Chestnut Tree Blight Disease Commission

Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Not all of the records relating to forestry in Pennsylvania were created by large permanent state agencies such as the Department of Forests and Waters (see “Reviving — and Revising — the Reputation of Ralph Elwood Brock” by Rachel L. Jones Williams in the fall 2007 issue). A 1912 diagram accompanying a field inspection report for the Mahoning Valley in Carbon County, for example, is among the records of the Commission for the Investigation and Control of the Chestnut Tree Blight Disease, in Record Group 25, Records of Special Commissions, containing the records of temporary independent commissions. These commissions were considered temporary since each was created to perform a specific governmental function and then phased out of existence. They were classified as independent because they were not established as a dependent commission under the purview of an established, continuing executive department.

An airborne parasitic bark fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, caused the Chestnut Tree Blight, which spread from New York to Pennsylvania in 1908. The pandemic disease most likely arrived in this country in the late nineteenth century with the importation of Japanese chestnut trees infected with pure strains of the fungus. Unlike the American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata), the Asian trees had long before developed immunity to the effects of the disease that proved so devastating to domestic trees throughout the Appalachian range. In response to this unexpected ravage, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania in early June 1911 created the Chestnut Tree Blight Disease Commission and appropriated $275,000 to deal with the problem. At its first meeting, held on July 5, 1911, the commission elected Winthrop Sargent of Bryn Mawr as chairman and Harold Peirce of Haverford as secretary. The state legislaure charged the commission, headquartered in the Morris Building in Philadelphia, with finding a practical means for preventing, controlling, and eradicating the disease.

The Chestnut Tree Blight Disease Commission began its work by dispatching experts into the field to conduct comprehensive surveys of the forests, quarantine nursery stocks, and provide educational programs throughout the Commonwealth. Unable to meet its goals, the commission disbanded in late 1913 as legislators refused to appropriate additional funding. The ensuing widespread destruction of the American chestnut tree brought to an end the long reign of chestnut as one of the Keystone State’s finest hardwoods. By 1940, the tree — that once numbered in the billions in the United States — was virtually extinct. The records documenting state government’s failed effort to combat the blight consist of 4.6 cubic feet of materials that include account papers, correspondence, minutes, reports, and numerous photographs.


Willis L. Shirk, Jr. is an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives.