The Great Sea Masts of Pine Valley
Old Time Tales of Warren County


The Great Sea Masts of Pine Valley

Towering masts of pine, cut in the virgin forests of Warren County, have held the bellying sails which bore the largest sailing vessels across the sea and into every port in the world. Even the New England forests with their great trees and easy accessibility from the sea could not compete with Warren County in furnishing great ship's masts of beautiful white pine, which were tall and straight and strong. So it happened, when news of the marvelous pines of Western Pennsylvania reached the ship builders at Philadelphia, New York and Boston, and the newly built Atlantic and Great Western Railway offered a means of transporting giant sticks to tide water, the shipyards sent men to Warren County to cut and hew and load the finest masts to be found anywhere.

Pine Valley is in Columbus Township, between the picturesque little towns of Columbus and Bear Lake. Here, in centuries before the first white man penetrated the fastness of the forest, the pines were growing in the rich soil of the valley and hillside, sending out long, reaching roots, drawing up and resurrecting the life forces of eons of trees and vegetation that had grown and flourished and fallen before the coniferous age. Here, in this peaceful, silent valley, planted by the winds and watered by clear brooks, they grew, the straight, tall, beautiful white pines, towering upward toward the unsmirched sky, spreading their green and tufted turrets to bow and sway with every breeze and toss tumultuously when tempests roared through the valley.

Straight and slim they grew, the vigorous young pines, pushing steadily upward, each for his share of light and sun. It was a great, green brotherhood, the dense forest of Pine Valley. The trees stood like straight soldiers, in close formation, massing their strength against the wildest storms that lashed them, and always, when there was the least little bit of a breeze blowing, whispering among themselves, whispering mysterious secrets only trees can ever know, reaching out their green arms one to another with reassuring touches, caressing one another with green fringe fingers.

They filled the valley from rim to rim and clambered up the hillsides, the dense, aromatic pines, roofing out the sun with thick, high branches, allowing only a pale half-light to filter down to the floor of the forest, which was carpeted deep with their brown, fallen needles. The pines held a monopoly on the land where they stood; they were so dense and strong no other tree could survive among them, for miles the valley was solidly full of feathery branches, a green glory of pines and nothing else.

Here and there, in days when the white man first looked up at them, towering monarchs rose at intervals in the forest, majestic trees that stood up above the general skyline, looking down on the green brotherhood like tall sentries posted to preserve the peace that brooded in this lovely valley. They were the patriarchs of the forest, "Old Settlers", the pioneers called them. The Indians knew them and often set their course through the forest by these occasional great trees. The white pioneers knew them; often had names for the towering trees, used them as landmarks. They would say, "You'll find a good spring a little below Big Pine," or, "If you're going to Waterford, take the left turn where the trail passes `Old Settler', the big pine on the hillside."

Romantic little Coffee Creek flowed through this paradise of trees, with many a turn and twist under overhanging roots, where mink and coon found fine fishing among the schools of speckled brook trout. Toward the southern part of the valley clear-watered little Cold Spring bubbled up from the earth, its crystal waters full of flashing trout, as they gurgled away beneath the trees. It was a veritable Garden of Eden, that beautiful Pine Valley, lacking only the apple tree and the serpent.

Through the midst of this lovely land, the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad came building. Swarms of laborers with wheelbarrows, picks and shovels, making a grade and laying down cross ties, spiking down light iron rails, six feet apart. When the iron horse made his first puffing trip over the new rails, he found the evergreen forests of Pine Valley still standing, with only a little of the land cleared for the log cabins and a small settlement. The first short freight trains with ten to twenty small box cars, and the early wooden passenger coaches, lighted with lard oil lamps, came rolling through Pine Valley, the screech of the little locomotive echoing where only the cry of the panther rang before, or the mild toot of some small sawmill engine.

