Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Film Documents South Louisiana's Logging Industry, ca. 1925: Responsible Stewardship or Environmental Disaster?

Earlier today I learned of a two-part, roughly thirty-minute black-and-white silent film from circa 1925 documenting the daily operations of a south Louisiana cypress company. (I later realized that, purely by coincidence, an old high-school classmate of mine put the digitized film online.)

The movie shows lumberjacks in pirogues (small flat-bottomed boats) cutting down ancient cypress trees in or around the Atchafalaya Basin; a pull boat drawing the logs onto a canal using a chain and windlass; a dredge boat armed with a steam shovel extending the logging canals into a cypress swamp; a locomotive pulling flatcars of logs to the mill; a "towboat" (actually the full-fledged steamboat Sewanee) pulling a "boom" of logs to the mill; "overhead electric cars" — presumably state-of-the-art technology at the time — carrying logs around the lumberyard; "mechanical electric stackers" piling lumber; and early gas-powered trucks pulling wagons of lumber.

The film in question was shot by L. K. Williams, a member of the Williams family of Patterson who operated the massive F. B. Williams Cypress Company, located in that same town on or near the banks of Bayou Teche. The waterway from which L. K. Williams filmed the cypress mill (seen on reel two) is quite possibly the Teche itself, but it's difficult to say because there are many man-made canals around Patterson. The scene in question just as easily could have been shot from one of those canals.

Advertisement for F. B. Williams Cypress Company, Patterson, La.
(Source: The Lumber Trade Journal, 15 Sept 1914)

Note the industry-specific terms* that appear in the film’s captions:
Boom, n. Logs or timbers fastened together end to end and used to hold floating logs. The term sometimes includes the logs enclosed, as a boom of logs. 
Crib, n. Specifically, a raft of logs; loosely applied to a boom of logs. 
Float road[, n.]. A channel cleared in a swamp and used to float cypress logs from the woods to the boom at the river or mill.
F. B. Williams Cypress Company, Patterson, La.,
as shown in the ca. 1925 film.

I cannot find a definition for a run, another term used in the captions, but it is presumably the same as that for gutter road, which is "The path followed in skidding logs" — skid meaning "To draw logs from the stump to the skidway, landing, or mill." In turn, a skidway is "Two skids laid parallel at right angles to a road, usually raised above the ground at the end nearest the road.” The same source adds, "Logs are usually piled upon a skidway as they are brought from the stump for loading upon sleds, wagons, or cars."

This film provides a valuable insight into a now dormant Teche country industry: once lumber mills dotted the lower bayou, drawing on the nearby massive cypress swamp that is the Atchafalaya Basin, as well as on other, smaller cypress swamps in the region. Whether or not this turn-of-the-twentieth-century industry represented responsible stewardship of Louisiana’s natural resources or an environmental disaster (or something in between), I leave to viewers to decide. I myself do not weigh in on the issue because I have not researched the matter, and while it would be easy to deem it an "environmental disaster" I do not know this as a matter of fact.

The steamboat Sewanee, as shown in the ca. 1925 film.
It tows a "boom" of logs behind it.

*Definitions are quoted from: Bureau of Forestry, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Terms Used in Forestry and Logging (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1905).


  1. I thought you may enjoy this old footage.


    Best Regards,
    Jeremy Dugas

  2. Thanks, Jeremy -- that footage is amazingly clear.

  3. Dear Shane, do you know who owns the copyrights for this footage? Thank you,

    1. I would think it would belong to the Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC.org) or to the Louisiana State Museum (louisianastatemuseum.org) per its satellite location in Patterson, La. My site, however, is linked to video uploaded by an old high-school friend of mine who owns Krantz Recovered Woods (www.krantzrecoveredwoods.com/).