Forest Conditions in Western North Carolina — 1911

Natural History

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Forest Conditions in Western North Carolina — 1911

Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany Counties

The information presented in this web page is abstracted from The North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey, Bulletin No. 23: Forest Conditions in Western North Carolina by Joseph Hyde Patt, State Geologist, and published by the State of North Carolina in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture in 1911.

  • Watauga County

    Watauga County

    Watauga, with an area of 211,200 acres is an upland county of rather rugged topography. The range of elevation is from 2,000 feet near the foot of the Blue Ridge to 5,964 on the top of Grandfather Mountain, while the greater part of the county has an elevation of more than 3,000 feet. The crest of the Blue Ridge runs along the south boundary or a few miles within it. North of this the county is again divided by the Rich Mountain Ridge, which runs north and south through the middle of the county, shedding the western drainage into Watauga River and the eastern into North Fork of the New River.

    The rock of the county is principally freestone, ranging from a fine-grained granite to mica and chlorite schists. The soil is a gray sandy loam almost free from the red clay which is usually prevalent in the mountain counties, and is fairly deep even on the mountains, and does not easily erode.

    Watauga has no railroad within its border, the nearest station being Elk Park, five miles outside. Yet the public road system is good, and the roads are for the most part well graded and well kept.

    Lumbering is prominent and the lumber can be profitably hauled long distances, even more than 30 miles. The chief shipping points are Elk Park and Pineloa, in Mitchell County, Lenoir in Caldwell County, and Shouns and Butler in Tennessee. One large company with a band mill at Butler, Tenn., is operating a tram road in the western end of the county. Of the remaining 20-odd mills, none cuts as much as a million feet, and most are small portable or water mills with a cut of less than 250,000 feet per year. These mills are pretty evenly distributed through the county.

    No pulp or extract wood is cut, though in the vicinity of Beech Mountain considerable hemlock bark is gathered and taken to Elk Park and Butler. Probably a thousand cords was taken out in 1909.

    Farming is the chief occupation in Watauga. It is famous for its grass, and for its sheep and cattle. There are good farms in all parts of the county except on the rocky slopes of the Blue Ridge in the southeastern corner. Even a large part of the present forest occupies good agricultural land, but this can well be kept so as to furnish fuel and lumber for the farms. Probably 20 per cent of the forest is in farm woodlots. Most of the cleared land used for farming is, strangely enough, on steep mountain sides. Such slopes in a clay county would wash badly, but here, owing to the deeper and more porous soils, and to efficient farm management, there is no serious erosion.

    In but a few places is the forest in large, unbroken areas, as in certain tracts on Beech, Grandfather and Rich mountains, and on the south slope of the Blue Ridge. While showing much variation in different parts of the county, the forests are nevertheless characterized by certain species. Hemlock is very abundant throughout, and cuts high grade local building material. Oak and chestnut still predominate in some parts, though they are much more common than the sugar maple. Cherry and walnut were once common, but together with most of the poplar were cut years ago. White ash is becoming scarce, but white oak is more abundant than in most other counties of this region. Balsam and spruce grow above 5,500 feet on Grandfather Mountain, on Beech Mountain, and in the Elk Mountains.

    Practically all of the county is owned in small holding of less than 500 acres, only about 10 per cent being in the hands of lumber interests or in large estates of over 1,000 acres.

    Watauga, remote as it is from large markets, is a progressive county, and is well settled. The land is natural farmland, and except along the southern slopes of the Blue Ridge, there are no very extensive areas of absolute forest land.

    Balsam Farm
    Balsam Tree Farm, Watauga County, North Carolina, 1911
  • Ashe County

    Ashe County

    Ashe, embracing an area of 255,000 acres, is, like Watauga, a farming county; it is perhaps more rugged, though lower in general elevation. The crest of the Blue Ridge forms much of its southeast boundary, while the Elk Mountains occur in the southwest. Other ranges from 4,000 to 5,000 feet high are scattered irregularly over the county.

    Dogwood Image

    The county is drained by the North and South Forks of New River. These streams rise in Watauga County and flow in a northeasterly direction. In Ashe County both are capable of floating logs. The chief rock formation of Ashe County is a black banded gneiss grading into shales, slates, and schists, which decompose into a red clay soil containing small mica particles. Along the Blue Ridge the usual gray mica and chlorite schists and granites occur, decomposing into a gray sandy soil.

    Like Watauga and Alleghany, Ashe County is remote from railroads, Wilkesboro, in Wilkes County, North Carolina and Shouns, Tennessee are its nearest railroad points. Most of the lumber and produce taken out and the supplies brought in have to be hauled from 15 to 40 miles, but the public roads are for the most part well kept. Like all clay roads, however, they are heavy in wet weather.

    Ashe County has copper, iron, and mica deposits, some of which have been partially developed. The chief occupation, however, is farming, and this is likely to be the case for some time to come. Cattle and sheep growing is extensive. The cleared land on the steep slopes washes considerably, even when in grass, and it is estimated that about 5 percent of such land is so badly eroded as to warrant its abandonment to forest growth.

    A large part of the land has been cleared, since the county has been long settled, and for this reason the forested area has a low average stand to the acre compared with Watauga County. There are no large timbered tracts except in the southwestern part of the county on Paddy, Nigger, Bluff, Elk, Three Top, and other mountains. There are many sawmills, though non has an annual cut of more than 500,000 board feet. Many of these mills cut shingles as well as lumber. Chestnut and white and red oaks form the bulk of the cut, except in the southeastern quarter of the county, where white pine leads. The supply of this timber, however, is nearing exhaustion. Locust does well all over the county, though often attacked by the borer. Probably some hundred thousand locust posts are annually cut for local use.

