Blogger’s Note: The historic record on virgin-growth Cypress in the south is extensive, but not much is mentioned about the contribution of the Louisiana ‘swamper.’ This is the story of the original axe men, and their self-taught logging practices that allowed survival in the harsh reality of 1700s frontier life. Leaving their families for months at a time to explore the dense bayou forests of Louisiana in two-man teams, taking down hard-won trees to float out of the swamps in huge 500-log rafts en route to lumber mills along the Mississippi River.
“In times when the swampers were rushing to beat the river rise, they would stand up in boats to cut the trees. A pirogue of flat-boat was the vessel of choice. Often the axe men would carry two axes each; one to chop with and one to place on the tree stump for a footing. The axe men would stand with one leg in the boat and brace his other foot on the axe in the tree, and just as the tree began to fall, the axe men would push out of the way with one foot. The logs were tied into small trains and either push-poled out or towed (By wading) out of the woods using ‘creeks’ or ‘runs’ to the nearest waterway. The ‘creeks’ were lanes through the swamp cleared of trees or natural outlets when they were available. When swampers came across the occasional ‘sinker’ that would not float despite having been girdled, they tied it off or ‘dogged’ it to a raft of more buoyant logs.
If a natural outlet gave access to the river system it was used, but this was not always the case. The ultimate destination of the rafts was often one of the many mills located along the Mississippi river. As cotton and sugarcane cultivation became more and more profitable, plantation owners began the levee system. In the 1850s it was common to read complaints and reports of a breach in the levee one of the many logging crews like Wheless’ had made to get their timber out tothe river. When the logs had been moved out to the major waterways they were bound together in rafts.
(Below) B&W photo, circa 1900. “Rafts of cypress, or pine, sometimes half a mile in length, are tied together (missing) towed by a tug or steamboat. The men in the foreground are on guard to prevent the logs from jamming.”
The cypress industry relied on these methods until the late 19th century. The girdle-pole-float method was inconsistent due to the unpredictable river. Timber might be felled one year but not brought to the mill because of successive low water years. Prior to 1858, tens of thousands of logs were ready to be floated but immovable because of the low rises in the river. In 1858 the river flooded and the waiting timbers were dumped on a saturated market. The lack of a consistent means of moving the cypress out of the swamp kept the immense cypress brakes still largely intact up to the late 1880s. The steam-powered engine would eventually provide an affordable means of moving the cypress logs and see the exhaustion of the virgin cypress stands.” Photos courtesy of the State Library of Louisiana.