The Demise of the American Chestnut

Before 1910 nearly thirty percent of the hardwood forests in Pennsylvania were composed of the almighty American chestnut. The species was prized for its impressive lumber often chosen due to its durability and resistance to rot. Homes, barns, and even entire towns were constructed solely out of lumber from the American chestnut. In addition, each tree produced a large quantity of chestnuts which had been another source of economic value; the nuts had the added bonus of being a tasty and nutritional snack. With this being said, the American chestnut had immeasurable financial, cultural, and environmental value until the species nearly became extinct.

 The infamous chestnut blight was responsible for the death of nearly three billion trees in the eastern United States. The country was inoculated with the deadly fungus around 1903 due to a nursery of infected Asiatic chestnut trees being imported into New York City. The infection quickly spread inland from New York harbor into neighboring states of Connecticut, New Jersey, and of course Pennsylvania.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania having had one of the largest populations of American Chestnuts organized and formed the Pennsylvania Chestnut Tree Blight Commission in 1911. The Commission was formed to fund and research possible scientific methods to combat and destroy the deadly fungus which threatened the state’s forests. Unfortunately, the Commission was incapable of stopping the fungus from infecting nearly every single chestnut in the state. By the year 1940, over the course of thirty years, the fungus managed to kill all but a few Chestnut trees in Pennsylvania.

Today there are only a handful of American chestnut trees that continue to survive in Pennsylvania. Ongoing research by the American Chestnut Foundation  in the effort develop blight resistant trees with the goal of successfully repopulating the Eastern hardwood forests is underway. Hope for the future of the species remains, but the memories of this once mighty tree are beginning to fade along with the population who once lived alongside the magnificent American chestnut.