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January 29, 2020

GIANT FIR: A lumberjack lies in the cut of a giant fir while his co-workers pose for a photo in 1902. (Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.)


One thing the lower Mississippi Valley had plenty of at the beginning of the 18th century was cypress forests. This region was likewise richly blessed.
Cypress was used to build forts, shelters, homes and warehouses.
Early French explorers had first learned the value of cypress wood decades earlier.
The first logging operation in the Concordia Parish was conducted in the 1768 when the Spanish built a fort three miles below Vidalia at the town's present day port site. While the British occurred Fort Panmure at Natchez, the Spanish were attempting to settle Acadians in the vicinity of its Mississippi River fort south of Vidalia. The entire community, including military personnel, amounted to about 200 people.
Lt. Pedro Piernas, the Spanish commander, said he discovered "behind the fort on the other side of the small bayou, a cypress forest which ... abounds in good cypress." He used two pairs of oxen to "facilitate the transportation of wood," noting that "by using one on each bank of said bayou, the fort could be built and completely enclosed with a cypress stockade."
The special features of the cypress are many.
Historian John Hebron Moore, in a 1983 article in "Louisiana History,” wrote that although the French were not familiar “with the merits of cypress as a building material when they arrived in Louisiana, they quietly discovered that it was a valuable wood. During 1709, tests were conducted on Dauphin Island (Mobile, Alabama) in which ten different varieties of timber were immersed in sea water for several months. Upon completion of the experiment each of the specimens except one was found to be riddled with worms, and this single exception was cypress.
"Subsequent experience revealed also that this species of wood was resistance to rot as well as to insects, and its durability was a most important characteristic in a region where wooden buildings soon fell into disrepair. Carpenters learned to appreciate cypress lumber because it was 'easy to saw and to work, being very tender' ... Furthermore, cypress was readily and cleanly rived (split) into shingles; yet, it did not tend to split along the grain or to warp even when used while still green."
Despite a two-year effort, the Spanish attempt to build a community below Vidalia almost two and one-half centuries ago didn't work. The Acadians weren't happy there. They wanted to be farther down river where other Acadian settlements were thriving between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
As early as the 1790s -- after the British lost possession of the region during the Revolutionary War -- Spanish Gov. Manuel Gayoso at Natchez expressed concern about Concordia's cypress trees, which grew in the swamps of virgin forests and seemed to touch the sky.
Historian Jack D.L. Holmes wrote that Gayoso never considered it "a general privilege to cut cypress there, but that it had been granted to special individuals on application for a limited time. The making of posts to fence in lots and the use of cypress to make fascines for military defenses at the (Natchez) fort were considered legitimate purposes, but the wholesale cutting of cypress on the west bank was considered an ecological threat, and therefore, Gayoso banned the practice."
A half-century later, Dr. Andrew R. Kilpatrick, who farmed along the Black River in Concordia at Lismore, wrote about the importance of the cypress tree, which by then had been heavily harvested. In an article in "DeBow's Review" in 1851, Kilpatrick wrote that the cypress tree "furnishes timber for nearly all the uses and purposes of the house and plantation. The tree grows in every lake and pond here, and some of the trees are very large. The base usually has a bulge or enlargement, reaching up from eight or 10 feet, above which they are usually cut when felled. A facetious gentleman has observed that if southern planters were deprived of the cypress tree, the Bermuda grass and pickled pork, they could not subsist."
Kilpatrick said the cypress trees "are mostly of the yellow color, and called Red cypress. The trees frequently are six, seven and eight feet in diameter near the ground, but nearly all the large ones are hollow from six to 20 feet, and many are hollow throughout."
The trees towered from 60 to 90 feet, Kilpatrick said, and bloomed in February. He said the cypress "heart-wood will last in any exposure for 10, 20 or more years."
He added: "Many raftsmen and wood-choppers lived in the waters of the parish, and cut thousands of trees out of the numerous bayous, lakes and sloughs, which were floated to New Orleans or other points," he wrote. "In 1828, during the ever-memorable high-water, hundreds of trees were cut two and three miles back from Black River, and floated out, the tall stumps of which are now to be seen in the different cypress brakes."
A neighbor of Kilpatrick's in the 1850s reported that in 1839 he "found an immense cypress log" on a high ridge "where it was floated, but probably owing to its size, or the falling of the water, the hardy raftsman was compelled to leave it."
Obviously, Gayoso's ecological concerns during the late 18th century were legitimate and point to his great vision on many issues. The harvest of Concordia's forests through the 19th and 20th centuries coupled with the destruction of the hardwood forests and cypress swamps throughout the South, resulted in the extinction of the beautiful Ivory-billed woodpecker, which Kilpatrick heard on many occasions singing in the parish's deep woods and tapping at lightning speed on the giant cypress trees.

MOVING TIMBER: Horses pull a sled of timber in Minnesota in 1937. (Credit: Russell Lee, photographer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.)