The Tar Pines of Pennsylvania
By Van Wagner April 2019
Pennsylvania has always been well known for its forest products. Historically it was lumber from White Pine and then Hemlock. Today it is our beautiful hardwoods; Oak, Cherry, Walnut, Ash, and others that provide sustainably harvested lumber that supports thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in trade. In the 1600’s-early 1900’s Pennsylvania also produced tar and pitch. Woodsmen would make pine tar from 2 species of pine trees; Pitch Pine and Shortleaf Pine. The legacy of this industry is found is local place names such as Tar Kiln Rd Sullivan county and Tartown Adams County.
How It was Made:
The knots are the most resinous part of these trees. Dead trees were preferred. The knots would be gathered and piled in a mound. This was then covered over with branches and leaves and then a layer of dirt. Hot coals were then introduced to the pile and then covered again. The mound would slowly char in a similar manner to making charcoal. A gently sloped clay bottom, inside the mound, drained to a small trough or gutter. Within the first 24 hours of the burn, tar would begin to flow from the mound. 40-60 gallons of tar could be produced per cord of wood. Tar could then be further refined into pitch, oil, or turpentine. In the mid 1800’s tar was selling for 20-25 cents a gallon in rural Pennsylvania.
Uses and Supply:
Tar was used as an axle grease, a medicine, a waterproofing agent for ships, and for illumination. Almost all horse and ox-drawn wagons would be seen with a tar bucket and tar paddle swinging from the rear axle. The tar could be used to waterproof wooden ships or refined to oils and turpentine for fine lumber finish work. Canvas ship sails were also protected with tar derivatives. Rural people referred to the small knots as “candlewood” and used them for illumination in frontier farms and cabins. Larger knots were used as torches and would often be used for hunting at night. Hunters would hunt by canoe with a bright torch burning out in front as they “shined for eyes”. As early as the 1600’s Pennsylvania, and other neighboring states, were cutting so much Pitch Pine for naval tar that laws were created to try and conserve the remaining stands of suitable timber. In 1665, the Massachusetts General Court restricted tar production to 16 barrels a year. The Plymouth Colony followed suit in 1668 and limited its proprietors to 10 barrels a year. To conserve its source of tar, England imposed the Act of 1705, which forbid the colonists from cutting pitch pine and tar trees under 12 inches in diameter from Nova Scotia to New Jersey.
In 1930 the PA Dept. of Forests and Waters published a great document title “Pitch Pine In Pennsylvania”. It included a few pages about tar burner Jim Hall who lived near Laurelton, Union County. Jim talked about how he would haul wood from the mountain on a hand sled in winter and one a small four-wheeler cart in the summer. Hall reported that in the early days there was an abundance of materials but more recently he had to venture into remote sections of the mountains to find suitable trees. Hall had 2 tar pits at his modest little home. One cement bottom, the other clay bottom. He preferred the clay bottom as the cement pit become too hot and scorched the tar. The pits were 4 feet in diameter. The wood was prepared by cutting it into short pieces 6-8 inches long like firewood. Each piece was placed upright on end. A fire was kindled under the stack and the pile covered with earth. Each of his small pits produced about 2 quarts of “oil” and 2.5 gallons of tar to the burning. The oil was sold for 25 cents a quart and the tar 50 cents a quart making 1 pit worth $5.50 per burning. Hall sold his oil for pulmonary troubles “particularly for horses”. “It has long been a common practice to place tar in horse-feeding troughs so horses are compelled to consume some of it when eating.” Tar was regarded as a cure for distemper in horses. Hall also said his tar was a valuable disinfectant. “A small quantity of tar placed upon a burning ember would disinfect a room and prevent sickness”.
Another Pennsylvania connection:
In 1710 Great Britain agreed to bring 3,000 German Palatines to New York state. They were assigned to work camps to make tar from trees of the Hudson Valley. The plan ended in disaster for many. The trees were primarily White Pine. White Pine does not yield tar like the Pitch Pine and Shortleaf Pine. In 1723 the Governor of Pennsylvania heard about the situation and invited these immigrants to settle here. Led by Conrad Weiser, they traveled down the Susquehanna River and settled in what is now the Pennsylvania Dutch / German heartland. The story of tar is a big part of the story of The Pennsylvania Dutch and Germans.
Shortleaf Pine has become very rare in this part of Pennsylvania. I know of 1 specimen in the Lewisburg Cemetery near Bucknell Campus. It is just to the North and East of Christy Mathewson’s grave. Pitch Pine, is far more common. There are quite a few specimens at Hess recreation area in Danville. I will wrap a colorful ribbon around several trees there this week. If you stop by the parking lot area near the skatepark you will see them this week.
Thank you to Emery Gluck from the Connecticut Division of Forestry.