Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

William Townsend Clarke (1859–1930) photographed the forests of northcentral Pennsylvania during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, producing stunning images that tell the story of the logging industry in the vast stands of old-growth white pine and hemlock trees which Henry W. Shoemaker (1880–1958) called the “Black Forest” of Pennsylvania. Shoemaker was a prolific writer, cofounder of the Pennsylvania Folklore Society, newspaper publisher, state archivist, director of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, and the nation’s first official state folklorist.

Born and raised in Rochester, New York, Clarke worked briefly, in 1881 and 1882, as a photographer for the Union View Company, a landscape stereoview publishing firm headquartered in Rochester, which engaged itinerant photographers. Sometime between 1884 and 1887, Clarke moved to Pennsylvania where he struck out on his own, possibly seeking, Shoemaker wrote, “rest and outdoor life for a couple of years to regain . . . lost health and ambition.” For the next thirty years he was self-employed, operating a photography gallery at various times in Hull (now Conrad) and Galeton, Potter County, and later in Betula, McKean County. Clarke used the gelatin dry-plate process of photography, which created a negative image on a glass plate. He transported the heavy plates and a boxy wooden camera through the steep mountain terrain on a train or by horse-drawn cart, made the exposures, and returned to his studio to develop and process positive paper prints. He contracted with lumber companies such as the Goodyear Lumber Company of Buffalo, New York, to photograph extensive lumbering operations in McKean, Potter, and Clinton Counties. Individuals and families also hired Clarke for portraits and photographs of their houses and farmsteads.

Shoemaker noted that Clarke traveled throughout northcentral Pennsylvania, looking “into every nook and unfrequented place,” making probably thousands of photographs of loggers and logging operations. Clarke photographed families, tools, animals, living quarters, entertainment, industries, and entire communities — all of which depended heavily on turning trees and bark into a wide variety of products. In Potter, McKean, and Clinton Counties, communities sprang up almost overnight; Norwich, in McKean County, counted a population of hundreds in its heyday. However, the lumber companies that hired Clarke and provided economic stimulus to the region also clear-cut expansive swaths of forests and moved on without replanting. In addition to mass erosion, the wholesale denuding of these woodlands and the lack of regeneration caused the displacement of animal and plant species dependent on coniferous forests. In a 1912 letter to Shoemaker, Clarke lamented the logged area near Hull: “the hill forests are about gone and this is the last of it . . . the hemlock cannot last there more than 7 or 8 years at most. . . .” By 1920 most of the “Black Forest” of northcentral Pennsylvania had disappeared, the residents departed, and communities such as Norwich became ghost towns. Clarke’s images are highly prized as important visual records of a time and place long vanished.

In 1681 when William Penn established Pennsylvania — aptly called Penn’s Woods — at least 95 percent of it was forested. By 1900 only approximately 3 percent of this original forest remained, and most of it was left to struggle and regrow on its own. This greatly concerned Joseph T. Rothrock (1839– 1922), the first chief of the Commonwealth’s Forestry Commission, and private groups such as the Pennsylvania Forestry Association and the Pennsylvania Alpine Club. Rothrock purchased for the Commonwealth much of the forsaken lands from lumber companies at mere pennies an acre, and began an ambitious campaign to replant (see “This is a beautiful, bountiful earth: Joseph Trimble Rothrock and the Preservation of Penn’s Woods” by Rebecca Diane Swanger in this edition). At the same time, he managed the acquisition and development of state forestry reservations, game lands, forests, and parks throughout the Keystone State. Toward the end of his life, Rothrock, hailed as the “Father of Pennsylvania Forestry,” collaborated with Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946), America’s first professionally trained forester.

After working as the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service early in the twentieth century with President Theodore Roosevelt to create the national forest system, Pinchot returned to Pennsylvania. He served as the Commissioner of Forestry from 1920 to 1924 and later won two non-consecutive terms as governor, in 1922 and 1930. “I have been governor every now and then,” Pinchot once said, “but I am a forester all the time.” To provide unemployment relief early in the Great Depression, Pinchot hired out-of-work youths in 1931 to assist in the development of state forests and parks. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt employed Pinchot’s concept two years later to create the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to revitalize the economy and the nation’s forests. The Keystone State had more CCC camps than any other state except California, and workers helped develop the state forest and state parks residents and visitors enjoy today. Planting trees was a major thrust of these programs and today, thanks to the visionary Rothrock and Pinchot, forests cover about 65 percent of the Commonwealth. Many of the areas photographed by Clarke are once again green.

