On this day in WNC history: The Swain County Herald reported in 1890 that the Nantahala River and several nearby streams were filled with logs that were beginning to run. It is hard to imagine a more dangerous or environmentally destructive way of timbering, but this practice of floating logs to sawmills was practiced in parts of WNC for several decades around the turn of the twentieth century.
Industrial timbering quickly followed the progress of the Western North Carolina Railroad as it penetrated the mountains in the 1880s. By 1887, it reached Jarrett’s Station, later renamed Nantahala, allowing for easier transportation into as well as resource extraction from WNC. Even before this though, the Nantahala Lumber Company and the Tuckasegee Lumber and Manufacturing Company (further downriver) established sawmills and timbermen soon hacked into the old-growth chestnut and poplar forests. While many of the larger timber companies in WNC utilized narrow-gauge logging railroads, some operations also took advantage of flowing water—both small streams and larger rivers—for transportation, often building splash dams and flumes to float these unwieldy logs. Elsewhere, Champion Fibre employed this practice on the Pigeon River and the French Broad Lumber Company stripped Transylvania County in the same manner.
Loggers relied on “freshets” or late-winter/springtime alluvial floods to float thousands of board feet of logs, but the churning waters filled with wood also knocked out bridges and infrastructure in their paths and further scarred the mountain coves from which the timber came. The work also proved exceptionally dangerous as men in boats or rafts followed, guided, and often untangled these churning plumes before sorting them at the sawmills. Most of this timber was ultimately exported to other regions of the country.