THE HISTORY OF HEART PINE
Over two centuries ago, the early settlers of North America discovered that the southern coastline of the Atlantic to the Mississippi and westward along the Gulf of Mexico was covered with a vast forest of longleaf pine trees on more than 70 million acres.
Longleaf pines are commonly 80 to 150 feet tall and up to four feet in diameter. Once its seed has germinated, it will grow to less than an inch tall during its first 10 years, basically looking like a blade of grass. At this stage, all of its energy is focused on developing a strong and deep root system. If it makes it past that stage, it can continue to grow up to 175 feet tall. It takes 100 to 150 years to reach full maturity, and can live up to 500 years. Needless to say, its strength comes from its slow growth.
When longleaf pines finally mature, they form a large hard wood at their center with a ring pattern and an amber color. This hard wood at the center is what is referred to as the heart pine. Every inch of the heart pine requires 30 years to grow. Heart pine is the finest lumber in existence because of its strength, beauty and durability—in addition to being dense, heavy, and rot and insect resistant.
After the pine reaches maturity, it grows more beautiful. As soon as the first settlers of the southern part of North America discovered its value, they began using it. In the 1800s, heart pine became the number one choice for private homes, public buildings, ships, plantations and bridges.
The Industrial Harvest
Heart pine played a significant role in construction during the Industrial Revolution, from Chicago to Boston’s industrial building and throughout the textile mills of the South. The heartwood pine lumber was used by the American colonists in various constructions from bridges, railroads, and wharves to furniture and cabinets. In fact, a single heartwood timber was used in creating the keel of the U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides.” Because of its beauty, heart pine was also a favorite material in Victorian homes and hotels.
Turpentine is another valuable commodity from heart pine, which is being used in soaps, products for waterproofing, paints, and medicines.
In the later days, before the end of the Industrial Revolution, the timber used to build the factories of the North were supplied by the states of the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. Almost all of the heart pines was harvested by the turn of the century and was used in all sorts of construction throughout America.
When Europe experienced wood shortage in the 19th century, a huge number of heart pines were also exported. America began to become an economic power in the 18th and 19th centuries, and heart pine was its number-one export.
There were only about 2,200 miles of railroad during the 1800s in the southern part of the United States. Thus, the loggers’ way to transport the heart pine logs, stamped for every specific sawmill, was to float them down the rivers to the sawmills, which were strategically built close to the rivers, or to the ports on the East coast to be loaded into ships and exported to Europe.
The Suwannee River, which flows from Georgia to North Florida in more than 11,000 square miles, has been one of the main channels of transportation of the heart pine logs for over 150 years.
The Test of Time
Due to an alarming rate of logging and clear-cutting since the 19th century, in 1990 longleaf pine trees became almost extinct. The once more than 70 million acres of virgin forest have been drastically reduced to 10,000 acres, which is only about five percent of the original landscape.
The trees’ slow growth makes it hard to replace lost heart pines with new ones immediately, and the conditions needed to generate new seeds and cultivate was no longer present as cities and towns grew larger. Unfortunately, the little new heart pine that’s available today no longer possesses the same qualities of beauty, strength and durability as the old and original heart pine coming from the old growth longleaf pine trees being used more than a century ago.
Today, heart pine is still the best choice for flooring and other woodwork in houses and buildings. However, unlike the 1800s, now there are only two ways left to obtain old growth heart pine for woodworking and building construction:
1. Through reclaiming lumbers from old houses, industrial factories and textile mills built during the 19th century
2. Recovering the cut-down logs that sank down to the river bottom after they slipped from their rafts while being transported to sawmills or ships for export.
In addition to its being a very limited resource, reclaiming the historic wood is also painstaking, and the river recovery of logs is very difficult. Whether or not there will be enough heart pine left for everyone today or any more left in the coming centuries, the future of this beautiful historic lumber is now dependent on the roughly 10,000 acres of old growth that remains today.
The demand for this beautiful wood is constantly high, yet the supply keeps getting lower. So for all the home and building owners wishing to have beautiful and historic heart pine flooring in their own properties, the chances of getting enough quantity of the old heart pine wood for construction is decreasing as each day passes. The time to get it is NOW before it’s all gone