Pinchot and Shoemaker, among others, played a critical role in the preservation of Clarke’s photographs. Clarke returned to Rochester sometime after 1917 and died in 1930, leaving most — at least twelve hundred — of his glass plate negatives to languish in a leaking barn in Betula. Before Clarke’s death, Shoemaker, a member of the State Forest Commission, recognized the significance of these images as a unique record of the lumber industry in northern Pennsylvania. He contacted Clarke and made arrangements to obtain the negatives for the Commonwealth. With support from State Forester Joseph S. Illick (1884–1967) and Pinchot, he rescued about 450 of Clarke’s 7×5-inch negatives from the barn in 1922. The rest were damaged beyond repair. The surviving glass plates are now part of the Department of Forests and Waters holdings at the Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Clarke kept a select few of his 8×10-inch glass negatives near Rochester, but they too endured a precarious existence until 1972 when a distant relative by marriage, Lois Barden of Candor, New York, realized their value. She salvaged ninety-eight plates from a wooden crate in a grimy tool shed and cherishes the long-neglected cache. Approximately 550 of Clarke’s negatives, as well as several original prints safeguarded by historical organizations, cultural institutions, and private collectors, are known to survive.

With his glass plate negatives documenting Pennsylvania’s wood industry, William T. Clarke unwittingly created and bequeathed a precious legacy to following generations. His images graphically illustrate the epic transformation of the Commonwealth’s forests and ways of life now long gone. Forgotten for nearly a century, these glass plates speak volumes about the individuals — from wood hicks and bark peelers to lumber barons and timber magnates — who carved their livelihoods from the expansive stands of trees that yielded the Keystone State’s distinctive character.


For Further Reading

Bronner, Simon J. Popularizing Pennsylvania: Henry W. Shoemaker and the Progressive Uses of Folklore and History. University Park, Pa.: Penn State Press, 1996.

Currin, Robert. Pennsylvania Lumber Museum: Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2005.

Fergus, Charles. Trees of Pennsylvania and the Northeast. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2002.

Fletcher, Stevenson W. Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life, 1840–1940. Harrisburg, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1955.

Illick, Joseph S. Common Trees of Pennsylvania. Altoona, Pa.: Times Tribune Company, 1926.

MacCleery, D. W. American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery. Durham, N.C.: Forest History Society, 2002.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler, and Timothy A. Block. Trees of Pennsylvania: A Complete Reference Guide. Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Shoemaker, Henry W. Black Forest Souvenirs. Reading, Pa.: Bright-Faust Printing Company, 1914.

Taber, Thomas T. III. The Goodyears: An Empire in the Hemlocks. Privately Printed, 1971.

____. Whining Saws and Squealing Flanges. Privately Printed, 1972.

Tekiela, Stan. Trees of Pennsylvania Field Guide. Cambridge, Minn.: Adventure Publications, 2004.


Linda A. Ries is head of the Arrangement and Description Section of the Pennsylvania State Archives. She has contributed articles to Pennsylvania Heritage on the aerial photographs of Samuel W. Kuhnert (1890–1978), the lithographic bird’s-eye views of communities by Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler (1842–1922), and the conservation of the 1681 charter issued by England’s King Charles II officially granting Pennsylvania to William Penn (1644–1718). With Jay W. Ruby, she compiled Directory of Pennsylvania Photographers, 1839–1900, published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1999.


Ronald E. Ostman is professor emeritus of communication at Cornell University. His most recent book, coauthored with Harry Littell, Great Possibilities: 150 Verne Morton Photographs, published by Six Mile Creek Press of Ithaca, New York, won a gold medal in the 2010 Independent Publisher Book Awards competition for best regional nonfiction work in the northeastern United States. The book is also the winner of a 2010 Eric Hoffer Book Award, named in honor of the American philosopher and writer, in the category of art.


Harry Littell is instructor and chair of the philosophy department at Tomkins Cortland Community College in Dryden, New York.