The 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway joins Delaware Avenue for a short stretch and takes an unexpected turn into the Rivers Casino Philadelphia parking lot. The trail continues around the walls of the gaming hall to a circular, brick plaza where one can appreciate an expansive view of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. If you time your visit with the receding tide, you can see decaying, wooden skeletons rising from the depths. Here lie the water-soaked ruins of Piers 40 and 42–the last remains of Philadelphia’s lost Lumber District.
110 years ago this spot was anything but ruins. Here you would be standing in the middle of an active wharf belonging to the Edwin P. Malone Lumber Company. Directly south is another lumber pier belonging to the William S. Taylor Company, then a B&O Railroad depot and six more lumber piers. To the west is a gas works, a fruit preserve company, the Smith, Kline and French Laboratory, paper box fabricators, and the Ajax Metal Company, now home of Fillmore Philly. The Penn Sugar Refinery looms up immediately to the north and then more lumber piers, followed by several shipyards, including the renowned William Cramp & Sons. Railroad tracks thread between the structures and out onto the piers like an array of projecting spikes.
This sprawling quilt of buildings, transportation, and activity reflects Philadelphia’s particular industrial character. Although the city had its share of enormous factory complexes, the city’s industries could generally be described as a vast web of small enterprises elaborately linked through trade, contracts, and transit. The city itself was considered an enormous workshop in a constant state of technological transformation.
A diverse range of operations congregated along the waterfront to gain access to resources, transport, and each other. The early growth of many of these businesses depended on a steady supply of lumber from the surrounding lands. Today, Pennsylvania manages its forested land, but before we cared for the forests, we set out to destroy them. The history of Pennsylvania lumbering is a moral tale of industrial technology, natural devastation, and collective renewal.
During the colonial period, the British were particularly attracted to the towering trees of the Americas. Maritime superiority required big ships with tall masts, but England did not have the trees necessary to fulfill its ambitions. The 200-foot tall Eastern White Pines that grew in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern colonies gave British ships their technological edge.
The 1711 White Pine Act was the first of three parliamentary laws meant to reserve the tallest trees in New England for exportation to English shipyards. Settlers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine were forbidden to cut any white pines unless the British Deputy Surveyor first trekked through their land and reserved the best trees for England. This angered the Yankees and their disgruntlement eventually erupted into the White Pine Riot of 1772 when a defiant New Hampshire mob flogged the sheriff and his deputy with tree branches. Similar sentiments soon led to the Boston Tea Party and culminated with the Declaration of Independence back in Philadelphia.
Britain’s claim over big trees did not extend into Pennsylvania because it was considered a “proprietary colony” rather than a “crown colony.” The trees and everything else had been granted to William Penn. With “sovereign authority” Penn divided the land and sold it with full rights of use, after arranging for displacement of the native inhabitants. The significance of the trees was not lost on Penn. There was more to the idea of including “sylvan” (forested) in Pennsylvania’s name than aesthetic appeal. Successful colonies needed reliable supplies of lumber and the region’s forests were the perfect marketing angle for Penn’s great real estate venture.
Pennsylvania trees supplied materials for ships, houses, furniture, crates, barrels, and fuel. The technology used to transport lumber had evolved over centuries. Trees were cut in the winter when they could be pulled by horses or oxen across the frozen ground. The trunks were piled along riverbanks until the spring thaw. When the waters rose, they were lashed together with saplings and horseshoes and rafted downriver to water-powered lumber mills. As Philadelphia developed, the forests were clear-cut in an expanding path up the Delaware River, and the Lumber District boomed.
The vast forests that covered the Pocono and Catskill regions of the Upper Delaware seemed too distant to serve the needs of the growing city. This changed through the adventurous foresight of Daniel Skinner who moved from Connecticut in the mid-1700s in search of unrestricted lumbering. He settled with his family amidst the white pines on the Pennsylvania side of the river near Callicoon. There was no certainty a raft could make the 200-mile trip through unpopulated lands, but Skinner was determined to get his trees to market. In 1764, he set out with two men on a 70-foot raft. The trip took eight arduous days during which one of the men fell overboard and drowned. When the raft arrived in Philadelphia, the grateful shipbuilders honored Skinner with the title “Lord High Admiral of the Delaware River.”