Justin Danforth, Ezra Beals and Thomas Barker had mills in the region of Pine Valley. In 1840 Lyman Calkins opened a tavern there, it was afterwards run by Anson Quimby and later by George Shannon. The tavern had an innovation in its name, its sign reading "Call and See". It was known as the "Call-and-see House" for miles around. Those who called to see, discovered nothing more than a good average tavern, with plenty of good average whiskey for sale over its bar, which was perhaps satisfactory enough.

A large portion of Warren County's matchless trees had already gone to market when the wide funneled, wood-burning locomotives of the Atlantic and Great Western came puffing through picturesque Pine Valley, leaving a trail of blue smoke loitering in the pines. The very size of the great trees had saved them, they were too big to be floated down Coffee Creek without a great deal of trouble, there were plenty of smaller pines that could be handled more easily. But here was the railroad cutting fairly through the forest, leading away to seaports where great sailing ships were building. The fate of the great pine trees was sealed, they were destined to leave their quiet, sequestered valley, where they had been centuries growing, to be cut down, but not to be cut in pieces like other trees. The great pines were destined to fall and to rise again, to stand upright once more, and now with butt firm rooted in a sea-step in the bottom of some great vessel, to rise high above the decks, holding aloft forests of white sails, instead of waving green ,boughs,-wide, pulling sails, which would catch and hold the wind, making it push the ship wheresoe-er its steersman willed.

A Philadelphia ship building firm sent men to Pine Valley to arrange for the cutting and loading of the giant masts. These men hired the best woodsmen in the country to fell the trees. The larger pines towered one hundred and twenty,-one hundred and thirty ,-a few were said to measure a full one hundred and sixty feet to the top. It took good men to handle such trees, the trunks were so heavy they would break with their own weight when they fell if the job was not done expertly.

When a monarch was selected as fit to make a mast, or "spar" as they were called by the woodsmen, days were often spent in leveling off the ground to receive the falling monster. If there was a ridge or hummock it was leveled. Once it took four hardy axemen, chopping from daylight till noon, to bring down one of the big trees of Pine Valley. And when the giant tree crashed, it split with its own weight, because the choppers had slightly misgauged the fall.

Obed Stevens was a past master in the art of felling trees. He did not belong in Pine Valley, the agents of the ship builders imported him from somewhere up the Allegheny. Obed rarely spoiled a mast in "falling" a tree. "Obed can lay 'em down like they was fallin' on a feather bed" they used to say, and it must have been the truth.

A tree cutting trick employed by Obed Spencer, and many another man before and since his time, was sometimes used in Pine Valley in felling the big trees. When a perfect pine had been selected, the choppers would fell it into the arms of a neighboring tree, allowing it to come only part way down. Then the supporting tree would be cut so that it and its leaning burden would fall on a third tree nearby. By that time the monster pine would be half way to the ground. When the third tree was cut, the patriarch would sink down softly, his fall broken by the cushioning branches of his brethren.

So the green brotherhood of Pine Valley came crashing down, many a monarch falling into the supporting arms of. a brother tree, only to careen and crash a little later as the supporting brother, himself stricken, weakened and collapsed. In falling great pines often crushed their smaller brothers, but the woodsmen cared nothing for that, they were willing to sacrifice a whole acre of lesser trees in order to save one monster pine that would make a perfect mast.

Even old woodsmen, accustomed as they were to the constant crashing of trees, were affected by the fall of an "Old Settler," or "Big Tree." When the axes or saw had eaten into the heart and the giant trunk, sixteen-, even eighteen feet in circumference began to sway, a great shout would go up, "Here she comes!

Farther and farther the giant of the forest would lean, the uncut remnant of the trunk would snap and crack ominously. A shudder would pass through the lofty branches. Out and over the towering tree would come, the air filled with a sudden swishing roar like that of the myriad flocks of wild pigeons. The feathery top would suddenly bend back, like the end of a giant whip brought down in a blow. With a splintering crash the branches would strike the earth, the upper end of the tree rebounding a little with their elasticity. The roar and crash of one of these giant pines could be heard for miles An the silence of the forest. Quickly the anxious cutters would rush up to see if the tree had broken in its fall. The beautiful, big pine, which it had taken nature more than two hundred years to grow, had been cut down by four men in a few hours.

