Back to the Index HISTORY OF LOGGING IN GRAHAM COUNTY Back to the Index

by William L. Nothstein

Graham County in its early days was strictly an ancient forest with forest pressing close by on every side. The dense undergrowth and rough terrain coupled with complete lack of transportation facilities caused this area to be one of the last in the state to attract industries. However, the outside world was soon to realize the vast potential of this region of hardwood forests. Lumbering and saw milling, however primitive the method, were the first industries of the county. The sobriquet, lumberjack, although coined in the west has meaning to a resident of Graham County.

The first boards sawed in Graham County were probably for local use. It is likely that they were cut with a whipsaw pulled up and down by a man above the log and one below.

River drives were started in the 1880's. The Belding Lumber Company and the Heiser Lumber Company bought and cut timber on Santeetlah, West Buffalo and Snowbird Creeks. The stumpage paid for virgin yellow poplar trees was 25 cents each. Only the best white pine, yellow poplar, chestnut, basswood, and cherry were cut. Such trees had to be within reasonable horse or ox skidding distance of a navigable stream. Splash dams were built on West Buffalo, Little Snowbird, and Big Santeetlah Creeks. Logs were floated down Big Snowbird during periods of naturally high water. These logs floated down the Cheoah River and the Little Tennessee River to a sorting boom below the present Chilhowee Dam. Men followed the logs in whaleboats and freed lodged or breached logs with pike poles and peavies.

Early logging using oxen

More modern log transport

One of these splash dam builders and river drivers was the late Samuel McFalls of Andrews, N.C. He was once camped at the present parking lot in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, ready to start cutting when the company decided not to cut the timber at that time.

Each log was stamped with the owner's brand before it was put into the stream. The owners collected their logs at the sorting boom and bound them into rafts. Men then guided and rode the rafts to the sawmill at Chattanooga, Tennessee. Forrest Denton, of Little Snowbird, reported that the last river drive was in 1894.

Trains of packhorses and mules from Tennessee, probably Loudon, supplied these early loggers. Trails had to be built for these pack trains. The Belding Trail came across Citico Creek to the head of Little Slickrock, down that drainage to cross the main creek and sometime through the Yellow Hammer Gap to Cheoah River at the present site of Tapoco.

The first sawmills were the up and down type powered with water. Jason Hyde operated one on Atoah Creek, John Barker had one on Long Creek, and Hardy Wiggins reported his father operated one at Sweet Gum before Hardy was born.

Sam Wilhide operated the first circle mill powered by steam at the mouth of Anderson Creek on Tallulah Creek. He later moved to Alarka Creek in Swain County. Portable steam mills largely cut timber from the Tallulah and Sweetwater drainages. Claude Kinsland was reported to have operated such a steam mill in Graham County for several years.

River driving gave way to railroad transportation. Getting logs or lumber to railheads was often a problem. Little Snowbird attracted operators during this period. Smith and Egger built the Plankroad Gap Road and Dorsey had a steam mill at the head of Little Snowbird. Lumber was pulled over wooden tracks by a steam engine to Plankroad Gap. The lumber was then flumed down Hyatts Creek to Marble. Porterfield and Grandin built the Porterfield Gap Road in 1897. They operated a circle mill at Long Bottom. Lumber was hauled to Marble in wagons.

Another wooden track was used by a steam engine to pull lumber to a gap on Yellow Creek. The C. M. English Lumber Company cut and milled the logs on Yellow Creek. The lumber was hauled by wagon from the Yellow Creek Gap to a rail point on the Little Tennessee River.

Will Sandlin apparently surveyed the so-called Barker wagon road from Andrews to West Buffalo, and C. M. Watson and John A. Tatham were foremen on the grade. John Saunooke, Will West, and other Indians from Yellow Hill and Graham County worked for John A. Tatham on the grade. Earl P. Tatham and Fred Ghormley cut the right of way from Atoah Gap to Jones' Top.

Men hauling lumber on wagons from West Buffalo to Andrews and later from Circular Mills at Little Snowbird and Birch Springs: Sherrill Colvard, Joe Lovin, Pearl Slaughter, George Patterson, Bill Newman, Tom Roberts, Tom Gladden, Mack Collett, Dock Harden, Dennis Williams, Pole Percy, Charlie Hooper, Tom Cameron, Algie West, Andy Phillips, Grover Blevens, Bob West, Rube Rogers, John Rogers, Zale Adams, Tom White, McClain White, and Zeb Whitaker.

Bulldozers replaced horses for log skidding

The Whiting Manufacturing Company band mill, at Judson, influenced logging operations over much of eastern Graham County. This company extended narrow gauge tracks up many of the drainages from Panther Creek to Fox Branch. Welch Cove, the site of the present Fontana Village, was logged during this period of operation. Trestles or low bridges crossed the Little Tennessee River. The narrow gauge logging railroads terminated at the tracks of the standard gauge Southern Railway. Loads were transferred to standard size cars and taken to the band mill. Logs were skidded to the narrow gauge by horses and oxen.

