Dade County Slash Pine

Dade County Slash Pine (known by naturalists as Pinus Elliottii) was one of the most important pine species in Southern Florida. The tree played a pivotal role in early Miami’s ecological landscape and helped shape the industries which would contribute to the city’s population boom in the early twentieth century. The timber proved to be of great use for pioneers, developers, and industrialist alike. The wood is resistant to both rot and termites and is known to be one of the hardest lumber products in the world.  In fact, the tree was in such high demand that it was over-harvested to near-extinction. The Pine Rocklands once covered 185,000 acres of Miami-Dade County. By the time the city of Miami celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1996, only 2% of the pine forest remained.

Slash Pine, which grows up to 100 feet in height and 2 to 3 feet in diameter, would have been one of the dominating features encountered by Miami’s first settlers. In fact, the pine trees would have been a factor in helping 19th century Florida pioneers decide where they would build. This is because when one came across pine trees in early Miami, they knew that they had found land that was dry enough to live on and fertile enough to grow crops on. Slash Pine was plentiful, averaging 520 trees per acre of Pine Rockland and proved to be a reliable timber with which settlers could build their homes and farms. When George Merrick, founder of Coral Gables, first settled in Miami with his father in 1899, they lived in a 20×38 log cabin made of Dade County Slash Pine.

In the early 1900’s more and more people moved and settled in the Miami area, which of course was followed by an increased need for lumber for which to build homes and businesses. The growing need to meet the requirements of the ever-expanding population led to the birth of a healthy lumber industry in Miami. The first timber company documented in the area was called the L.C. Oliver Lumber Company and is known to have been in the area by 1896. More lumber companies began steadily appearing, which is a clear indication that the development of the City of Miami was both reliable and rapid. By 1917, there were 15 lumber mills in Dade County with an output of about 120,000 feet of lumber daily. 95% of the lumber cut in the county was used locally for framing and finishing, with the other 5% being shipped to Nassau and Cuba.

The Florida Land Boom, which was in full swing by the 1920’s, accelerated the ever-growing need for building materials. By the mid 1920’s, Miami’s lumber industry had taken a prominent place in the city’s commercial and industrial growth. In 1925, the gross volume of the retail lumber business alone approximated between $8,000,000 and $9,000,000 in Miami, and there were over 1,500 timber employees within the city boundaries. It has been estimated that Florida sawmills produced 1,000,000,000 feet of lumber annually.

Up until the 1930’s, Dade County Slash Pine was primarily harvested for the production of timber wood and turpentine.  However, in 1930, a chemist, Dr. Charles H. Herty of New York, discovered how to make white newsprint out of Slash Pine. Prior to this discovery, the tree could only be used to make a paper of a yellow variety, which could not compete with the high-grade sulfite process newsprint and white book paper culled from other trees in the country. This development opened the prospect of a new and wholly American supply of newsprint and high-grade book paper. With this new and lucrative use of Slash Pine discovered, the demand for the tree continued to soar.

Unfortunately, this need for lumber led to deforestation on a massive scale. The trees were harvested faster than they could grow back and the amount Dade-County Slash Pine was no longer large enough to sustain the businesses that depended on it. Lumber mills shut down and employees looked for work elsewhere. Now practically extinct, Slash Pine wood is avidly salvaged from old buildings and houses upon demolition to meet the demand of those who appreciate its historical value, high durability, and beautiful high-grain finish. In fact, the Venetian Pool is currently in the process of restoring some of it’s Slash Pine features and is on a 10-year waiting list to receive the wood from a specialized salvaging company. The saying that everything old will become new again certainly applies to the timelessness of Slash Pine’s natural allure and durable features.

By Malcolm Lauredo

Volume One; Number Three

October 2018