By John Paul Lilly
Associate Professor Emeritus, Dept Soil Science
North Carolina State University
Large-scale logging came to Washington County after the Civil War. The entire state had been impoverished by the War, and all avenues for producing income were explored. One virtually untapped resource was the extensive swamp forests of the tidewater region. Up until that time landowners had bypassed much of the swampland as too difficult to subdue. The advent of logging by rail changed the way the swamps were logged and opened the way for their exploitation. There was a large national demand for wood products and a number of entrepreneurs moved to take advantage of it. The Roper Lumber Company established a large sawmill at Lee's Creek (now Roper) in about 1885 and built a railroad south to log the swamps of Washington and Beaufort Counties (American Lumberman, 1907; Hanlon, 1970). Smaller scale logging had been going on for sometime. The Albemarle Land and Timber Company had obtained rights on 120,000 acres of land from the Josiah Collins estate in 1840, and had operated out of Pantego until stopped by the Civil War. The Roper Company came to dominate the region and at one time owned much of the swampland in Washington County. The mill at Roper was known for its Atlantic White Cedar lath, shingles, and other cedar products. The mill also cut pine, cypress, and swamp hardwoods.

The history of forestry in Washington County reflects in miniature the history of forestry in much of the South (Lilly, 1994). Forestry is still an important part of the Washington County economy. North Carolina Pulp Company came to the area in 1937, as part of a national movement of paper companies to the south. The owner of the mill, Kieckhefer-Eddy, merged with the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company in 1957. The mill is located in Martin County, but immediately adjacent to Plymouth. Weyerhaeuser is the largest private landowner in Washington County, and the paper mill complex has remained a dominant part of the Plymouth economy.

For many years, True Temper operated a "handle" factory in Plymouth, and Georgia-Pacific operated a large sawmill. Williams Lumber Company still operates a sawmill in Mackeys and a Japanese lumber company (Yamato) has a cypress and Atlantic White Cedar sawmill in Roper. Two companies in Plymouth manufacture logging mats and other timber products. The history Washington County cannot be told without telling the history of forestry as it has progressed from exploitation to sustainability.