The Surry Lumber Company - Logs, Locomotives and Lumber
By Jack Huber
In 1873, a young man named David Steele started a lumber business in Surry County, Virginia. Steele, a native of New Jersey, saw an opportunity in the forests of southeast Virginia. Large tracts of land and timber were available at low prices in much of the South, and this part of Virginia was no exception. Landowners, still trying to recover from the Civil War and the breakup of the plantation economy, were hard pressed for money. New technology in the form of better railroads and sawmills was becoming practical for the timber industry in the area and there were plenty of workers ready for some alternative to life as a farm laborer or sharecropper.
David Steele was a good lumberman, but was plagued by a lack of capital and was forced to borrow heavily to finance his growing logging, sawmill and railroad operation. One of his main creditors was R. T. Waters and Son of Baltimore. In 1884, Steele found himself unable to make his loan payments to Waters and Son. In short order, they foreclosed and acquired Steele's land, logging equipment, sawmill and railroad equipment.
Waters and Son had access to plenty of money and had big plans for Steele's operation in Surry County. On January 3, 1885, they incorporated the Surry Lumber Company. Eventually, this enterprise became the largest producer of yellow pine lumber in the Eastern United States.
In 1886 the Surry Lumber Company obtained a charter for a common carrier railroad, the Surry, Sussex and Southampton Railway. The real purpose for the railroad was to transport logs and finished lumber for the Surry Lumber Company. However, because it was a common carrier, the SS&S Railway was required by law to offer service to the general public.
The new lumber company built a large sawmill at Mussel Fork Plantation, located between the Blackwater River and Cypress Swamp in southern Surry County. Houses and a commissary were constructed for the mill workers and soon a town was growing around the mill operation. This town became known as Dendron, the name being derived from the Greek word for trees.
In April 1886, the SS&S Railway began building 13 miles of track north from Dendron to Scotland Wharf on the James River. The line was completed and a large wharf was constructed before the end of the year. The wharf was said to be the best of its type on the James and it became a regular stop for steamboats traveling between Norfolk and Richmond. Entire trains of lumber and cordwood could be backed out on the wharf for loading onto large three and four-masted schooners for shipment. Wood products were shipped directly from Scotland Wharf to various ports on the East Coast and Europe.
By June of 1889, the railroad had been extended from Dendron seven miles south to Wakefield where it intersected the Norfolk and Western Railway. Lumber was shipped out on the N&W, but it had to be unloaded from the SS&S and reloaded on the N&W. Like many logging railroads of the era, the SS&S was a narrow gauge line. This lowered construction and equipment costs, but it prevented the interchange of cars with major railroads.
The Surry Lumber Company began buying land and standing timber in Surry, Sussex, Southampton, Isle of Wight and Prince George Counties. At various places they built housing for the logging and railroad workers.
A logging camp was established in 1889 at Dory, in Southampton County eight miles south of Wakefield. In 1897, a branch of the railroad was extended west from Dory to West Hope, about a mile south of Sussex Court House and a logging camp was built there. About 1900, the rail line was extended further to a newer camp called Straw Hill on the Jerusalem Plank Road (State Route 35) at the SussexB Prince George County line. Logging lines were later extended from Straw Hill to within 10 miles of Petersburg. The Straw Hill camp was closed about 1907.
The logging camp at Dory was closed in 1904 and a new camp built at Upson, south of Littleton on Jerusalem Plank Road. Upson was in use until 1915. Like all the Surry Lumber Company camps, Upson had a company store, or commissary, where workers could buy on credit.
The same year Upson was established, the company built a camp at Vicksville on the road from Ivor to Courtland in Southampton County. Eventually there were about 25 permanent buildings at Vicksville. As at all the other logging camps, rail lines were built from Vicksville to reach timber stands in the area.
Except for the town of Dendron, the largest settlement established by the Surry Lumber Company was the village of Sedley in Southampton County on the Virginian Railway. This carefully planned community was built in 1907 and still exists today. All of the company's logging operations were controlled from Sedley until the company ceased operations.
Gradually, the lumber company expanded its Dendron mill facilities to include three large sawmills and two box mills. Each mill was designated by a letter, A, B,C etc. The largest mill, known as D Mill was built about 1902 and had a double saw that could cut when the carriage was traveling in either direction. A large dry kiln was also added to the mill operation around this same time.
Production peaked around 1920. Although no production records exist to give exact figures, some have estimated that the combined capacity of the three large sawmills at that time was about 400,000 board feet per day. While it is doubtful if the mills operated at this level very often, it is still obvious that the Surry Lumber Company was a huge operation.
Well before dawn, six days a week, an SS&S locomotive would leave Dendron to pick up a load of 25 to 30 rail cars of logs from one of the logging camps. Several more log trains would follow during the day. At seven o'clock the mills came alive as the drive belts began to hum and saws started to whine. Yellow pine was the main product, but oak, cypress, poplar and walnut were also cut. The shook mills, known as C and H mills, cut laths and the sides for wooden boxes. Except for a 45-minute pause for lunch, the mills ran until 5:45 each afternoon.
The owners of the company lived in Baltimore and maintained an office there. Edward Rogers, who lived on Main Street in Dendron, supervised the daily affairs of the lumber company and the railroad. Rogers was the superintendent the entire time the lumber company and railroad operated.
