The Lumber Industry in Louisiana

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The development of the lumber industry in Louisiana began in the period following the Civil War. There was a great demand for lumber to rebuild the war-torn areas of the South as well as to supply the industrial revolution taking place in the North.

Early sawmills relied on independent loggers for their supply of logs, but beginning in the 1880s there was a gradual shift to mill-owned timber lands. It was at this time that northern lumbermen began to eye with interest the vast possibilities of the Louisiana forest. Large scale operations could effectively be met by purchasing timberland on a massive scale, and by the 1890s many mills in Louisiana were owned and operated by large firms.

The Golden Age of lumbering in Louisiana was from 1900 to 1920, and in 1914 Louisiana led the nation in lumber production. Longleaf yellow pine was abundant throughout the state. The chief demand for lumber was for construction, telegraph poles, railroad ties, and furniture manufacturing. Ship building was also undergoing revolutionary changes. One advance, the fireproofing of wooden decks, created a unique relationship between southwest Louisiana and the United States Navy. Navy purchasing agents, searching the nation for a timber that would readily absorb fire retardant chemicals, discovered that Louisiana longleaf yellow pine served this purpose well. The pitch from these trees also performed well as a waterproof sealant. This led to a branch of the industry known as the “Naval Store.”

In addition to pine, Louisiana sawmills also cut oak, ash, gum, and cypress as well as many other woods. The milling of cypress had significant economic importance to the southeastern region of the state. Cypress was used principally for the manufacture of shingles and cisterns. The logging of cypress was done in the fall and early winter months before the annual spring rains. With the coming of the spring floods the logs were floated out of the swamp through creeks or specially-dug canals to the mill site.

Lumbering, from the cutting of the tree to the stacking of the lumber, was a difficult process. Most of the sawmills in Louisiana had two centers of activity: the forest camp, where trees were cut and trimmed; and the mill site, where the logs were converted into lumber. A common method of handling the logs was by means of a lumber railroad, also known as a dummy line or a tram road. This usually consisted of a “permanent” railroad track and spur lines extending into the forest, but sometimes temporary sections of track would be laid and moved as the timber was cut. Fanning out from the spurs were skidding roads, over which huge high-wheeled carts drawn by mules or oxen would drag logs to the tracks. Once the logs reached the mill, they were usually dumped into a mill pond. They were then guided to a log slip, where a chain or cable pulled them to the saw carriage. Gang and circular saws greatly reduced production costs, and in 1889 the band saw was used for the first time.

In 1913, all forest lands were subject to a general property tax. This tax was assessed on land and timber, resulting in an acceleration of timber cutting. These tax laws did not make it practical for landowners to reforest, and it was not until 1944 that this tax burden was alleviated. Some reforestation did occur prior to this time, but much of the credit must be given to Henry Hardtner of the Urania Lumber Company for its pioneer reforestation and conservation activities. Without his efforts and efforts by many other persons, Louisiana forests might not be as developed as they are today.

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