Timber has been part of South Carolina’s economy since the late seventeenth century. Over time, timber grew into a major employer with millions of dollars in invested capital that, in the process, altered the landscape of South Carolina.
Colonists saw Carolina’s magnificent virgin forests as a prime resource ripe for the taking. Many of the uses they found continue today: lumber and shingles for buildings, posts and rails for fences, firewood, and tool handles. Other uses from the preindustrial era, such as barrel staves, are less common today. For shipbuilders, live oaks were especially valued for use as ships’ knees and mast trees. England and her Caribbean colonies needed wood in all its forms during the eighteenth century, and South Carolina exported a steady supply.
During the antebellum era the timber industry remained a relatively small portion of the economy. Lumbermen, not infrequently slaves, chopped trees down with axes and used horses, mules, or oxen to drag the sawed logs to a river for floating or all the way to a mill. The mills used waterwheels to power their saws until the 1850s, when steam engines took hold. The industry also spread further into the interior of the state to places such as Aiken, while the ports remained vital in finish milling and exporting. Antebellum South Carolina timber products went to the West Indies, Europe, and to the major ports of the North.
After the Civil War, South Carolina briefly became the center of the naval stores industry. North Carolinians had exhausted their timber resources and moved their enterprises south. However, turpentine and tar burning exhaust a stand of pines in a decade or less, and by the 1920s the industry had declined substantially. The decline of the wooden shipbuilding industry brought an end to demand for live oak.
The greatest transformation came with the rise of industrial timber operations at the turn of the twentieth century. Big industrial timber mills set up company housing and stores, and used vertical integration to control everything: land, harvesting, transportation, and milling. In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century much new railroad construction was to move harvested timber from forest to mill and from mill to customer. The Atlantic Coast Lumber Company of Georgetown serves as a particularly good example. Organized in 1899, the ACL, as it was known, came to dominate its region of the state, owning or leasing timber rights to 250,000 acres by 1916. It held the prime harbor-front land in Georgetown, produced its own electrical power to run multiple mills, and had its own railroad (the Georgetown and Western), over which it could move its six mobile lumber camps.
In the second half of the twentieth century, vertical integration continued. Companies such as Westvaco and Georgia Pacific had mills for converting pulp into paper and for making board lumber. They employed foresters, cutting crews, tree planters, and fleets of tractor-trailers and owned tens of thousands of acres of land. Alongside these larger corporations was a wide range of smaller mills, timber crews, foresters, and landowners. The entire industry mechanized to a higher degree using log skidders to cut trees down and log loaders to quickly strip off limbs and stack logs on tractor-trailers.
The most important aspect of the industrial timber era began in the 1930s with the arrival of the pulpwood industry. The opening of the state’s first pulp paper mill in Georgetown “revivified the community, which holds its nose and discounts the price of prosperity . . . the repellent odor” emanating from the mill. Decades elapsed until improved technologies reduced the pungent smell associated with the pulp paper mills. A half-dozen such mills are spread from the coast to the Pee Dee and Midlands. The pulpwood industry, based mostly on harvesting pine trees, accounts for a large majority of the state’s timber resources.
The environmental impact of foresting in South Carolina has been significant. By the end of the twentieth century, very little virgin or old-growth timber existed in the Palmetto State. However, despite the continued harvesting of timber, South Carolina remained more than fifty percent wooded. Several factors are responsible. First, with the overall decline in row-crop agriculture in the state, landowners converted those acres to timber production. The quality of South Carolina forests also changed as they came to be seen as a slow-growing row crop. The widespread long-leaf pines, cut early in the twentieth century, were replaced with forests of planted slash or loblolly pines, which grow to maturity much faster. The forests also took on a regularized rowlike pattern. Control burning and regularly maintained firebreaks crisscrossed the pine forests in efforts to suppress wildfires.
In 1993 South Carolina had more than twelve million acres of commercial timberland. State or federal government owned nine percent of the land, timber companies held nineteen percent, and seventy-two percent was in the hands of private owners. At the end of the twentieth century timber was the most valuable crop in the state. In more than half of South Carolina’s counties, timber was worth more than all other crops combined.
Clark, Thomas D. The Greening of the South: The Recovery of Land and Forest. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.
Eisterhold, John A. “Charleston: Lumber and Trade in a Declining Southern Port.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 74 (April 1973): 61–72.
Fetters, Thomas. Logging Railroads of South Carolina. Forest Park, Ill.: Heimburger House, 1990.