About 30 years ago I built a 16’x20’ shed to store my canoes, the riding lawnmower, my chainsaws and assorted wood scraps. There was a cute 8 foot white pine near the site that I left because it looked pretty. That “cute little white pine” has grown; it towered into the sky and its increasing diameter reached and pushed against the roof of my shed such that, as that white pine swayed in the wind, it caused my shed to creak and groan.
Clearly it had to come down (the tree, not the shed). Once on the ground it measured over 60 feet tall.
Earlier this summer my son Adam helped me take down a 90 footer which was only 50 feet from our house and leaning towards the house, with the prevailing winds pushing it from behind. Although white pine can get big, their root systems are surprisingly small and shallow, making them subject to blow down. Our April 14th storm, 14” of wet snow, took down a large white pine just across our street that tore out the power and broadband for 3 days and splintered the power pole 20 feet away into 3 pieces. Although it measured more than 70 feet high and had a chest height diameter of 28”, its root span was only 10 feet wide and 4 feet deep.
Although sometimes a nuisance to a homeowner, these giants have a rich mythology and historical connections, especially so here in the Adirondacks.
White Pines were considered sacred by the First People. There is a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Legend that tells the story of the first 5 tribes fighting among each other, perhaps referring to the tribes that later became the Iroquois Confederacy. A messenger from the “Great Spirit” uprooted a white pine and had the members of these tribes toss all their weapons in the hole. He then re-planted the tree. The tree, in turn, brought peace. To this day, the needles of the White Pine are in clusters of 5, representing those 5 tribes now at peace.
In high school history class you may recall your teacher talking about the “King’s Trees” in Maine; special trees reserved by the Crown for later use as masts of great sailing ships. The association of white pine with marine lore is strong. Not only was the sap from their trees used by early settlements along the coast for tar and turpentine, the First Peoples likely used the white pine resin to seal the seams in their birch bark canoes.
The southeast corner of the Adirondacks was a particularly good area for white pines. There was a large rectangular plot of wilderness that bordered Schroon Lake’s southeast shore and ran southward to Brant Lake. It was called the Brant Lake Tract. Pines there grew up to one hundred thirty and even one hundred sixty feet in height and measured two to four feet in diameter at breast height. As the area was settled after the American Revolution, the area around Schroon Lake, at Alder Meadow, Crane Pond and Long Pond, the air was buzzing to the sound of sawmills cutting up these pines into lumber. By 1835 there were 45 sawmills in the town.
When the sawn timbers exceeded local demand, it was discovered that, unlike heavy hardwoods, the pines floated easily in the water. Early settlers were quick to see an opportunity.
Schroon Lake, actually a widening of the Schroon River, drains a watershed from fourteen towns in Essex and Warren Counties. Its watershed of nearly five hundred fifty square miles begins at Nippletop and Dix Mountains at forty-four-hundred-foot elevation and discharges forty-five miles away into the Hudson River at Thurman Station, a total elevation drop of thirty-eight hundred feet. In early 1813 the Fox Brothers, Alanson and Norman, both of Schroon Lake, came up with the idea of floating these logs down to the sawmills in Glens Falls. From there the lumber could be shipped by canal boat and then on ocean-going vessels docked in Albany to cities all along the east coast. They sent logs from the Brant Lake Tract down the Schroon River (originally called the east branch of the Hudson River) to Thurman Station and from there to the sawmills in Glens Falls. The venture was so successful that other logging companies soon followed suit. Each would mark their logs with a brand. Being largely knot-free, these large white pines were the preferred wood for beams and flooring. In 1872 more than 213 million board feet of lumber was sawn at Glens Falls, turning it into one of the wealthiest communities in the state. Later, an efficient method of making paper from wood pulp was discovered and the use of the logs rolling down the river each spring changed from building lumber to the manufacture of paper.
White pines are still prolific in the Adirondacks. As they take over the forest canopy they shade and protect the forest floor and help keep trout streams cool. White Pine seeds are eaten by mice, eastern chipmunk and red squirrels. A wildlife study in 1951 found that white pine twigs and bark are 25 to 50% of a snowshoe hare’s food in winter. Deer have been known to also eat the twigs and bark of white pine, but only when little else is available.
Although the tallest trees may be gone, some giants still remain. This summer it was reported that Erik Danielson may have found New York State’s tallest tree in Bolton, Warren County, just south of the famed Brant Lake Tract – a 174 foot tall white pine.
Above photos courtesy of Glenn Pearsall