1897: Commercial Scale Logging and the Stonycreek
Like the coal mining companies, commercial logging firms were also poised to benefit from the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O). As was true for coal, good rail connections were crucial for large scale, market oriented logging and milling operations. Locally, the largest and most prominent firm was E. V. Babcock Lumber Company, which starting acquiring land and timber rights in Paint, Ogle and Shade Townships in the mid to late 1890s, about the same time as Berwind-White's land agents were purchasing land and mineral rights.

Figure 13. Babcock Lumber Company's No. 6 steam locomotive, pulling four cars of logs. Although clear cutting is the most economical method of timber harvest, when undertaken on steep terrains like these the practice promotes soil erosion and stream sedimentation until such time as reforestation occurs. Photo credit: Item # HS2006.20.21, from the Thomas T. Tober III Collection, courtesy of The Historical & Genealogical Society of Somerset County.

Success came quickly to Babcock. In the first decade of the twentieth century, it was one of the state's biggest lumber companies, a result of its large land holdings—at least 20,000 acres locally—and the watershed's rich timber resources. These virgin stands principally contained hemlock, but also white pine and mixed northern hardwoods including birch, sugar maple, beech, oak, ash, cherry, and other commercially desirable species.

Figure 14. Logs and bark await pickup along one of the logging rail lines of Babcock Lumber Company. These hemlock logs would be stripped of bark before being hauled to the mill. Along the track are small piles of bark, awaiting pickup. Photo credit: Item # HS2006.20.21, from the Thomas T. Tober III Collection, courtesy of The Historical & Genealogical Society of Somerset County, Somerset, Pennsylvania.

Babcock built milling operations at Ashtola, Arrow and Seanor, connecting to a branch of the PRR. Farther south in Shade Township it linked to the B&O via Shade Creek Railroad. Its own logging rail lines extended to a succession of logging camps that mostly traced the streambeds. By about 1912, with forest resources largely exhausted, Babcock ceased logging locally. In 1914, it closed the last milling and planing operations and moved its equipment to West Virginia.

A significant portion of Babcock's former holdings in the watershed was sold to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1949 and 1950. These lands are now part of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' (DCNR) Babcock Division of the Gallitzin State Forest, and are managed by the Bureau of Forestry.

Figure 15. Babcock Lumber Company's Seanor mill and its crew of more than fifty. The expanded scale of logging in the early twentieth century created employment opportunities beyond farming. This photograph indicates the use of steam to operate the mill. Photo credit: Item # HS2006.20.47, from the Thomas T. Tober III Collection, courtesy of The Historical & Genealogical Society of Somerset County.

As it was in the 1890s, today the Stonycreek watershed is dominated by forests and woods, which according to satellite imagery analysis, now account for more than 60 percent of the watershed. How did the timber industry's brief but intense encounter with the Stonycreek watershed affect the forests and waters?

Figure 16. Land uses in the Stonycreek watershed show the dominance of forest cover and agricultural uses, with ribbons of development or highways linking the principal settlements. About 60 percent of the watershed is forests or woods, based on satellite imagery analysis circa 2005. Map credit: Mary Lavine

Clear cutting on hillsides promoted soil erosion and thermal pollution. Absent the forest canopy and living tree roots, runoff washed away the thin topsoil, increasing silt load in streams. Although annual spring runoffs cleared these deposits, the long term loss of surface organic material has resulted in poor soil conditions and nutrient deficient streams in higher elevations. Lack of shade from canopy cover increased water temperatures in cold water streams, making them uninhabitable to cold water species like Pennsylvania's native brook trout.

Following timber harvests and into the 1920s, fires were frequent in logged-over areas. They were especially destructive because the fires were hotter than in normal forest fires, due to the great quantities of combustible woody debris (e.g., tree limbs) available. This left little organic material to nourish the next generation of trees and destroyed dormant seeds. Forests were slow to recover.

Probably the most serious long term consequence of logging has been a change in the water table, according to a spokesperson for the Gallitzin State Forest. Removing vast expanses of large hemlock trees, so beautifully portrayed by Hetzel and others, altered the area's microclimate and water table. Large scale evapotranspiration from the giant hemlocks had kept the water table low, allowing seedlings' roots to get oxygen. Today, former hemlock stands are characterized by a higher water table that is likely permanent, resulting in swampy areas where reforestation is difficult and the vegetation is mostly scrub.

Invasive pests and plants also changed the watershed's woodlands. Chestnut blight, introduced into North America from Japan around 1900, reached the Stonycreek watershed about the time commercial logging was on the decline; by the early 1920s the fungus was well established. Once one of the dominant hardwoods in the Appalachians, the American chestnut is now present in the Stonycreek watershed only as shoots from old chestnut stumps. Defoliation from gypsy moth was first apparent during the early 1980s, most especially affecting oak trees. Limited aerial applications of pesticides in managed areas have contained, but not eliminated, the impact of the gypsy moth. Although the huge stands of hemlock were cut down over a century ago, smaller stands and individual trees are at risk from the hemlock woolly adelgid now present in this area.

In hospitable areas along streams and roadside clearings, and in other areas where soil or vegetation has been disturbed, exotic or invasive plant species are taking hold. Along the Stonycreek River's riparian corridor, Japanese knotweed and autumn olive have become firmly entrenched. Knotweed and wild garlic mustard appear to be the most prevalent invasive plants along the watershed's roadsides, while the multiflora rose is a common invasive in abandoned fields, according to a spokesperson for Natural Biodiversity.

Despite these influences, if the watershed is like much of the rest of rural northeastern United States, it is more wooded today than it was one hundred years ago, the consequence of abandoned farms and timbered lands reverting to forest cover. Areas logged over during the early twentieth century have mostly revegetated, although species composition of these forests has shifted dramatically, and now consists of very little hemlock and a different mix of hardwoods. Currently, forested areas are especially concentrated in upland areas of the watershed. Issues of accessibility and terrain make that land more economically marginal, and as a consequence much of it has been successfully acquired for public uses, under permanent public management as state forest, game or park lands.


An account of Babcock Lumber Company's operations in the Windber area and many photographs of logging operations and locomotives are available in Benjamin Kline's "Stemwinders" in the Laurel Highlands: The Logging Railroads of South-Western Pennsylvania (Lycoming Printing Co., 1973). It is available from some local libraries and for purchase from the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

A more detailed discussion of the Gallitzin State Forest, its history, biotic changes, forest practices and the impact of mining is available in The Gallitzin State Forest, provided by District 6, Bureau of Forestry, DCNR. Click here to download this document.

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