At the time of European settlement in North America, primary (or virgin) forests covered nearly all of the East Coast.
By 1850, large portions of virgin forest had been cleared for agriculture, although substantial areas remained in the South. Coastal Plain lands were the most densely populated, but Western areas of the region were largely unsettled, and land in Florida and the Appalachians was difficult to clear and to farm.
After the Civil War, the era of industrial logging began in earnest. New railroads helped move heavy equipment and transport cut logs to mills and markets, making logging profitable throughout the South. Between 1870 and 1920, the South lost tens of millions of acres of virgin forest.
By the end of the twentieth century, virtually no substantial tracts of virgin forest remained in the South. Remnants can be found in protected lands in parts of the Great Smoky Mountains and in southwestern Florida, but nearly all of the South’s current forested area has been previously logged.
Spruce forest in the Appalachians of North Carolina: as a virgin forest, left, and after logging, above.
Many virgin forest types were characterized, in part, by enormous old-growth trees that reached sizes rarely seen today. In each photograph, the humans have been highlighted for scale. From left: old-growth yellow poplar in a cove hardwood forest in North Carolina; baldcypress trees in a Florida swamp; virgin white pine-mixed hardwood forest in Virginia.
The industrial logging era, which dealt the final blow to most of the South’s virgin forest, was facilitated by railroads, which themselves required vast quantities of lumber for crossties. Here, workers lay a logging railroad through virgin longleaf pine forest in east Texas.
This railroad spur in Virginia was used to log and transport white cedar trees. Piled logs are stacked along the railroad ready for shipping, while cutover land is visible behind them. Further down the track, standing virgin white cedar awaits the loggers.