Space and time does not permit a recording of the histories of all the lumber companies that bought up timber and established mills in this county. A closer look will be given to the histories of two of the largest of the lumbering companies: Kanawah Hardwood Lumber Company and Bemis Hardwood Lumber Company.


by Bob Barker

The Kanawha Hardwood Company began operations about 1899 with William A. Lewis as president and John Q. Barker as general manager by purchasing from J. A. Cook and J. W. Eller of 100,000 feet of logs decked on West Buffalo in Graham County at the Homer Martin place. A wagon road was built about 1902 from Andrews, starting at Webb's Mill and going to Jones' Top, now known as the Colvard Top (Walker Fields) and down the other side of the mountain to the Atoah Gap. The road continued down the Eller Cove side of the mountain from the Atoah Gap to Little Snowbird Creek and the John Teesateska Fields. The road followed Little Snowbird to the mouth, fording the waters of Big Snowbird just below the road then went down Big Snowbird and through the Hard Slate Gap to West Buffalo. Lumber was hauled (about 600 feet to the load, but Joe Lovin used two yoke of oxen and hauled 1000 feet) from the Kanawah Circular Mill on West Buffalo to Andrews. This wagon road was called the Barker Road.

John Barker with Peter Conseen and family at the Snowbird mill of Kanawah Hardwood Company at the John Teesateska fields on Little Snowbird Creek, 1905

Crew building Wagon Road from Tallulah Gap to Red Marble Gap

After sawing out on West Buffalo, Kanawha sold their mill to W. W. Penrod who had some sawing work to do for Mark E. Cozad of Andrews who owned timber on West Buffalo. Noah Millsaps and Bijah Orr built a tram road up West Buffalo for Penrod. Then Kanawah built a circular mill on Little Snowbird and Birch Springs. A tram road was built up the Eller Cove and also Lige Branch, the latter built by Tillman Lovin.

The Kanawha operations on Little Snowbird had the first hydro-electric plant in Western North Carolina. A millrace built on Lige Branch connected with an undershot water wheel to turn a flywheel. The flywheel had a belt running to a small pulley on a dynamo electric motor thus enabling the converting of mechanical energy into electricity. The Kanawah operation had electric lights while Asheville had only kerosene or gas lights.

The Kanawha Hardwood Co. was clearing about $1,700 per month by hauling lumber out on wagons but the demand for lumber was so great and the market price so high that the partners decided to build a railroad after the failure of the steam tractor on the wagon road. In 1905 the certificate of incorporation provided for the construction of a railroad from Andrews across Long Ridge down Bear and Little Snowbird Creeks into Graham County with its terminus at the site occupied by Kanawah Hardwood Co. with the right to make extensions up Big and Little Snowbird Creeks. The Snowbird Valley Railroad Company was thusly incorporated.

In 1909 the railroad was extended up Little Snowbird for six miles. In 1917 the Snowbird Valley tracks were sold to the Republic of France for use in the war against Germany. The Kanawha Co. also purchased three or four railroad bicycles equipped with flanged wheels to run on the narrow gauge Snowbird Valley Railroad. Dr. Swinfield Howell, company doctor, and company President Lewis each used one of the pedal cycles.

Kanawah Hardwood's loader at Cub Denton Fields, 1910


Many Cherokees worked on the Kanawah job, including: John Saunooke, Able Connaught, Sty Armstrong, Sampson Teesateska, Will Teeseteska, Jess Teeseteska, Will West, Peco Snead, Charlie Ledford, Jonas Brown, Sam Smoker, Sampson Ledford, Brest Connoseene, Dobson Longbarrel, Will Smoker, George Bushyhead, John Ropetwister, Tom Ropetwister, and Dave Hornbuckle.

Robert B. Barker, noted historian of Andrews, who was the son of John Q. Barker, General Manager of Kanawha, furnished all of the information about Kanawha Hardwood Lumber Company.


by John B. Veach

Bemis was originally incorporated in the State of Delaware on April 16, 1926 and succeeded by the Bemis Hardwood Lumber Company, a North Carolina Corporation, incorporated January 1, 1937.

In 1924 H. C. Bemis purchased the lands owned in Graham County by the Buffalo Realty Company, Carolina Railway and Lumber Company, and George R. Cottrelle, Trustee. In the same year the Champion Paper & Fiber Company, the Gennett Lumber Company, and H. C. Bemis purchased the lands of the Whiting Manufacturing Company. The Gennett Lumber Company took the Santeetlah Watershed and then sold it to the U.S. Forest Service in 1935. Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest was a part of this land. Champion Paper purchased the West Buffalo watershed in fee and H. C. Bemis bought the Big Snowbird area. Then Champion and Bemis traded so that Champion owned all the hemlock and Bemis all the hardwoods on both Big Snowbird and West Buffalo Watersheds.

