Locomotive at the Southern Forest Museum in Louisiana.

Locomotive at the Southern Forest Museum in Louisiana.

Can you hear the whistle blowing? Or hear the rumble and clang of the wheels along the track? Smell the new-cut timber? See the crews moving logs through the mill making lumber for the Nation?

The Southern Forest Museum and Research Center at Long Leaf, Louisiana is a place where this scene comes alive! The museum is around a half hour away from Alexandria [Louisiana], location of the local airport. Fulfilling its mission of examining and interpreting the heritage of Louisiana’s southern forest industry, the museum is a “can’t miss” for visitors to the area.

During the period of US heavy settlement, there were over 2500 sawmills in the South! As Don Powell, Executive Director of the Louisiana research center said, “Forestry had a huge economic early impact.” In fact, between 1890 and 1920 the US population doubled, and lumber sales tripled.

track change

A volunteer doing the track change on the train ride.

The museum sawmill [below] was built in 1910, during the peak of the Louisiana lumber industry. Currently it receives no government funding to support the restoration or research, but relies on admissions and memberships. I was lucky to have Sonnie Milton, Group Tour Director, and her husband, Kent Milton, give me an in-depth tour of the inner workings of the Long Leaf sawmill.

After a thorough investigation of the museum’s interpretive center, the journey begins with a ride back in time down rusty railway tracks. Once the center of a bustling industry, abandoned pieces of metal and parts fill the treed area that has grown up. There are, according to Kent, many treasures still to be restored from their outdoor resting place.

This 4-line Clyde Skidder [below] operated in the woods on temporary railway tracks. It arrived at a logging site after the trees were cut and trimmed. The crew anchored the skidder with guy wires and a wire rope was run into the woods. Logs were grabbed by tongs and hauled into piles near the tracks. Working on the skidder was a dangerous job because of the rough conditions and the great speed of the logs. This is the only machine of its kind anywhere in the world.

4-line Clyde Skidder

4-line Clyde Skidder

Timber was brought to the mill by locomotives like the one below. It is Locomotive #400, a Baldwin 4-6-0 that was built in 1919. The 4-6-0 means it had 4 wheels [2 pair], 6 driving wheels, and no wheels under the cab. Two of the large humps on top are Sand Domes, which stored sand to be dumped on the track in slick conditions. The center hump is a Steam Dome used to store steam to blow the whistle!

The loader, shown below along with tour guide Sonnie Milton, was the first step in moving the logs into the mill. There are only 7 of these machines left in the world, with 2 of them being at Southern Forest Museum and Research Center.


This chute carried the logs into the mill.


Of course, with all of this specialized equipment, the machine shop was one of the most relied on parts of the sawmill operation. Using assorted specialized machines, machinists were able to build everything from bolts to large metal parts that broke. All of the machines in the shop, each with a special purpose, were run by one central engine and a series of belts. At the mill’s peak operation, 5 or 6 employees worked in this area. Below, you can see guide, Kent Milton, explaining how everything functioned.


Inside the mill, numerous laborers worked setting the widths of machines that cut the boards into specified sizes. Belts and conveyors fed the lumber in one end, while a finished product emerged at the opposite end to be bundled for shipping. I could only imagine the heat, noise and dust that employees would have endured on their shifts!

On Valentine’s Day in 1969, Mill employees left for home after a shift just like any other. However, they never returned to their duties again, as the Mill was locked up, never to re-open. Inside the Museum warehouse area there is still the smell of new wood from piles of lumber stacked, waiting to be shipped.

For more information on visiting Southern Forest Heritage Museum and Research Center, visit http://www.forestheritagemuseum.org/.

Previously published in SnowRider Online Magazine in October 2002. Linda Aksomitis copyright 2012.

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