William Penn’s woods have been subjected to grievous insults over the past century and a half, and the repercussions are still affecting entire regions of the state. Beginning in the mid-1800s, loggers stripped the hills of nearly every standing tree to fuel a growing nation and to sustain the efforts of the Union during the Civil War. The loggers began with the magnificent stands of white pine, legendary for the size and quality of the trees, especially for ship masts.
As is typical in boom and bust economies, the loggers began to expand their take once the highest quality lumber was cut and shipped down the Susquehanna River. Hemlock also became a valuable resource, but initially the wood itself was merely left to rot on the hills. The tannin from the highly acidic bark of the small-needled conifer was a necessary ingredient in the process of leather tanning and its abundance caused tanneries to spring up all over the state. With nearly 900 tanneries in Pa. in 1870, the highly toxic effluent from the tanneries polluted many of the streams in Northern Pennsylvania.
To explore the history of the logging boom and its remaining impacts on the state today, BotS ventured up to the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum in Galeton. The museum has a collection of tools and equipment used during the boom, as well as a recreated logging camp and a Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) cabin, remnants of an era gone by. The forests around the museum have grown back nicely, and a trail showcasing sustainable forestry practices displays that fact nicely as the leaves begin to turn color. Though the trees are obviously second growth, it is hard to imagine these hills devoid of trees and life for as far as the eye can see.
The more detrimental impacts of logging included massive erosion of the hillsides, transporting massive amounts of topsoil into the valleys and out the Susquehanna River. In many cases, the impacts were so devastating that farmers were forced to abandon their farms on the highlands and hillsides, moving into the valleys to follow where their soil had gone. The absence of trees also changed the hydrology of the watershed, making for more violent floods because of the lack of vegetation to retain any rainfall in the basin.
Loggers constructed numerous “splash” dams on the tributaries of the Susquehanna in order to impound logs and water to transport them on artificial floods when the spring thaw would move men and lumber downstream to market. Traces of these temporary dams can still be seen throughout the watershed, their legacy of impounded sediment and disruptions to the ecosystem still measurable today.
Perhaps the biggest impact visible today is a geomorphic event that has taken the better part of the last century to make itself known. Clear-cutting the timber caused a massive change in the sediment type running off the surface of the watershed. The loads of sediment that were now flowing into the streams with every rainfall are one of two major factors that determine the behavior of streams, and can change their entire behavior. Farmers moved into the flat-bottomed valleys filled with topsoil from the hill tops, and in the century since, we have mostly forgotten what the streams once looked like.
Today, after decades of running with clear, clean water again, the streams are eroding away at the settled valleys at alarming rates, and are moving entire waves of gravel downstream. On the Roaring Creek Branch of Lycoming Creek, the gravel being moved down stream is nearing the underside of a bridge, and threatens to eventually render it useless for transportation. Because of actions a century ago, houses have been undercut and destroyed by rapidly eroding streams and bridges are in danger of failing. These delayed reactions in ecological systems are still being studied, but they are proof of the danger that we can place ourselves in by tampering with ecological systems.
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