Heartwood | Author's Notes


The Railroad Logging Era: The Focal Setting Of Heartwood


“…always hauled away with the waters, even if on the railroads that follow them.”- Igidius Rakestraw in Heartwood

By 1880, lumbering on the Allegheny Plateau was becoming greatly mechanized. With the vast stands of white pine nearly exhausted, hemlock became king. The introduction of round nails made hemlock lumber feasible as a building material. Its bark was important in the tanning of the still-seemingly limitless supply of buffalo hides arriving by the trainload from the West to be converted into machine belts; until this time, hemlock was mainly felled to clear way for other trees.

The principals of logging operations, known along the tier as lumbermen, were able to quickly mass-harvest huge tracts of remote hemlocks thanks to geared locomotives such as Shays, Climaxes, and Heislers, which enabled operations to build crude, temporary railroads into previously inaccessible areas. Thus began the tier’s railroad logging age. Heartwood, thematically and in technical interpretation, focuses on this era as a contextual window to the entire course and culture of Allegheny timbering, a span embodied in the character of Igidius “Geet” Rakestraw, and in protagonist Tobias Meier’s memories of him.

The huge financial outlay for equipment and track led lumbermen, such as Heartwood’s fictional Warren P. Ryder, to fell every tree within reach for returns on their investments. The introduction of band saws--sharply toothed belts of steel--facilitated the surge in production. One of the tier’s prominent hemlock barons, Frank Goodyear, produced nearly a million feet of lumber each day at his sawmills in Austin and Galeton. In the field, steam-powered log loaders eliminated manual loading of logs onto railroad cars, workers scurrying over piles of timbers at each landing to set the tongs that extended by cable from the loader’s crane. Tongs set, the loaders drew the logs to train cars. (See an image of a Barnhart Log Loader in a promotional Heartwood poster.)

Woodhicks, known in the region in which Heartwood is set as hicks (informally, though not disparagingly), worked more than ever from camps proximate to sawmills. Camps were composed of one or more rough wooden buildings, which were often relocated with the crews. Mill towns sprang around each operation’s sawmill, replete with saloons, company stores, and company houses.

Heartwood traces the course of one such company town, the fictional Pigeondale. A number of scenes also take place at the sites of nearby logging camps, before, during, and after they are used in timbering operations: the Teaberry camp and the Piebald camp. As really happened in the tier when the trees waned, the novel’s lumber magnate, Warren P. Ryder, diversifies--in his case, in local industry indirectly related to timber products (in actual cases, operators more typically turned to logging or other industries elsewhere). Ryder invests in--among other things--a start-up carbon factory.

In the course of the story of Heartwood’s Erhart Carbon, the Piebald camp is transformed into the site of a grand entertainment lodge, a concept common in early twentieth century manufacturing, and conceived in the novel by the cunning antagonist, John Blesh. In the course of Heartwood, the camp/lodge and its grounds, hallowed by Tobias Meier, come to symbolize not only the allure and significance of place, but the northern Appalachian transition from sacred Native American and white pioneer hunting grounds (and so the metaphorical nuances of “Piebald”), to raped landscape, to industrial fodder, and finally, to regenerating woods that regain much of the commercial, aesthetic and spiritual value lost at the hands of exploitation--less, that is, precious native species such as passenger pigeons and chestnut trees, heedlessly obliterated through the greed of blue-blood and yokel alike. Yet, in the end, the land nets some new gains at all the cost: legends, and lessons of consequences. During all the transformation, Ryder’s son in law, J. Hadley Erhart, had foreseen--with notions of pragmatic conservation--the eventual return of the forest, and therefore, a lasting business investment.

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