From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
Our Forest Followed the Passenger Pigeons
Rise, Activity and Decline of a Hemlock Lumber Town in Pennsylvania – Cross Forks
From Munsey’s Magazine (Abridged.)
The beginning of the harvest of hemlock bark and timber, in the Potter County forest, was about 1872, reaching full volume in 1892, and declining to finish in 1912, except some isolated parcels of timber land that remained when the big sawmills and the lumberjacks left or turned to other occupations. Many of our townships, in turn, turned giddy with prosperity for a few years and then fell upon dull times, for a time, until the readjustment to new conditions made the people ready for a more stable prosperity in lines of permanent industry, and the real town, beneath the giddy vision, had a new birth.
The Fountain of Prosperity
The fountain from which all this prosperity flowed was of course, the big sawmill of the Lackawanna Lumber Company. This, as has been said, started operations in 1895. It was burned down the next year, and in 1897 was replaced by a bigger, busier and better mill. This in turn was destroyed by fire in the spring of 1903, together with thirteen million feet of stacked lumber in the yards.
Such little accidents were not allowed to delay things long, however, and by autumn of the same year the biggest and best mill of the three was in full swing. It had a daily capacity of two hundred and thirty thousand board feet, which meant a yearly capacity of seventy-two million board feet. In other words, as the inhabitants of the town pointed out with justifiable pride, “the lumber cut of two years would be more than sufficient to encircle the globe with boards an inch thick and twelve inches wide.”
The value of the annual output of rough lumber was in the neighborhood of a million dollars. Much of this was further manufactured at the planning-mill, run in conjunction with the sawmill by the Lackawanna Lumber Company, which also maintained a lath-mill and its own machine-shops.
Another industry which helped to keep things booming was the stave-mill, established by the Pennsylvania Stave Company. It started operations in 1897, purchasing its timber in the woods from the Lackawanna Lumber Company, but doing its own logging. This mill also had its own machine-shops. A kindling-mill, a shingle-mill, and a hub-factory also existed for longer or shorter periods.
Breaking records was a favorite pastime for Cross Fork’s industries. The spirit of rivalry, of push, of hurry-up in general, was always in the air. Every woods-crew was anxious to beat the record of another, or to set its own one notch higher, and the company, of course had no objection. The cut of the Lackawanna Lumber Company reached its high-water mark in January, 1906; during that month the sawmill came to the front with a cut of 6,659,695 board feet, the lath mill cut 2,254,300 pieces, and the planning-mill boasted of 2,286,988 board feet planed and matched.
A Busy Community
Business unquestionably was active. The Lackawanna store run by the Lackawanna Lumber Company did a larger trade than any other store in Potter County. Yet it had a lot of competition, for Cross Fork also contained five groceries, a dry-goods shop, a millinery shop, two clothing stores, a shoe store, two drug stores, a hardware store, a sporting goods store, and numerous other retail establishments . It had three doctors, a dentist, and two undertakers. Its post-office was one of the few international money order offices in the county, and action by the President and the Senate of the United States was necessary to appoint its postmaster.
Seven hotels – one of them ranked high among the best in Potter County and offered a welcome to the traveler. Three restaurants, one of which advertised to purvey anything that Delmonico’s did ministered to the wants of the inner man. Licensed saloons there were none, but each hotel had a bar, supplied by the wholesale liquor store and there were unlicensed “blind tigers” or “pig’s ears,” galore. Gambling dens and disorderly houses also flourished, and any one who really wanted to be wicked had every opportunity to be so.
Lest this should give an unfair impression of the town, it should be added that there were also four churches, and the efforts of these were supplemented by occasional visits from traveling evangelists. The W.C.T.U. was active. So also was the Y.M.C.A., which had a fine building, with the gymnasium and baths.
For those with fraternal leanings, there were lodges of Masons, Maccabees, and Odd-Fellows. Others socially inclined derived their amusement from the local literary society, card-clubs and dances. Ten young ladies, apparently of classical tastes, formed themselves into a club called the Bellae Decem – the Beautiful Ten. * * * *
Back of all this activity in the town was the woods work of getting out the logs and sending them to the mills. Logging railroads ran every creek bottom, and lumber-camps abounded. In addition to the timber cut for the Cross Fork mills, some twenty million board feet, or more, were driven every year down Kettle Creek and the Susquehanna to Williamsport.