After the big pine had been safely felled, half a dozen axemen set to work trimming it and peeling the bark. When the work was finished, it was a beautiful, clean white "stick", slippery and gleaming, squared a little at its butt by hewing. It was already a mast, or "spar" in the rough, finished as much as it would be in Pine Valley. A giant log it was, four feet, perhaps five feet across the butt, tapering up to a diameter of twenty inches or less at the top. Such a mast might be ninety feet, one hundred, as much as one hundred and ten feet long.

"Wal" Parker, who helped cut and load the monster pines of Pine Valley, tells how a crew of men cut one of the largest trees, and sawed off a section of the trunk, eighteen inches thick, to make shingles. The butts of trees intended for masts were sometimes shortened, because they were too large to handle. When they laid the monster round section, flat on the ground, it was so large and smooth it suggested a dance floor. So somebody brought a fiddle down from the camp and the boys danced a "French Four" then and there, on a cross section cut from one of Warren County's biggest pine trees.

It took three flat cars to carry away the big masts of Pine Valley to the sea. The flat cars on the Atlantic and Great Western were then only thirty feet long, so it took three of them, with the couplings lengthened out with chains and poles, to hold one of the larger masts. And getting the big timbers to the cars was a job. The butt end was gotten onto a set of heavy wheels, the top was allowed to drag. Sometimes it took six span of oxen to haul one of these timbers, once it took nine span,-eighteen oxen all straining at their bows and the big whips cracking like rifles over their backs, and even then, once upon a time, there was a giant mast that stuck fast, and thereby hangs a tale.

Albert Curtis of Columbus tells the story, he was a barefoot boy then, at the time it happened. A crew of men with horses, were moving a mast to the railway cars. At one point they had to cross the track. It was one of those raised crossings, road sloping up to it, and down on the other side. They got that big timber just about half way over the tracks and there it stuck, hard and fast, balanced on the rails.

A train whistled, it was a freight, coming down grade. They tried to signal the engineer in time. But there was no time. The man at the throttle saw the predicament, sized up the situation at a glance. There were no air-brakes in those days, the brakemen had to run out over the cars and set each brake separately. No time for climbing over cars and setting brakes now, it was a matter of seconds.

The Engineer knew he couldn't slow his train in time. So he opened the throttle and came thundering down the track with every ounce of steam he had. He hit the log with a splintering crash, smashed through it. The engine and cars stayed on the track a little way, ran on a couple of hundred feet and careened into the ditch. He had cut the mast in two, but it had broken the pony wheels and trucks.

Most of the masts cut from the famous forests of Pine Valley went to the eastern seaboard. They were stepped in some of the proudest vessels that sailed the seas. The marvelous strength of their clean, straight-grained wood won them a reputation among men who built ships. More than one gallant four-masted schooner that fought its way around the Horn, trusted to the strength of Warren County pine to bring it safely through the storms that blow across those treacherous seas. More than one merchant craft, fluttering the stars and stripes from it's monkey gaff, relied on masts that came from our own Pine Valley.

From their centuries-old home in the Warren County woods, these great, glorious pines journeyed off to the sea, then to go sailing 'round the world. From their lofty turrets where once green plumes waved against the sky, now hung the mainskysail pole and mizzenskysailyard, full ninety feet above the rolling deck. While once circling eagles wheeled 'round their green pinnacles; white gulls now flopped their long, sickle wings. Out of the hushed silence of the forest they came to visit every noisy port of trade, serving mankind like straight and valiant soldiers. For trees, like men, have destinies before them all unguessed.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 113-121: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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