The Legacy of Longleaf Pine: Savannah, Georgia, and the Lumber Trade

"A View of Savannah as it stood on March 29th, 1734." Georgia Historical Society

Savannah was founded on an elevated bluff above a gentle river. River and resource have, with time, combined in response to define the people, places, and potential of the city. The inhabitants came from distant shores hoping to start businesses and build homes, many with families, and others alone. Their determination, skill and ingenuity would transform the original town of wooden shacks into a bustling port city equal to any in the Union. The shipbuilding industry has, on multiple levels, enabled and financed the growth of the city.

Turpentine "dippers" and "chippers," 1904.  Library of Congress


Savannah became the world’s leader of shipping naval stores by the end of the 19th century. Wasteful extraction of resins from pine resulted in stunted or malformed growth and often led to the tree’s death. Lumbering proponents remained critical until the turn of the 20th century. In 1901, a little known University of Georgia chemist, Charles H. Herty, would conduct experiments in Statesboro derived from French “cupping“ techniques. Herty’s conservation work would transform the industry.

Warehouse and railroad construction used hundreds of thousands of feet of lumber. These expansions would facilitate the state’s ability to extract resources from the hinterlands of the interior.

Thousands of barrels of naval stores at the Savannah port, 1904. Library of Congress


The explosion of construction projects demanded more lumber. The increase in industry led to the influx of people, all needing housing. The development of now historic Savannah homes became a business in its own right. Stately mansions and meager cottages began to fill Savannah, constructed mainly of old growth woods, many of which still remain today.

Lumber has been shipped from the Georgia coast since the time of James E. Oglethorpe and the colonists. During the 18th century, the British Crown reserved the largest timbers for ship masts and made clear their unapproved removal under harsh penalty of law. To encourage the clearing of land for agriculture after the revolution, the Georgia State legislature appropriated 500 acre grants to reward settlers for the construction of sawmills. Naturally the number of Sawmills in Savannah and Brunswick greatly increased. By the 1870’s Savannah would be home to more than two dozen lumber mills and timber factories.

Lumber being loaded onto a schooner at the Savannah wharf, c. 1900. Library of Congress

The sawmill has always established a hub for materials and industry. In 1836, James Hall observed, "ours [may] be called a wooden country; not merely for the extent of its forest but because in common use wood has been substituted for a number of most necessary and common articles - such as stone, iron and even leather.“

The Royal Vale Plantation bred one of the most successful early sawmills in Savannah. William B. Giles and Co. invested a reported $70,000.00 in the operation, which began production in the summer of 1848. The company and its steam planing mill at the corner of Price and Liberty Street was sold in its entirety to D.C. Bacon in 1873. In 1876 Bacon incorporated the business with partners William B. Stilwell and H.P. Smart, and would invest in multiple lumber operations in Georgia including Vale Royal Manufacturing Co. in 1884.

Southern Pine Company of Georgia was incorporated in 1895 with a reported capital of $1,250,000.00. The company of Georgia owned and operated docks at the Port of Brunswick and maintained offices in Savannah and New York. The major product sold by this company was the famous long-leaf pine which was offered as rough or finished lumber. The lumber was shipped to both foreign and domestic markets on a regular basis. This was a very prestigious lumber firm which contributed to the general development of Brunswick and Savannah, Georgia.

Henry P. Talmage was president, Wm. B. Stillwell, secretary and treasurer, and A. C. Banks, agent. The present-day owner and president of the historic Southern Pine Company of Georgia is Ramsey Khalidi.

Pine forest near Waycross, GA, 1936. Library of Congress

"The Homestead act of 1866 limited land purchases to 80 acres and was intended to help establish the masses of disenfranchised ex-slaves, laborers, and refugees while rejecting petitions of confederacy. Northern politicians hoped to use the land policy as an instrument to dismantle the antebellum aristocracy. Despite the intentionsof the policy, by 1976 the restrictions were repealed, and the vast acres of timber were open to large-scale purchase. The millions of federal lands released in 1876 became the gold rush of the Georgia pine harvest."   -Building Savannah, David E. Kelly
“The American forest has been likened to the goose that laid the golden eggs. This fairy tale reference applies in more ways than one. The nation’s lumbermen, responding to the demands of the unenlightened public, once tried hard to kill the goose in order to extract all the eggs at once. There was a dismal dawning, however, and we realized the folly of hoping for eggs from a dead goose. By slow degrees we reached another conclusion: that a forest, like a goose or any other living thing, must be fed, nursed and shielded from wanton injury if its yield of wealth is to continue indefinitely.“    -The American Forest Association
"Pine was used in the building of Savannah’s colonial homes, but was also major cargo for our young port. Fast-forward to the ruinous 1970’s when many of those wonderful old homes were being ripped down to make room for more important things, like strip malls and street widening. Then award your gold star to Ramsey Khalidi who valued that old lumber and wrestled it out of dumpsters to squirrel away as the treasure it was, often having to beg different friends for storage space in their garages. 'I couldn’t stand to see it hauled off to the landfill,' he once said. 'It’s so beautiful.' "  -Waking Up Men, O. Kay Jackson