ohio River.
By 2000, their efforts had been deemed a success, as the state had reforested itself and boasted of more forestland than it had seen in over a century.
Though the era of rampant deforestation is a major blight in the magnificent state’s history, the undeniable reality is that West Virginia’s trees were the building material of America as we know it. With a single tree yielding over 10,000 oak boards, it would be impossible to determine the number of churches, home places, courthouses and ships which were made from West Virginia lumber. One thing we are certain about, however, is that the 46,328-ton HMS Titanic, which sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, carried with it sawed planks of the giant tree pictured above — hewed down in Nicolas County, West Virginia.
West Virginia is a proud state, and by right ought to be — for no other state can boast of having literally made America, and modern-day Western Civilization, as West Virginia can.
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