June was money month for loggers
In days gone by, the Calcasieu River was jammed from top to bottom with pine logs in the early days of June. This was the high-water month, when logs could easily be floated to nearly a dozen lumber mills that ringed Lake Charles.
It was a money month for men who cut timber and the month when mill operators stocked up on the logs they would turn to lumber, at a handsome profit.
There was plenty of timber to go around. In 1840, the huge territory in southwest Louisiana known as “Imperial Calcasieu Parish” contained one of the finest stands of longleaf pine timber in the world, part of 4,500 square miles of a forest filled with centuries-old trees that stretched north through what is now Beauregard, Allen and into Vernon Parish. and east into parts of St. Landry, Rapides and Natchitoches parishes.
Trees standing more than 100 feet tall yielded from 12,000 to 30,000 board feet of lumber per acre, and the supply seemed inexhaustible. In 1880, according to an estimate made as part of the federal census, Louisiana’s pine forests held enough timber for more than four billion board feet of saleable lumber — a huge amount of it eventually flowing through Lake Charles.
As Donald Millet put it in an extensive study of the industry printed in the journal “Louisiana History” in 1966, the town was “advantageously located on the lake from which (it) gets its name and through which the Calcasieu River flows with its many tributaries extending far into the pine belt and to the Gulf of Mexico.” The lake and the river also provided a base for a large fleet of schooners that hauled finished lumber to ports all along the Gulf coast, and so became “the first center of logging and lumber production in Louisiana.”
At first, timber was cut close enough to the banks of the streams that they could be easily hauled to the water by mules or oxen, but by the middle 1880s most of the easily accessible trees were cut and loggers began to build little railroads into the piney woods. A. J. Perkins, one of the owners of the Moore, Perkins, & Company mill, is credited with building the Calcasieu & Vernon in 1882, the first of the narrow-gauge lines built specially to haul logs. According to Millet, it started at White Bluff on Hickory Branch Creek—a Calcasieu River tributary—and eventually reached Leesville.
Millet gives a fascinating account of how a tree in the woods was turned into a valuable pine board to be sold in Galveston or Veracruz or some other Gulf port.
“First came the woodsman, whose duty it was to saw or chop the tree down” and cut it into logs about 20 feet long. Each log was dragged to the railway using a high-wheeled cart pulled by mules. About 16 logs could be loaded onto a flatbed rail car that hauled it to the water’s edge.
Pegs to hold short pieces of rope were driven into the logs before they were rolled into the river and hooked together into rafts that could be towed to the mills in Lake Charles. There, the rafts were linked together into huge “booms” of floating logs to be hauled up to the mills.
“Booms of fifty thousand or more logs were a common sight in the waters of Lake Charles,” Millet wrote.
It was a lot of work, but worth it. In 1878, the Galveston News reported that 20 million board feet of Calcasieu longleaf pine had been purchased by buyers on the island alone that year, at an average cost of $18 per thousand feet for top quality lumber and $16 for a lesser grade.
According to my calculator that amounted to about $3.5 million in sales in 1878 dollars in one year in one town. That would be about $90 million in today’s dollars, and that was just the beginning. The Southern Pacific reached Calcasieu in 1880, linking the area to the whole nation at a time when a building boom was going on.
There was a huge demand for Louisiana pine lumber, and within just a few years just one mill was turning out 85,000 board feet of lumber every day—more than 30 million board feet a year. The other mills weren’t far behind, and prices for the finished lumber were better than they had ever been.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.