About five thousand lumberjacks-or “hicks,” in local parlance – were engaged in the work. They were of the rough, roving type, characteristic of their calling. For the most part unmarried and homeless, they lived from hand to mouth, saving money in the woods only to squander it to the last red cent as soon as they struck town. * * * *
Other evidences of the liveliness of the town were to be found in its band, its enterprising hose-company, and its successful baseball team, in whose ranks were included professionals on the pay-roll of the Lackawanna Lumber Company. Still further evidence, though scarcely so deserving of praise, was the tendency toward disorder, which is so often tolerated by boom towns, with their worship of individual liberty. Strange as it may seem, Cross Fork was never incorporated and never had a policeman. As the News put it, “one would be at liberty to operate a Gatling gun in the street here, and we doubt if there would be more than a half a dozen dissentient voices.”
As to the population of the town, opinions differ. The census of 1910 showed a population of 1,299 in Stewardson Township, but this did not include South Cross Fork, just over the line in Clinton County; and then every one knows that census figures never do justice to his home town. Cross Fork itself owned up to about twenty-five hundred and enthusiastic boomers sometimes ran it up toward three thousand. The Pennsylvania Department of Forestry places the population, in the period of prosperity, at about two thousand and this is probably a fair and conservative estimate.
Certain it is that in the heyday of Cross Fork the population exceeded the accommodations. Laborers with families were constantly leaving, not because there was no work to be had, but because there were no houses in which to live.
So far as modern improvements were concerned the town was well off. Two separate electric-light systems made things brilliant by night, while two water systems and good sewerage provided satisfactory sanitation. Telephones installed by a local company, and well patronized, made gossip easy and facilitated business. * * * *
Signs of Decline
The beautiful school building was offered for sale. The walls, which are tinted, are adorned with pictures and maps. There is a good sized cellar, with a first class steam furnace in excellent repair, as are also the plumbing arrangements. The desks and seats are likewise in good condition. There are eight-hundred feet of running black board more than forty-two inches wide. Many text books, a good deal of laboratory equipment, and two organs are also included. All of this is for sale and still no purchaser comes forward. What a rare opportunity for any one with a weakness for white elephants.
There is another side to the picture. Instead of paying for the school building entirely out of current expenses, the township issued three thousand dollars’ worth of bonds. These were in six series of five hundred dollars each, payment on which was to begin in 1902 and continue for six years. As it turned out, however, the school board “owing to financial difficulties,” did not pay the bonds as they matured, and the debt still remained on the township after the bottom fell out in 1909. As a result the tax rate for school purposes, which in 1898 was as low as two and one half mills, is now two and one half cents on the dollar.
Similarly, the road supervisors in 1901 and 1904 borrowed in all forty-six hundred dollars payable on demand. Like the school bonds, these notes had not been paid when the crash came, and the burden now rests upon the few people still left in the township. The tax for road purposes is now ten mills, as against five mills in 1898, and even this rate is insufficient to meet the interest on the bonds to say nothing of the principal and the money required for current work.
Real estate values in the township, according to official figures have decreased from $896,862 in 1904 to $18,815 in 1914, and the town would have been absolutely bankrupt if it had not been for the assistance rendered by the state.
“Even cities have their graves,” and Cross Fork’s looks wide and
deep. Nevertheless, cities may also have their resurrections, and
there are indications that a revivified, more wholesome, and more permanent
Cross Fork may yet rise out of the ashes of the old.
* * * *
The big sawmill of the Lackawanna Lumber Company closed down in April, 1909, and by autumn of the same year the exodus from the town was in full swing. One of the hotels burned down in June and another in July. From then on sporadic fires, were fairly common, until in February, 1910, a whole block was destroyed.
This was too much for the fire insurance companies, which up to that time had paid all losses promptly if not cheerfully. All existing policies in Cross Fork were canceled, and the companies refused to write any new ones. Possibly the remedy was a drastic one. Certainly it effected an immediate cure. Fires stopped, and in their place was started a series of forced sales.
Everyone was anxious to liquidate such assets as he might have to clear out. Five-room frame houses, with steam, water and bath, were offered for twenty-five dollars, and a seven room house for thirty-five, without finding a buyer. Many dwellings were torn down, and everything salable shipped out of town.
In the winter of 1912-1913 the stave mill followed the sawmill. In the fall of 1913, the Buffalo and Susquehanna Railroad, which for some time had been running only three trains a week, discontinued its service entirely, and the next spring, tore up its rails. That was the coup de grace; Cross Fork was dead. In four years its population had shrunk from two thousand or more to sixty-one!
No longer did the woods resound to the blows of the ax and the shouts of the fellars; no longer did the town answer merrily to the hum of the saw. The forests were gone, and with them departed the prosperity of a region of little value for agriculture or mining. Fires had followed lumbering; puny fire-cherries, sumac and blackberry bushes now grow in the place of mighty hemlocks which once had flourished. Desolation reigned supreme.
