The American chestnut was once one of the most important trees in our eastern hardwood forests. It ranged from Maine to Georgia, and west to the prairies of Indiana and Illinois. It grew mixed with other species, often making up 25 percent of the hardwood forest. In the virgin forests of the Appalachian Mountains, the ridges were often pure chestnut. Mature trees could be 600 years old and average 4 to 5 feet in diameter and 80 to 100 feet tall. Specimens as large as 8 to 10 feet in diameter were recorded.
The American chestnut’s annual production of highly nutritious nuts was extremely reliable. At the turn of the 20th century it was ranked as one of the most important wildlife plants in the East. Many wildlife species depended extensively on them. Bear, deer, wild turkey, squirrels, many birds and small mammals – and once, the huge flocks of passenger pigeons – all waxed fat for the winter in the chestnut forests.
Eastern rural economies depended on the nuts as well. Livestock were fattened on them, and the nuts were a major cash crop for many families in Appalachia. Railroad cars full were shipped to the big cities for the holidays, because of the high demand for this finest-flavored of all chestnuts.
The tree was also one of the best for timber. It grew straight and tall, often branch-free Reclaimed American chestnut lumber for 50 feet. Loggers tell of loading entire railroad cars with boards cut from just one tree. Straight-grained, lighter in weight than oak and more easily worked, it was as rot-resistant as redwood. It was used for virtually everything – telegraph poles, railroad ties, heavy construction, shingles, paneling, fine furniture, musical instruments, even pulp and plywood.