but the problem is getting ahold of the lumber. There just isn’t enough to go around in these Covid times, what with home improvement projects, the need to provide enough rooms for adults and kids stuck at home, etc. So it seemed the Atlantic City boardwalk would have to wait some more for its much needed regular makeover. Each year thirty million people flock to the 4.2 mile deck, for amusement parks, wicker chair rides, casinos, confections and ritzy hotels.
When it first opened in 1870, the boardwalk was constructed of old-growth pine, and it was actually taken up in the winter so as to preserve it for future years. What a project!
Now fir is out of the question, because the lumber that comes down from Canada has been attacked in a one-two punch – by barkeating beetles and epic wildfires. Many lumber companies simply shut down. The price of wood skyrocketed as it grew scarcer. The wood for an average American house now costs 24,000 than it did before. The preferred “species” of wood for building, called Canadian spruce-pine-fir lumber–the name for conifers grown north of the border–is now recognized as the precious resource it always was.
Why is all that lumber coming from Canada, anyway? Let us think back to earlier times, when the boardwalk was first built, of pine. Lumberjacks, also called shanty boys, woodsmen, pinery workers, were a brawling, crapulous, foul-smelling, obstinate bunch, pursuing one of the most dangerous and arduous professions on earth.
In 1880, the development of the two-man cross-cut saw, with alternate raker teeth to remove sawdust quickly, hurried the white pine apocalypse far from New Jersey, in the great midwest. Before that, the big trees were felled by ax.
Because the massive, eighteen-ton white pines had to be transported by waterway through the roadless American wilderness, the relentless harvest proceeded across the country river by river, watershed by watershed, from the Saginaw to the Wisconsin to the Chippewa and the St. Croix.
In the spring, the elite of the lumber world, the best men of every crew, guided the huge log rafts downriver to mills. They called themselves “river pigs,” and they engaged in what might have been the most lethal commercial occupation in American history.
Balancing on rolling logs in freezing, spring-swollen waters, breaking up snags and jams with sharpened canthooks called peaveys, the river pig was part acrobat, part wrestler, part matador. Every season, along with the logs, the corpses of drowned or crushed river pigs would float into the booms where the mills collected their raw timber. But the danger only increased the prestige of the profession.
Then it was over. In less than two hundred years, the logging companies and timber barons clear-cut huge swathes of the American landscape, Maine to Minnesota, before decamping to the do the same to South and the Northwest. It was not until 1979 that the last timber river run in North America occurred, on the Salmon in Maine, but that was a throwback, and the frenzy had ended long before.
Atlantic City has found a solution to the shortage of conifer timber. A few years back it went over to untreated exotics, such as cumaru, a rich and naturally durable Brazilian wood, which is unlikely to burn and also, happily for barefoot boardwalk trippers, unlikely to splinter. Some specimens are 1,200 years old, and they have a fruit, called a tonka bean, whose use rather than cutting down the trees themselves could make the growth of the cumaru tree sustainable.
Would you rather have an intact boardwalk or an intact rainforest?