Today the Connecticut River offers awe inspiring views, events, places and wildlife. But there is one marker of the nature of our watershed long gone from our landscape, the “mast” pines found here when European settlers first arrived in our valley. Sometimes a book will conjure up for us the natural wonders we can no longer see for ourselves. In this case it was “Tall Trees, Tough Men” by Robert E. Pike.
The pre-colonial forest was defined in part by white pines (Pinus strobus) that were enormous by modern standards. In the 1700s in Durham, NH a pine tree was recorded to be 7 feet 8 inches in diameter. An entry in the Dumbarton, NH town history recorded a tree “200 feet tall and be 10 feet in diameter” and as late as the early 1800s in Lancaster, NH a pine was recorded to be 264 feet tall. It only took settlers, farmers and loggers from the late 1600s to the mid 1800s to clear off these extraordinary trees.
These monarchs of the forest were not found as broad swaths of the forest but in island like stands. A combination of the sand and gravel deposits of kame terraces on side hills or moraines in the valleys left by the retreating glaciers offered ideal well drained soil conditions and those soils along with our wet cool climate resulted in the pines stupendous size. In colonial days people went out “a-masting” looking for those scattered tall trees. Even today, although the trees are not as tall, where you see outsized pines clumped together there is probably a glacial sand and gravel deposit beneath them nourishing their roots.
The name mast pines evolved because of the value of the trees as masts, spars and bowsprits for the ships of the British Admiralty. Mast pines were the largest, tallest, straightest and soundest of the white pines. They were of such value that a Surveyor General was appointed by the King of England to mark, protect, harvest and prosecute poachers of these special trees. As early as 1691 it was illegal for anyone but the King to cut a pine tree over 24 inches in diameter. The trees claimed by the King were marked with the “Broad Arrow”, a three stroke slash on the tree that looked like an arrow head. One other noteworthy responsibility of the Surveyor General besides marking the trees was to encourage the growing of hemp.
In 1741 Benning Wentworth became Governor of the New Hampshire. He sold townships in NH and VT, slyly retained for himself along with 500 acres in each township, all the rights to mast pines within those townships. He then bought the position of Surveyor General from the appointed title holder to insure that he did all of the marking and harvesting of the mast pines. He then sold off the rights to cut these valuable trees to his brother Mark. The cozy family arrangement created a Wentworth monopoly on mast trade with the British.
There was one serious attempt to break the Wentworth monopoly. In 1761 a Connecticut man convinced the Navy Board to buy masts from him. He was given permission to harvest trees up the Connecticut River valley from Deerfield, MA up to Haverhill, NH. He and his crew cut 150 trees and floated them down the Connecticut River to Middletown, CT. It took two years to deliver the logs due to low water but it was a onetime venture. Wentworth sent his deputy to confiscate the logs. It turned out to be an unsuccessful harassment but another such effort did not seem worth the intimidation factor.
There is some speculation that the mast pine harvest restrictions had as much to do with the American Revolution as the tea tax. There was a 100 year history of guerilla conflict between the Surveyor General, sheriffs, their henchmen and the colonists leading to confrontations, arrests, fist fights, beatings, boat sinking along with riding officials out of town siting backwards on their horses.
Since sawn boards had to be less than 24 inches wide the colonists in rebellion would saw boards 23 inches wide wasting the remainder of much wider trees just to scoff at the Surveyor General and the King. It seems that on more than one occasion not one colonist knew a thing about how tens or even hundreds of mast trees simply disappeared. Forest fires were set since fire left the wood of the pines useful for lumber but ruined for masts. One such fire burned for two months.
Unfortunately there is little likelihood one might see mast pines today because according to VT and NH sources, in our the region there is less than one tenth of one percent of the forest area documented as old growth and most of those stands are of mixed hardwood climax growth. Fortunately a story that captures our past can stir up mental images of the natural history of our watershed.
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David Deen is River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. CRWC has been a protector of the Connecticut River for more than half a century.