Other lumbermen followed Skinner’s lead and set to work cutting the forests of the Upper Delaware. They assembled rafts as long as 200 feet containing over 100,000 board feet of lumber. The larger rafts required a man at each corner to steer clear of obstacles as they followed the variable currents and rushed through the occasional rapids. Navigating rapids on logs held by horseshoes was a dangerous endeavor and fights with other rafters added to the challenge. The raftsmen were known as a tough and colorful crowd who accompanied their trips with song and alcohol. They gained a popular association with pirates, and the Philadelphia terminus of their voyages was commonly referred to as the Barbary Coast.
Lumber rafting influenced the growth of riverfront communities and contributed to local culture. At the heyday of rafting, as many as 1,000 men would spend the night along the river’s curve in Narrowsburg. The practice reached its peak in 1875 when more than 3,000 rafts rode the Delaware River’s spring waters. The outdoor life of the lumbering raftsmen held a certain romantic appeal, but a regional rafting song, “A Shantyman’s Life,” (shanty referring to their riverside houses) paints a less than idyllic portrait:
A shanty lad he leads a dreadful dreary life,
Though some call it free from care.
When he swings on his axe from morning until night,
In the middle of the forest so drear.
When springtime comes in, double hardship does begin,
For the water is piercing cold:
A songwriter of today would be less likely to describe Pennsylvania forests as dreary, but to the 19th century imagination they were dark, uncivilized lands. The lumbermen were doing everyone a favor by clearing away the shadowy trees to make way for agriculture. They were farmers and laborers who harvested trees without an overall organization. Only the landscape imposed limits on their lumbering. Mountainous areas and land too distant from waterways were beyond their reach.
The natural limits were lifted in the second half of the 19th century when large lumber companies laid tracks through the forests and used steam engines to transport the felled trees. Without any restrictions, Pennsylvania was stripped of its trees by the end of the century. The lumber companies had no interest in the denuded land and they moved on to West Virginia and Michigan, leaving behind a devastated landscape of stumps and erosion.
Philadelphia’s Lumber District dwindled away with the disappearance of the trees and the last lumber raft floated down the Delaware River in 1922. By this time, other resources and industries overshadowed timber, but the Lumber District holds the distinction of being the first piece to fall out of the city’s industrial puzzle. The slow, incremental erosion of Philadelphia’s manufacturing base began with the loss of the region’s forests, demonstrating industry’s dependence on the environment.
An enormous public effort was necessary to address the aftermath of unrestricted extraction. The Commonwealth bought thousands of acres from the departing lumber companies and founded the Commission of Forestry in 1901 to oversee the immense task of reforestation. Progress proceeded at a gradual rate until the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal joined the effort, and thousands of unemployed laborers planted saplings across the state. Today, Pennsylvania has 17-million acres of second growth forest, which stabilize the land, provide wildlife habitat, protect water supplies, and offer outdoor recreation.
The decaying piers at the back of the casino are the last artifacts of Delaware River lumbering, but this story offers lessons relevant to ongoing environmental debates. The consequences of unrestricted deforestation show that we cannot expect private corporations to supervise their own actions to address long-term environmental concerns. The immense, public reforestation effort that responded to the turn-of-the-century devastation underscores the necessity of the government to actively manage our natural resources. Today’s forests are enjoyed by Pennsylvanians across the political spectrum, but they should not be considered as independently natural. They are the direct result of human effort.
The stories held within Philadelphia’s sunken lumber piers disprove the imagined divide between humanity and the natural world. We can no longer consider our cities as separate entities from their surroundings. Culture, technology, and nature are inseparably entwined. A sustainable future depends on integrating the structures, landscapes, and activities of our cities with ecological well-being.