What Once Was a Mighty Tree

Courtesy of The American Chestnut Foundation

The American chestnut tree stood majestic across some 200 million acres of eastern woodlands, from Maine to Florida and westward to the Ohio Valley. It grew straight and tall, like a Mighty Giant, and was an integral part of culture and commerce for Appalachian people.

During the first half of the 20th century, a lethal fungus—the chestnut blight—infected the species. It was first discovered in 1904 in New York City, but quickly spread throughout the country. About four billion American chestnut trees, literally a quarter of the hardwood tree population of the East, were destroyed.

The blight arrived in the United States on chestnut trees imported from Asia. Spores spread the disease traveling through the air, in raindrops, and also by hitching a ride in the fur of mice, squirrels, and rabbits that used the trees for food and shelter. A spore would settle into a wound in the bark, allowing the disease to spread quickly to the wood. Native chestnuts, although mighty trees, had very little resistance. Once infected, their leaves would die off during the first season and the whole tree typically would be dead by year two.

Appalachian family sawing chestnut log.
Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

Dead and damaged trunks of giant trees were left behind like skeletons. The New York Times wrote about the doomed chestnut tree. Ghosts of the giant trees littered the landscape. Foresters investigated, but were unable to stop the fungus from spreading. By 1950 the live species had virtually disappeared.

In its majesty, the American chestnut tree was admired for its beauty and protection. The tree was also prized for lumber. It grew straight and tall, often shooting up 50 feet before branching out. The wood weighed less than oak but resisted rot as well as redwood. Its straight grain made it favorable for woodworking and all sorts of wood products—fine furniture, musical instruments, railroad ties, shingles, paneling, telephone poles, even pulp and plywood. Chestnut wood was used from cradle to coffin.

Americans paid homage to the chestnut tree in poetry, paintings, newspapers, and books. Even its nut was popular. The song lyric “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” is reminiscent of how common yet comforting the chestnut was in America.


Geographic Range of the American Chestnut

Map courtesy of The American Chestnut Foundation.

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