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January 04, 2019     Post 99
Lake Ontario Lumber Trade



In my historic novel “Widowmaker”, a tale set in 1880 of a feisty female ship owner and her battles with the lake and Oswego’s less than sympathetic male dominated waterfront, the lumber trade supports her crew and schooner for a good part of the tale.

In real life, schooners of various sizes carried vast amounts of lumber throughout the Great Lakes system. Their trade was supported by seemingly unlimited pine and spruce forests in Ontario, Wisconsin, Michigan plus hardwoods in the watershed’s southern regions. From about 1830 to the first years of the twentieth century logging, milling and transport supported tens of thousands of jobs on all the lakes and for a short time Oswego handled more lumber than any other Great Lakes port. In the second photo you can see the stacked boards behind the small fishing boats.



Even in the days of muscle powered crosscut saws and teams of horses, the hard working lumber jacks did an impressive job of eliminating the forests in short order. The “limitless” stands of Great Lakes white pine, some 150 foot high and five feet in diameter, disappeared in a single short generation. Logging left behind an abundance of woody debris. In 1871 a hot dry summer set the stage for a series of intense deadly fires. The Peshtigo “firestorm” that took place in October may have killed more than two thousand people. It and other fires burned thousands of buildings and over 3900 square miles of land. Like the recent fires in California, witnesses reported localized hundred mph winds and fire tornadoes one of which lifted rail cars off the tracks.

Deforestation also had profound impacts on the water quality and resilience of the Great Lakes environment. The natural purification of water takes time. Water needs to drip soak and pool for toxins to adsorb and break down and settle out. Individual trees collect water. They intercept, collect and slow rain drops with their surface area. Trees allow rain water to soak into the ground around them and eventually to re-charge aquifers. Forests with their leafy canopies and abundant absorbent leaf litter and soil act as giant filters and storage areas. Back in the late 1990s, New York City balked at installing a $6 billion drinking water treatment system and instead opted for natural landscape management to clean the water of the Catskill/Delaware watershed. Protecting forest lands kept sediment and runoff from entering the city’s water supply.


Logging also had other direct ecological impacts on the Great Lakes watershed. Rivers that once supported runs of trout, sturgeon, perch, bullhead, and other fish were devastated by the log drives. Deeper pools where fish could rest and clean gravel beds essential for spawning were scoured to bedrock or clogged by bark and silt. Woodland streams in deforested areas grew warmer and some tributaries dried up in the summer destroying more fish stocks. Often dams were built by the timber companies to store water for the log drives. These further impeded fish runs and disrupted natural river flows.

For more than fifty years pine was the big money maker on the lakes. Unlike hardwoods, pine logs could be floated on log drives. In the later 1800s vast rafts of pine were made up at Garden Island and sent down the St. Lawrence for export to Europe via ships. And until the early 1900s schooners carried milled lumber and finished products like shingles, window sashes and moldings to Oswego where cargoes were transferred to canal boats bound for the expanding cities of the coast.

By 1890 the shipborne trade in lumber was dwindling, and some people were noticing the need for re-forestation. Mansfield’s History of the Great Lakes notes that after a nudge by Wisconsin’s forestry department, “The pine kings have promised to replant their lands, which have been despoiled, with pine trees a year old. It is estimated that they will cost $3 per thousand, and that that number is sufficient to cover an acre of land. The lumbermen have agreed to this providing the State will see that the fire law pertaining to forests is strictly enforced.”

In 1897 federal legislation provided for the establishment of national forests to improve and protect forests “to secure favorable conditions of water flows and to furnish a continuous supply of timber.” A few years later New York began a state tree nursery program to promote reforestation. The state needed a constant supply of water for its barge canal system Runoff from deforested lands is “flashy” often leading to destructive floods. Siltation caused by poor logging and agricultural practices also harmed the canal, so a degraded landscape imposed serious monetary costs on both water transportation and hydropower generation.

In my novel our heroine meets a proponent of George Perkins Marsh’s forestry practices. Perhaps we’ll explore March’s work in the next Log article. He wrote back in 1864 in his book Man and Nature “The human race was part of nature, and not above it” a radical idea for that time...



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