    The forest trees are about the same as those in Watauga. Hemlock is not so abundant, because more of the hemlock lands have been cleared up for cultivation. White oak is the commonest oak, and is much more plentiful than in Watauga County, though much of it is defective.

    Ashe will always be chiefly important as a farming county, and its forest's greatest value will be for the production of firewood, small timbers for farm use and for a local lumber supply. While some of the mountain areas in the western part are largely composed of absolute forest land, and can most profitably be kept in forest growth, yet taking the county as a whole, there are no extended areas that are pre-eminently suited for a large State or National forest reserve.

  • Alleghany County

    Alleghany County

    Alleghany, comprising about 140,000 acres, is similar to both Ashe and Watauga counties in its topography and soil, though somewhat less rough than either. It lies largely northwest of the Blue Ridge, and all but a small area south of this divide drains into New River in Virginia, principally through Little River and its tributaries. The county ranges in elevation from about 2,400 to 4,100 feet.

    The characteristic rocks are the granites, gneiss, and schists of the Blue Ridge, which decompose into a sandy soil. In the northern third of the county the soils contains clay admixture and yields good crops. In this clay soil are evidences of deep erosion even on gentle slopes, but most of the farms are kept in grass, and this tends to hold the soil in place. The greater of the county, however, has a lighter, more porous soil, which resists erosion, and where this is the case, even the steeper mountain sides have a fairly deep soil and are successfully farmed and grazed. A few thousand acres lying south of the Blue Ridge, unlike the rest of the county, is rocky and precipitous, with shallow soil, which is generally unsuited to farming.

    Alleghany does not have adequate market facilities, since its roads are not as good as they should be, and the nearest railroad stations are beyond its boundaries. The middle of the county is 25 miles from Galax, Va., 35 miles from Wilkesboro, N.C., and nearly 30 from Elkin, N.C., the three chief markets. There are no streams large enough for the transportation of timber, though Little River might possibly be drivable in flood seasons. As a result of its isolation Alleghany has not been able to develop its resources. About a thousand cords of tanbark are hauled to market each year, over distances 20 miles or more; but this would scarcely be a paying proposition, were it not for the fact that supplies must be brought in, and a load is thus secured both ways.

    Lumbering is on a small scale, with some two dozen portable and water mills. As in Ashe and Watauga counties, there is no great incentive to cut lumber for shipment, since the long haul not only necessitates careful culling, but tends to take away all profit, even on the valuable species. Three or four mills manufacture chestnut shingles, while two or three mills do finishing work, either in connection with the sawmill or as a separate business.

    Farming is the chief occupation. The section around and north of Peach Bottom Mountain is fertile and produces two tons of hay to the acre. Sheep and cattle are raised, while the chief field crops are hay, cabbage, buckwheat, and corn.

    The mineral resources are undeveloped; soapstone occurs in some places and other minerals have been found along the Blue Ridge.

    Most of the forest of the county was cut off years ago when the land was being cleared for farming. At present 63 percent of the county is cleared. Even in the uncleared areas, the timber may be negligible in quantity and quality because of the fires which were set to "improve" the range for cattle. Most of the old timber that has survived is defective chestnut. Young white pine has started up in places, since the cessation of fires. Young scarlet oak grows all over the county. The forest generally is characterized by the predominance of white oak and an abundance of scarlet oak pole stands. Red oak, known locally as water oak, is common on the better sites and in the mountains, and furnishes a large part of the better grades of lumber.

    White pine could be planted to advantage on the sandier soils. On the better soils red oak should do well. Scarlet oak managed as coppice, will furnish fuel.

    Alleghany will always be a farming county and can utilize locally most of the timber that can be grown there. The county is now under the stock law, and forest fires, which formerly did so much damage, are now rare.

  • Statistical Table

    Statistical Table
    - Watauga Ashe Alleghany Measure
    Total Area 211,200 255,360 142,720 acres
    Area Forested 147,901 145,741 53,071 acres
    % of forested land 70 57 37 -
    Average Stand/acre 4,534 3,594 2,030 -
    Chestnut 670,555 523,848 107,728 1000 board feet
    Red Oaks 173,546 141,780 27,237 1000 board feet
    White Oaks 63,506 129,313 31,443 1000 board feet
    Poplar 56,290 31,631 2,056 1000 board feet
    Hemlock 77,085 13,098 426 1000 board feet
    Chestnut Oak 23,437 28,720 5,213 1000 board feet
    Maple 29,653 17,051 347 1000 board feet
    Basswood 7,678 2,168 232 1000 board feet
    Hickory 6,953 4,371 1,008 1000 board feet
    Yellow Pine - - 1,234 1000 board feet
    White Pine 39,797 15,086 10,594 1000 board feet
    Red Spruce - - - -
    Beech 4,134 1,065 - 1000 board feet
    Ash 4,054 4,435 440 1000 board feet
    Buckeye 6,896 4,426 - 1000 board feet
    Birch 10,316 3,712 84 1000 board feet
    Balsam - - - -
    Cucumber 3,539 3,933 - 1000 board feet
    Black Gum 8,217 4,071 500 1000 board feet
    Cherry 2,472 1,297 - 1000 board feet
    Miscellaneous 4,169 2,426 - 1000 board feet

    Map of Forest Conditions in Ashe, Alleghany and Watauga County, North Carolina in 1911
    Map of Forest Conditions in Ashe, Alleghany, and Watauga County, North Carolina in 1911