Monday, August 8, 2022

Land of the Towering White Pines

White Pine west of Crane Mountain, Warren County

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.

White Pine against author’s shed

White Pine against author’s shed

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.

Sorting logs on the Hudson River at Glens Falls (U.S. Forestry Service)

Sorting logs on the Hudson River at Glens Falls (U.S. Forestry Service photo)

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

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Adirondack historian Glenn Pearsall is the author of Echoes in these Mountains (2008), When Men and Mountains Meet (2013), and the Adirondack novel, Leaves Torn Asunder (2016).
In 2000, Glenn Pearsall and his wife Carol established and funded the Glenn and Carol Pearsall Adirondack Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life of year round residents of the Adirondack Park.

When not pursuing a passion for history and philanthropy, Pearsall is a senior partner and Portfolio Manager for a wealth management team in Glens Falls, NY. He and his wife Carol live near the base of Crane Mountain in Johnsburg.


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14 Responses

  1. AdirondackAl says:

    Great article. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  2. Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Always open to constructive criticism. How would you have edited this?

  3. Maggie Jihan says:

    I was raised in the Midwest among the beautiful deciduous trees and never understood the point of conifers. Then I came to these mountains, and fell in love with the glorious white pines. What a lovely telling of their story, thank you.

    But one point of correction: while it’s true that the Haudenosanee people initially became a confederation of five tribes, another was added later. After white invasion, the Tuscarora were forced from their land and moved into the great region inhabited by the five nations of the Haudenosanee. They requested, and were granted, admittance into the confederation that is now known as the Haudenosanee/Iroquois SIX nations. I learned this only recently myself, when I discovered the tiny hamlet of Onchiota, home of the Haudenosanee/Iroquois Cultural Center. Located not far from Paul Smiths, the center is well worth a visit! Started as a labor of love by one Haudenosanee man in 1954, in a structure fashioned after the longhouses of his ancestors, and since then the project carried forward by his son and now his grandsons, it tells and shows the stories of the people. It’s amazing and I can’t do it justice here; the ADK almanack should do a piece on this work of art and history.

    Final note: as with the Next Pierce, Sioux and others, “Iroquois” is a name given by the invaders (the French, in those 3 cases); none were complimentary. The people’s own name for their confederation is Haudenosanee. Each tribe also has its own name, of course.

    In any event, thanks again for telling us of the majestic White Pine, now among my favorite trees.

  4. charles touhey says:

    familiar with Grandmothers Tree in the Pack Forest? 325 years old….

  5. JohnL says:

    Piky .. picy ..picky! Eye likked the artical, as ritten!. God Jobe GP.

  6. Todd Sherry says:

    Have you ever been to Pine Oarchad near Wells N.Y.. Around Murphy,Middle and Bennett lakes.

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