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Frye: Trees offer a look to our past

Bob Frye
| Saturday, July 8, 2017, 5:30 p.m.

The devastation must have been stunning.

I was looking at some old photos recently (see them at showing what Pennsylvania's state “forests” looked like a century ago.

One is almost comical. It shows a car — complete with spoked wheels and running boards — traveling over a dirt road. Forest surrounds on all sides.

What's funny?

There's no vegetation more than a few feet high. The “woods” at that time were just vast tracts of brush.

What a change that was.

Pennsylvania is thought to have been 90 percent forested when the first European settlers arrived. In 1683, according to the history books, the saying is the forest was so expansive a squirrel could travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh without ever touching the ground.

In two or three decades around the start of the 20th century it all changed.

America was then a nation largely powered by wood, and Pennsylvania was its chief fuel source. Entire mountains were laid bare to feed that appetite.

Forget modern notions of “selective” or “managed” harvests. Back then, if it was a tree, it was cut down. Every species was fair game, right down to its bark, which, in the case of acidic hemlocks, was used to tan leather.

That timbering bolstered the economy in unprecedented ways. And — together with managed hunting — it sparked a surge in wildlife populations.

Those massive deer herds of the 1940s through 70s and the heyday of the ruffed grouse? Credit for them goes to turning millions of acres of the state into edge habitat in a span of less than 30 years.

Talk about a food plot.

It's possible, though, to sneak peeks of what Pennsylvania's virgin woods would have looked like. Some old-growth forest survived the onslaught.

A few tracts are in places so steep and rugged it would be difficult even today to cut them. Others were saved, at least initially, because they surrounded the homes of wealthy industrialists. Others were preserved by forward-thinking conservationists.

It's pretty cool to hike – and in cases, fish, hunt, camp, picnic and play — among those ancients today. They are, after all, 300- and 400-year-old living museum exhibits.

Imagine what they've seen.

Trail cameras are hugely popular these days, right? They offer a glimpse at what goes on in the woods when we're not there.

What if there was a slideshow — centuries in the making — taken in the immediate vicinity of even one of those venerable trees? What would it reveal? What joys, what sorrows, what tales of life and death and renewal, what mysteries?

A list of old growth forest sites is available at Visit some. Make time to wander among the giants. Look down at the fallen ones. Look up into the canopy of those still standing.

Marvel at them. Appreciate them. Wonder, even.

They're a rough, rugged, beautiful link to our outdoors past.

Bob Frye is the editor. Reach him at 412-216-0193 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at

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