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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Water Ways: Mid-Atlantic Maritime Communities

Atlantic White Cedar

The Story of Boat Building Material and Plenty More

Atlantic white cedar once grew in profusion in wetlands from Long Island to North Carolina. The trees grow in clumps that tend to intertwine as they reach heights of up to eighty or a hundred feet, making it difficult to cut down just one or two trees at a time. Straight grained, light, and insect resistant, Atlantic white cedar was used in many ways, including for boat and ship building. It was also used for duck decoys, barrels, buckets, furniture, channel markers, utility poles, railroad ties, the interior of freezers and washing machines, and even for organ pipes.

In the 18th and 19th century, entrepreneurs throughout the region had become so efficient at cutting down and marketing cedar wood for boat building and roofing shingles that whole forests disappeared. The wood eventually became so scarce that lumber companies in New Jersey created a brisk business in the 19th century "mining" it by dredging up fallen trees from the swamps.

Atlantic white cedar is the primary material used for making the Barnegat Bay sneakbox, a 12-foot-long boat with a spoon-shaped hull traditionally built and used by duck hunters in the Pine Barrens region of New Jersey. The boat draws so little water, it is joked that it can "follow the trail of a mule as it sweats up a dusty road." These boats need wood that is light, flexible, straight-grained and resistant to wood-eating marine animals; "swamp cedar" or "Jersey cedar" as Atlantic white cedar is called locally, was the only wood that could fit the bill.

Called "juniper" in North Carolina, Atlantic white cedar was also the primary building material for the Albemarle shad boat, now the "official state boat," and skiffs fashioned by the boat builders of Harkers Island and all around the "Down East" region of North Carolina as well.

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Photo courtesy Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.