Edward Rogers had several brothers who assisted him. His brother Philip was logging superintendent at Sedley until poor health forced him to retire in 1915. Brother Ernest was mill superintendent and Arthur Rogers was the company cashier.
As might be expected, the Rogers brothers were also civic and community leaders. Edward, Ernest and Philip were instrumental in founding the Bank of Sussex and Surry in 1902 and served as directors for many years.
The Surry Lumber Company was an efficient operation by early twentieth century standards. However, they ignored one vital aspect necessary to the continuance of the lumber industry -- no thought was given to planting seedlings or even leaving seed trees. There was no law requiring any type of reforestation in those days and the philosophy was cut and get out.
By 1915, this practice exhausted most of the company's timber supply west of the Nottoway River and they gave up logging in that area. Large tracts of timber were puchased in Surry and Isle of Wight Counties. The company built a logging camp on the edge of the town of Surry called Newtown and the SS&S extended its tracks eastward to reach the timber holdings. The company built another logging town on this new rail line about two miles west of Isle of Wight Courthouse called Central Hill. Most of the equipment and employees from Upson were moved there. In the mid 1920's Central Hill had a population of about 300 people.
Dendron, headquarters of the vast operation, grew into quite a town while the Surry Lumber Company was operating. There were two banks, a movie theater, several schools, two bakeries, many churches, an automobile dealership and about 20 stores. By 1920, Dendron's population was well over 2,000 people. The lumber company supplied electricity to the town and operated an ice plant.
Like many other logging and lumber operations, the Surry Lumber Company enjoyed a period of great prosperity during and immediately after the First World War. Lumber was in great demand and the company increased production to record levels, boosting the economy of the entire area.
Unfortunately, these good times couldn't last forever. By 1925, the marketable timber on the Surry Lumber Company holdings was being depleted. While there was still some privately owned timber available to be cut, much of it was in relatively small tracts and did not justify extending the railroad to reach it. There were competitors both large and small in the area now and the company sometimes found itself outbid for tracts of timber. It was becoming clear that soon the timber supply would not be sufficient to keep the big mills at Dendron in full operation.
In the mid 1920's mill employees would sometimes report to work and find there was little or nothing to cut that day. Many employees of the lumber company and the railroad started seeking work elsewhere. On October 27, 1927, after more than 41 years of operation, the mills at Dendron closed permanently.
The closing of the mills sent shock waves through the area economy. There was a general exodus of people from Dendron, Sedley, Vicksville and Central Hill. It was a time when there was no government assistance and people needed to find some type of employment quickly in order to survive.
Even today, the decision to close the mills is recalled with some bitterness in the Dendron area. While the Surry Lumber Company probably could have converted at least part of their operation to a wood pulp operation, the owners had no desire to do so. Dendron was a classic case of a one-industry town. It would eventually lose over 80 percent of its population.
The company began scrapping the mill machinery in early 1928. Two years later, the process was complete. Company owned housing was sold to the occupants, moved to other locations or demolished. With the lumber company shut down, there was very little railroad business available. The SS&S Railway ceased operations in July 1930 and the tracks were taken up before the end of the year.
The Surry Lumber Company gradually sold most of its vast real estate holdings. Gray Lumber Company of Waverly purchased about 15,000 acres in 1941. Chesapeake Camp Corporation bought 11,000 acres in Isle of Wight County that year. Nearly 8,000 acres was sold to Surry Cooperage Company in 1942. J. L. Cuthbert bought the 2,000 acre Mussel Fork property where the mills stood.
Little remains today of the logging and lumber giant that had its headquarters in Dendron. The two-story company office building on Main Street was torn down in 1970. The large Dendron commissary, converted to a privately operated store, burned in 1989. Mussel Fork farm is still littered with brick foundations that once supported the mills. Only a few local residents are old enough to remember the thriving town and the large mill operation.
Sedley and Central Hill still exist today as quiet residential communities. Dory, Vicksville and Newtown are just place names now with little to suggest their past significance. Straw Hill and Upson, like the company that created them, have vanished.
Beale, J. Irving III. AThe Surry Lumber Company and its Railroad The Surry Sussex and Southampton. Presented to the Southampton County Historical Society, April 1996.
Crittenden, H. Temple. The Comp'ny. Parsons, West Virginia: McClain Printing Company, 1967.
Gray, Bruce Burnside. The Grays of Gray Lumber Company. Virginia Forests, Winter 1991, pp. 14-17.
Huber, G. S. Unpublished Diaries, 1920-1932.
King, Helen Haverty. Historical Notes on Isle of Wight County Virginia. Isle of Wight, Virginia: Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors, 1993.
Kitchen, Elizabeth Stephenson and Fay Bryant Savedge. The Bank of Sussex and Surry. Wakefield, Virginia: The Bank of Sussex and Surry, 1977.
Kornwolf, James D. A Guide to the Buildings of Surry and the American Revolution. Surry, Virginia: Surry County 1776 Bicentenial Committee, 1977.
Surry County Deed Books 34, 39, 43, and 45. Surry, Virginia: Surry County Circuit Court Clerk's Office.