The Background image is a painting by William Ranney, Daniel Boone's first view of Kentucky, painted in 1849

West Virginia’s Virgin Timber


Only 263 acres remain of West Virginia virgin timber. One stand is in Pocahontas County and the other in Preston County

Originally, pioneers wandered into the West Virginia mountains during the mid-1700's through early 1800's. The first town settled west of the Alleghenies was Marlinton, and many of the old houses built during that time are still standing in town. Many of the largest trees in the forest occurred along river courses and valley bottomland used for farming. These were the first acreages to be cleared. We'll probably never know how large the BIGGEST trees were in West Virginia since the cuttings were not documented.

The Virgin Forest Falls

With the introduction of the band saw and Shay locomotive, rail-lines started snaking into the deepest hollows of the West Virginia mountains. The virgin forests of the Alleghenies rapidly fell to the lumberman's cross-cut saw. The decline of the forest is shown very dramatically by comparing the following statements:

1835 - "West of the Alleghanies a large portion of the country must forever remain in its primitive forest." (Joseph Martin)

1870 - "At least 10,000,000 acres are still in all the vigor and freshness of original growth." (J.H. Diss Debar)

1876 - "Between 9,000,000 and 10,000,000 acres are in the original forest." (Maury and Fontaine)

1893 - "Nearly or quite one-half of the State is still uncleared, and by far the greater portion of the uncleared land is still in virgin forest." (George W. Summers)

1900 - "The wooded area of West Virginia is estimated at 18,400 square miles, or 73 per cent of the area of the State and most of this is occupied by timber of mercantable size and quantity." (Henry Gannett)

1910 - The virgin forest area in 1910 is slightly over 1.5 million acres.

1920 - The original forest is completely depleted, except for a few isolated areas of small acerage.


If logging wasn't enough, the final chapter in the destruction of the Allegheny ecosystem was to be played out by the sterilizing element of fire. The first episode in a long chain of events that led to the complete destruction of the original forest occurred in 1863 when fire escaped from the campfire of Confederate scouts on the Roaring Plains in Randolph County. For many years thereafter, destructive fires swept through the region from the head of the Greenbrier River along the sides and top of Allegheny Mountain through Pendleton, Randolph, Grant and Tucker counties. The slash from the virgin forest (branches, and tree crowns with wood too small to be of marketable use) was extensive. These conditions created a tinder box waiting for a spark.

Consequently, fire followed fire until the remaining green timber and all reproduction were destroyed. This was especially true in the spruce areas, where even the deep humus was burned to bed rock. Many stands of virgin hardwood were not cut, but destroyed by fire spreading from areas of spruce slash into areas of hardwood.

Clearcut, then burned to bedrock by fire, this old photograph looks from Cabin Mountain into the northern stretches of the Dolly Sods Wilderness. Today, some eighty years later, the summit of Cabin Mountain is still devoid of trees and soil. © McClain Printing Company

The destruction was extraordinary. More than one-tenth of the whole surface of the state was burned over, including one-fifth of the forest area. Three per cent of the estimated standing timber in West Virginia was destroyed, including the small as well as the large. The amount burned was two-thirds as much as the cut of all the mills in the state in 1907.

As to the origin of the fires, 71% was from locomotives, 20% from saw mills and campers, 3% set to improve the range for livestock, 2% incendiary, and 4% from other causes. The great forest of the Alleghenies was finally destroyed.

The below are the two stands of virgin timber still remaining in West Virginai

Gaudineer Knob

The first is the Monongahela National Forest, Gaudineer Knob Scenic Area located roughly roughly four miles north of Durbin, West Virginia on Route 250. How this area was "accidentally" spared is best described in Maurice Brook's beautifully written book, The Appalachians, available for secure on-line purchase through PATC's

"Some years before the Civil War a speculating land company bought a tract of 69,000 acres on the slope of Shavers Mountain. Their tract fronted for about seven miles along the eastern side of the mountain. To survey and mark their holdings, the company hired a crew of men who must have found rough going in this wilderness. The crew did a good job, but its chief forgot one thing - the fact that a compass needle points to magnetic, not true north. In this area, the angle of declination is about four degrees, a significant source of error on a seven-mile front."

"An experienced Virginia surveyor, in checking the data, discovered the error, but said nothing about it. Presently however when the sale was being concluded and the deeds recorded, he brought the error to light, and under a sort of "doctrine of vacancy", claimed the wedge of land left by a corrected survey. His title was established, and he and his heirs found themselves owner of a seven-mile strip of forest, aggregating almost 900 acres. While timber above and below the wedge was cut, this narrow holding was undisturbed."

The 130-acre Gaudineer Knob Scenic Area tract was eventually purchased at the insistence of former Monongahela National Forest Supervisor Arthur Wood, who believed that future generations should know what an Appalachian spruce stand was like.  There is feeling in this small stand of huge trees hidden in the midst of the West Virginia mountains that you can not experience anywhere else in the State.

Cathedral State Park -

The second area that missed the bite of the lumberman's saw can be found at Cathedral State Park. The Park encompasses an ancient hemlock forest of majestic proportions - trees up to 90 feet in height and 21 feet in circumference form cloisters in the park. Throughout the woods, the hemlock is the climax species. The park has the distinction of containing the largest hemlock tree in the state.

The woods were preserved because of the love each owner had for this unique area. The land was eventually purchased in 1922 by Mr. Branson Haas, a workman for the Brookside Hotel (which is no longer standing on the site). He sold the woods to the State of West Virginia in 1942 with the stipulation that it remain untouched by ax or saw. On October 6, 1966, Cathedral State Park was entered into the National Registry for Natural History Landmarks, and in 1983 was recognized by the Society of American Forestry in its National Natural Areas Program.

Cathedral State Park is small - just 133 acres - but large enough to get a sense of what the majestic Allegheny forests must have been like before the discovery of man. You can find the park in Preston County on U.S. Route 50, just west of the western Maryland state line.

Out of the 10,000,000 acres of virgin forest that existed in the State of West Virginia before 1750, only these 263 acres remain.


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