Trail tells of Tarheel, industry origins

Published 1:43 pm Monday, March 24, 2008

By Staff
Slave-dug kilns were used to extract tar from pines
Staff Writer
Tar, that sticky substance used in everything from shoe polish to roofing, holds a unique place in North Carolina history. Thirteen mounds at Goose Creek State Park represent the origins of the ships’ stores industry in North Carolina — the source for names of rivers, university mascots and even towns.
The 1.4-mile trail was named after six tar kilns found during a surveying process while designing the trail. In the 18th and 19th centuries, producers of ships’ stores would pile pine stumps and burn them to extract the tar, pitch and turpentine used to seal wooden ships’ hulls. The mounds of pine stumps and roots were lit and recovered with dirt to smolder the wood, which releases the tree sap in the form of pine tar.
The process took about 10 days to produce between 50 and 60 gallons of tar, according to Cabral.
Six large mounds left over from the process were found while mapping out the route the trail would take through the northern section of the park, east of the park’s visitors center. The kilns, now little more than overgrown circular depressions, are difficult to see and only three are currently marked along the trail.
The mounds are surrounded by circular ditches — about 30-feet in diameter — into which the tar would flow from the smoldering pine stumps on the mound. From there it was channeled into barrels for shipping. At the time, the labor of digging the trenches would have been performed by slaves, according to Cabral.
Tar has been used to seal the hulls of ships since the Vikings took to the sea about 600 years ago, Cabral said. Prior to the Revolutionary War, North Carolina’s tar production was important for the British Empire to sustain its vast navy — made up primarily of large wooden ships.
During and after the Revolution, the tar produced in North Carolina was put to use on ships fighting for the United States. And the state’s association with tar continued to play a role in its history and at some time rendered the nickname Tarheel State. Cabral said the name probably was first used around the time of the Revolution, but at that time may have been a derogatory term referring to a native of the Carolinas.
The influence of the ship’s stores industry in the state can also be seen in the names of Tarboro and the Tar River. Today, tar is still used to make shoe polish, soap, varnish and roofing, but is made in factories rather than in earthen kilns.
The park is awaiting official signage from the state to mark and describe the kilns on the trail, which stretches between the parks third parking lot and the visitors center. Park staff is also in the process of getting the kilns established as historic sites.