Hopes for the Future
Even while lumbering operations were in full swing, the State of Pennsylvania began to buy up cut-over land in Potter County. These purchases gradually increased as the cutting progressed until today the State owns more than forty-one thousand acres in Stewardson Township, including the site of the town of Cross Fork. Practically all this land is chiefly valuable for permanent forest production, and is being handled by the state with this end in view.
Fire protection has been assured by the building of look-out towers and the clearing of land lanes, the employment of forest rangers. Roads have been brushed out and ditches dug. Springs have been cleaned and repaired. Telephone lines have been maintained and in some places extended. Reforestration of the denuded hill has been begun by the planting of white pine and other trees.
The State has, in short, regarded its lands as a permanent investment, and has set out to manage them in a business like way. As the local residents have gradually come to realize this fact, their original attitude of at least partial hospitality has been replaced by one of cordial co-operation. Their fear that public ownership might be accompanied by yards of red tape and volumes of burdensome restrictions has been dispelled and they are now ready to admit that the State is a good landlord.
In Cross Fork itself the State has accomplished wonders in bringing order out of chaos that followed the collapse of the town. Old buildings have been torn down, excavations have been filled in, and rubbish in general cleared away. The buildings belonging to the State have been painted and put in good repair. The mill-pond has been drained and cleaned, and the cribbing along the creek re-enforced to prevent washing. As a result, an orderly little country hamlet has appeared as if by magic out of the rack and ruin of the former town.
Furthermore, the State has repaired the main water system of the town, and supplies water to the present inhabitants free of charge. In connection with this, a fire department is also maintained by the State. Some street tree planting has been done and more is planned. A small public library has been started, is open to all free of charge. Plans have also been formed for the establishment of a recreation room for the children and of another for the older people. Basket picnics, with music for the entire community, have proved a great success.
As the cut-over lands begin to bear timber once more, the state will try to establish new wood-using industries in Cross Fork, which will increase in size and importance as the forest comes back. Then the town will once more resound to the hum of the saw, and will again contribute its share to the production of the world.
Never again will it see a sawmill capable of turning out six million board feet of lumber a month, for the cut from the State lands will be limited to what they actually produce each year. Instead, it will see what is far better – a number of smaller but more stable industries, supporting a thriving forest community of permanent homes.
A Tale that Points a Moral
So runs the tale of Cross Fork. It is merely a striking illustration of a commonplace occurrence in the development of America. Many another sawmill and lumbering town has had a similar history. A brief period of strenuous and even frenzied existence has been followed by sudden death, with prospects for a distant – sometimes very, very distant – resurrection.
Until comparatively recent years the policy, or perhaps lack of policy, on the part of the Federal and State governments in the handling of their forest lands has been such as to invite waste and to discourage permanence in the wood-using industries of the country. Pennsylvania is not alone in having disposed of its finest woodlands for twenty-six and two-thirds cents an acre, only to buy them back again for three or four dollars an acre after the timber has been removed and the land devastated by fire.
Throughout the country millions of acres of public land of far greater value for forest production than for agriculture or mining have been allowed to pass into private ownership. No particular blame attaches to the landowners and lumbermen for proceeding to realize as soon as possible all that they could from such lands. Popular opinion, for the most part, has looked on forests in much the same light as mines – as natural resource which should be turned into cold cash as rapidly as possible.
So it is not to be wondered at that cutting proceeded feverishly, with a reckless disregard for the future. Timber was forced upon the market ahead of any real demand for it, and the forest capital of the country was rapidly deleted. Money circulated freely, but only a comparatively few got rich, and the public as a whole suffered seriously. Permanent industries and permanent homes were made impossible, and deserted villages have marked the trail of industry.
Today, we know better. We know that the welfare of the nation demands that a forest should not be treated as a mine, but should be so handled as to make it possible tot cut the same amount of timber year after year from any given area. We know, too, that for the long-time investment which such management involves, public rather than private ownership will have to be relied on.
The work of reconstruction which the State of Pennsylvania is now undertaking at Cross Fork points the way to what can be done under similar conditions elsewhere. Above all, however, it is imperative to prevent repetitions of the tragedy in regions where it is not yet too late. The attainment of both objects lies in retaining and extending public ownership of lands primarily valuable for forest production. Only in an ownership which builds for the future as well as for the present can we hope for the highest possible development of our forest resources and the establishment of prosperous, permanent forest communities.