Timber extraction is one of the historic occupations that shaped McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties. By 1880, depletion of New England forests forced the big timber companies to move on. Appalachia, with its mountains covered with old growth trees, was an attractive option. Commercial logging companies showed up here around 1890. They bought large tracts of land and started logging on a massive scale. But decades before they arrived, untold numbers of trees were cut and converted into charcoal for local industries.
Charcoal was important enough that Tennessee passed a law in 1809 that permitted ironmakers to acquire large tracts of land just for harvesting wood.
Charcoal fueled the furnaces at Tellico Iron Works, as well as the copper smelters at Ducktown. Additionally, the copper mines hired day laborers to harvest cord wood to use for “heap roasting” copper ore. Early logging was done by “snaking” trees out of the forests with mules and oxen, but the introduction of steam-powered equipment took logging to a massive scale. Once the big timber companies got here, they hurriedly built railroad spurs into mountain hollows and constructed splash dams to move logs.
They would set up camps for workers and sometimes their families. Shay engines took equipment into the forest and hauled the timber out. Once all the trees were removed from an area, the company would load the worker shanties onto rail cars and move everything to the next timber stand. Even the rails and crossties were removed and used again. Tellico Plains was transformed almost overnight into a boom town. Tellico River Lumber Company, owned by the Babcock Company of Pittsburg, held title to more than 100,000 acres of land and employed 500-700 people. Some worked in the timber camps. Others were employed in the lumber mills and other processing plants based in Tellico Plains. The timber boom came to Conasauga after the L&N Railroad’s “new line” passed through the little community. The Conasauga Lumber Company, based in Ohio, took advantage of convenient rail access and established its headquarters there. At its peak, Conasauga Lumber Company employed close to 700 workers to log the 65,000 plus acres of land it owned. The little farming community quickly morphed into a “modern” town. The company even provided electricity to homes. The power was shut off around 9 or 10 at night and restarted at 6 the next morning. Prendergast Lumber Company, also based in Ohio, established a headquarters at Probst and a sawmill where Delano is today. The company built numerous timber camps up Lost Creek and its tributaries. No less than Warren G. Harding served on its board of directors. Local entrepreneurs took advantage of the thriving timber trade as well. Johnson Brothers operated a lumber mill at Hambright, an old community that once sat beside the Old Line Railroad, between Reliance and Gee Creek. The 1900 census shows people living at Hambright and working as lumbermen and planers. In 1911, “The Lumber Trail Journal” reported that Johnson Brothers moved its machinery from Hambright to Etowah to start a cabinet and planing mill there.
The 1916 “Sanborn Map” shows the Johnson Brothers complex in Etowah. It included a sawmill, planing mill, dry kiln, lumber shed, shavings vault and a building that manufactured cement and bricks. The timber boom brought money to the area, but it also inflicted considerable environmental damage. Old timers said Lost Creek “ran muddy” for years after Prendergast left. Like many extractive industries in Appalachia, the profits mostly went out of state and we were left with the mess. After years of political wrangling, the Weeks Act passed in 1911. It created the US Forest Service to restore the cut-over lands, protect the watersheds and manage a national forest reserve. I read somewhere that U.S. Senator Warren Harding helped negotiate the sale of the Prendergast property to the new federal agency. If that’s true, I have to wonder if “Ole Warren” made money twice — once from cutting trees and again by unloading the ruined land on the federal government. After World War I, the Appalachian timber boom ended. The companies moved on to the Pacific Northwest and the old growth forests and timber camps faded into history. If you are interested in timber history, you should visit the Charles Hall Museum in Tellico Plains to see its collection of artifacts and photographs from the timber boom.
The Tellico Ranger Station is a restored CCC camp that is located just a short drive up the Tellico River Road. There’s an exhibit in the lobby that highlights the CCC history and its successful efforts to restore the forest.
You can actually see old growth trees that are preserved in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Graham County, North Carolina. The Conasauga River Trail in Polk County is worth a visit too. The hiking path follows the river on the old railbed that the Conasauga Lumber Company’s Shay engines ran over. Contact the Tennessee Overhill at 423-263-7232, or visit its website, to learn about other places to explore. Fortunately, much of the mountain land here is now part of the Cherokee National Forest and managed for multiple use. It’s not the old growth forest, but the agency has done a good job reclaiming the land and making it available for our enjoyment.
“A Pictorial History of the Tellico Plains, Tennessee Area,” by Pamela Hall Mathews
“The Old Home Place,” by Thurman Parish
“Mountain Memories,” by Thurman Parish
“From Furs to Factories,” by Betty J. Duggan