In the early 1800s, South Carolina was covered with vast forests of towering pines, bald cypress and sturdy oak trees. Some stretched more than 100 feet above the rivers and marshes in the Lowcountry, with trunks 5 and 6 feet in diameter.
It wasn't long before Northern shipbuilders sought to utilize the state's superior lumber. They set up sawmills near Georgetown; there slaves would cut down trees, drag them with ox carts to a bank of the river and float them with the tide to the sawmills, producing millions of feet of lumber per year. Shortly after that, lumber barons arrived and began clear-cutting huge swaths of pristine wilderness, harvesting almost all of what was left of old-growth pine forests and cypress wetlands. The damage was said to be worse than what William Tecumseh Sherman did during his March to the Sea.
In his latest book, author Robert McAlister chronicles the history of the Lowcountry's timberland in "The Lumber Boom of Coastal Carolina: Nineteenth-Century Shipbuilding & the Devastation of Lowcountry Forests."
McAlister wrote the book after learning more about the lumber industry while researching maritime history. He is on the board of directors of the South Carolina Maritime Museum and has written two books on shipbuilding.
"Both of those involved the lumber ships that came in and out of Georgetown, and that interested me in particular," McAlister said.
While researching, McAlister discovered that the largest wooden sailing ship ever built in South Carolina was built in 1875 in Bucksville, upriver from Georgetown. Called the Henrietta, the cargo ship was 200 feet long, weighed 1,200 tons and took 1.3 million feet of lumber to build.
"After I got beyond the Henrietta, the fact that the lumber had been depleted led me to find out what was going on to reforest and to conserve the land," he said.
Early sawmill workers cut the forest over without any attempt to regenerate it, trusting they'd be able to buy more land as needed. Only after 90 percent of the old-growth forests were gone that forestry conservationists began the long, slow process of reforesting, McAlister writes.
It wasn't until the International Paper Company opened in Georgetown in 1898 that any lumber-cutting group made an effort to conserve and regenerate the forest. The company would quickly become the largest single paper mill in the world.
Today, forestry is the state's leading manufacturing industry in terms of employment with 90,000 total jobs, and labor income at $4.1 billion annually, according to the South Carolina Forestry Commission.
With the establishment of state and national forests, loblolly and shortleaf pine and some species of hardwoods are making a comeback in South Carolina. The state's forests are fuller than they've been in years, and continue to have record growth rates thanks to conservation efforts, the forestry commission states.
"We're on the right track, but I don't believe we've gotten as far as we need to be," McAlister said.
"I just hope that people will take an interest in maritime history and in conservation and that we can maintain the rivers and forests to be as beautiful as they were 200 years ago."
Follow Erin Shaw at twitter.com/ErinShaw.