East LaPorte to lose more of its past with road work

The Blackwood Lumber Co.’s sawmill, wood yard, company store and mill houses once stood in East LaPorte near the current Sun Dog building.

East LaPorte, which still sees a fair amount of activity around the county’s river access park and the Caney Fork General Store, was once home to a bustling sawmill town. During the 1920s and ’30s, railroad tracks extended into the surrounding mountains, bringing logs down to Blackwood Lumber Co.’s band mill. Blackwood employees lived in company houses and shopped at a company-owned store.

After the sawmill closed, most of the wooden frame houses were sold and moved to other locations. Now, with improvements to N.C. 107 on the horizon, what’s believed to be the last original Blackwood house is slated to be torn down.

According to Johnny Frady of Cullowhee, the yellow house across from the entrance to the Rec Department’s East LaPorte Park was once home to Blackwood Superintendent Esco Barnes. It was larger and nicer than most of the company houses, which may explain why it was saved. Frady bought the house about 25 years ago, and he and his family lived there until it was purchased by the state as part of the right-of-way acquisition for the highway upgrades. The Fradys have already relocated about a mile closer to Cullowhee, and the road work is set to begin this spring.

Blackwood Lumber’s sawmill, wood yard, company store and mill houses once stood in the large, flat area near the mouth of Caney Fork. The Sun Dog building now occupies part of that area. In addition to its logging trains, Blackwood also built the Tuckaseigee and Southeastern Railroad from Sylva to East LaPorte to haul in its equipment. The T&S added passenger service in 1922 after construction of the mill town that housed some 100 workers and their families. The homes had electricity and indoor plumbing, years before such things were common in Jackson County’s more remote areas.

Blackwood, which once owned some 40,000 acres from Scotts Creek to Canada, sold its property to Mead Paper Co. around 1940 and shut down its East LaPorte operation. The bulk of the former Blackwood land holdings went to the U.S. Forest Service around 1980. Now part of the Nantahala National Forest, the one-time Blackwood/Mead lands are known as the Roy Taylor Forest.

Charles Wike of Waynesville, whose father Thomas Wike worked in Blackwood’s commissary, wrote a detailed description of Blackwood’s sawmill operation for Volume II of “Jackson County Heritage,” published in 2000 by the Jackson County Genealogical Society.

“The mill was built and operated as a double-sided band-saw mill. There was a mill pond where the logs were unloaded from the log cars,” Wike writes. “A huge ‘bull chain’ pulled the logs out of the pond and into the mill to a narrow area that was elevated above the rest of the mill. It was here that the logs were inspected for rocks and dirt that had not washed off in the pond. Ramps angled down each side of this area where the logs waited to be sawed into timber. The saw filing room was located above this area and over the saw, a large band which ran on two large wheels. As the saw got dull, it would be replaced with a sharp saw, and the sawfiler would resharpen the used saw. A steam-driven carriage transferred the log through the saw. ‘Dogs’ held the logs against the carriage, and a carriage operator rode the carriage and operated the dogs, inching the log forward as the lumber was sawed.

“The sawyer, a man who determined how the log would be cut, was stationed at the end of the carriage. He operated the levers that made the carriage go. Sawdust from the saws was used to fire the boilers. Two boilers powered the mill. A leather belt, approximately eighteen inches by one-half inch thick by twenty feet long, transferred the power to all the mill machinery.”

Some of the men Wike remembers working in the mill include John Moses, Lonnie Watson, Oscar Wike, Guy Wachob, Sam Cunningham, Luther Wike, Arthur “Dad” Lowe, Jack Cole, Cleo Cole, Jess Cole, Monroe “Roe” Cole, Clifford Monteith, Ralph Queen, Emmitt Bryson, W.M. Bennett and Claude Rogers.

Wike’s piece for the Heritage book also describes the trains that brought the logs down to the mill.

“The log trains pulled as many as eighteen or twenty log cars at a time. The log cars were equipped with rails on which a loader was located. As the loader loaded each car, it had the capacity to move on to the next car and could rotate a full 360 degrees. Types of train engines were Climax and Shay’s, which were built to maneuver sharp turns and steep grades.”