In 1926 Bemis started construction of a band mill in the present location (where the recycling operation is today) and the first log was sawn in August 1927. A large part of the machinery and equipment for the mill were shipped from the band mill that Bemis had been operating since 1905 at Bemis, West Virginia.

Bemis mill in 1927

The first officers of the Bemis Lumber Company operating this very modern steam band mill were: H. C. Bemis, President; L. C. Bemis, Vice President and General Manager; L. A. Dindinger, Secretary and Treasurer; L. W. Wilson, Assistant Secretary and Treasurer; E. R. Frederick, Mill Superintendent; R. H. Montony, Woods Superintendent; R. J. Humes, Yard Superintendent; and Alfred V. Anderson, Superintendent of Woods Railroad Construction. On the death of H. C. Bemis and L. C. Bemis in 1935, John Bemis Veach was elected President and L. W. Wilson, Vice President and General Manager. Mr. Wilson served ably in that position for thirty years. During the last several years of his administration he served as President of the company.

In March of 1967 this original band mill was completely destroyed by fire and was immediately replaced by a modern band mill, all-electric except for the steam shot-gun feed. This new mill started in operation January 1968 and because of its many modern and efficient features and machines, hardwood lumbermen from all over the East visited it continuously. The meat packinghouses always brag that they are able "to use all of the pig except the squeal." This was also true at the Bemis mill. Most all of the log is turned into lumber; the slabs and edgings were converted to chips which were shipped to the paper mill at Canton; and all of the bark and sawdust burned for steam for the sawmill and the dry kilns.

Bemis fire, 1967

L. W. Wilson of Bemis

Bemis refurbished in 1972

The Bemis mill always prided itself on the quality of its hardwood lumber and built a nationwide reputation. Some of the finest hardwoods in the world are grown in Western North Carolina and are in demand, particularly from the manufacturers of fine furniture in North Carolina.

Meanwhile, in 1957 Graham County acquired an entirely different type of industry, the James Lees Carpet Company, later a subsidiary of Burlington Industries. In a modern factory on the outskirts of Robbinsville, it made a variety of high quality carpets. Until its closing in August, 1971, it employed about 400 people. After a period of idleness, it was converted to furniture manufacturing, using some of the same hardwoods that were being harvested by Bemis.  The facility later changed hands to become Stanley Furniture and is still a major employer in Graham County.

Lees Carpets / Burlington Furniture / Stanley Furniture - still known by some as "Fontana Mills"

As the early residents of Graham County cleared homesteads and later logged and cleared thousands of acres of land for the three reservoirs in this county, men of our region became specialists in logging land clearing. They learned what was required, the best way to do it, and how to make efficient use of land-clearing machinery. After the dams were built men began to get jobs clearing right-of-ways outside the county. Several men became land-clearing contractors: Boyd Crisp, Will Cooper, Hoover Williams, Leonard Phillips, and Ted Phillips and Ted Jordan. Phillips and Jordan, known locally as Ted and Ted, became the recognized leaders far and wide in this enterprise. The following account taken from the Asheville Citizen gives an account of the Phillips and Jordan role in land clearing in the United States:



(from the Asheville Citizen)

The Bureau of Land Reclamation of the U.S. Department of the Interior, listing the major landscape clearers in the United States, has identified Phillips and Jordan, Inc., of Robbinsville, North Carolina, as carrying on the largest land-clearing operations in the country. Other companies ranked in the same class are in Eugene, Oregon; Murphy, North Carolina and Denver, Colorado.

Not only have Ted Phillips and Ted Jordan put Robbinsville on the contracting map from coast to coast, but they with a few similar companies have made Western North Carolina the seat of the clearing industry in the nation. They have cleared land for some of the largest dam, reservoir, pipeline, roadway, and government reclamation projects undertaken in the United States.

One of the most spectacular projects, one that was regarded by the Department of Interior as the most difficult land-clearing job attempted in this country, was the clearing of the land for the Flaming Gorge Reservoir along the Green River in Wyoming and Utah. Joined by the Herman H. West Company of Murphy, the Robbinsville firm cleared 7,800 acres of the Flaming Gorge, of which some of the canyon walls reached 1,700 feet. Because of the rugged terrain in the lower canyon, only 15% of the clearing could be done by machinery. The crews swarmed down the canyon walls, often working suspended from lines.

Phillips and Jordan, who also owned and operated Appalachian Contracting Company in Robbinsville, merged their firm with Kaneb (for Kansas and Nebraska) Pipe Line Company. Based in Houston, Kaneb operates a petroleum products pipeline system, providing data processing services for insurance companies, and contracts for land clearance.

This partnership of Phillips and Jordan was one of the remarkable success stories in Western North Carolina.