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Carrier Lumber & Manufacturing Company log train

Carrier Lumber & Manufacturing Company log train on the company-owned Sardis & Delta Railroad near Sardis, Mississippi. The Heisler locomotive was one of the three major types of geared locomotives used widely in the Mississippi woods. The high firebox made the Heisler a favorite of Mississippi Delta hardwood loggers because it could wade through frequent flood waters that covered the tracks. Photo from Dr. Gilbert H. Hoffman. Courtesy, Collection of Tony Howe-Gilbert Hoffman-David Price.

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Eastman, Gardiner & Company crew and log loader

Eastman, Gardiner & Company crew and log loader in the woods northwest of Laurel, Mississippi, in the 1890s. The Barnhart loader was a popular type and operated on rails on top of skeleton log cars, moving from car to car as the loading progressed. Photo from the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, Laurel, Mississippi.

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Gilchrist-Fordney Company sawmill

Gilchrist-Fordney Company was one of the “Big Four” sawmill companies that made Laurel, Mississippi, the major city in yellow pine production. Laurel sawmills had the highest daily output of any location in Mississippi during the era of the big mills. Photo from the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, Laurel, Mississippi.

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J. J. Newman's Clyde four-line skidder

J. J. Newman’s Clyde four-line skidder at work in Jefferson Davis County. J. J. Newman had huge sawmills at Hattiesburg and Sumrall. Sumrall was founded as a sawmill town for J. J. Newman. The Clyde skidder could gather fallen timber from as far as 1,000 feet from either side of the rail logging spur. Logs were stacked next to the spur and later loaded on log trains. Photo from S. E. Moreton, Jr. Courtesy, Collection of Tony Howe-Gilbert Hoffman-David Price.

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Kingston Lumber Company log camp

Kingston Lumber Company was the predecessor of Gilchrist-Fordney Company, which took over the operation in 1906 about the time this rare photo was made. The log camp consisted of portable buildings, or shacks, which could be moved from place to place. Photo from the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, Laurel, Mississippi.

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Lumber boom on the East Pascagoula River circa 1900

Moss Point, Mississippi, lumber boom on the East Pascagoula River circa 1900. Note the log rafts in the background. Photo from the Jackson County Archives. Courtesy, Collection of Tony Howe-Gilbert Hoffman-David Price.

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Mason Lumber Company's crew and Climax locomotive

Mason Lumber Company’s crew and Climax locomotive at Gandsi, Mississippi. Gandsi was a name coined from the initials of the Gulf & Ship Island (G&SI) Railroad. It was located north of present-day Seminary, Mississippi. The Climax was the least popular of the three major types of geared locomotives used by Mississippi loggers. Geared locomotives were slow but highly flexible on the rough track of temporary logging spurs. This extremely rare photo is from Mrs. John Redmon. Courtesy, Collection of Tony Howe-Gilbert Hoffman-David Price.

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Shay locomotives

The Tatum Lumber Company of Bonhomie, Mississippi, (near Hattiesburg) used Shay locomotives in its wood logging operations. The Shay was the most popular of the three major types of geared locomotives used in Mississippi woods. Its features made for easy maintenance, great flexibility on rough track, and, of course, very slow speed. The Shay’s top speed was about 12 to 15 miles per hour. This 1930s photograph by William H. B. Jones. Courtesy, Collection of Tony Howe-Gilbert Hoffman-David Price.

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Feature Story

Growth of the Lumber Industry, (1840 to 1930)

Mississippi’s abundant virgin forest had long been a natural resource for American Indians. And to the early 19th-century settlers from Europe and America’s east coast, the softwoods and hardwoods provided material for building homes, furniture, farm implements, and tools. Even so, settlers considered the millions of acres of forests as little more than obstacles to be removed in order to start developing farms.

The few people who lived in South Mississippi’s pineland before 1840, for example, made their living by hunting and trapping, and later by raising cattle and hogs. By the 1840s, a few small mills for sawing logs had been built along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The sawmills were located near the mouths of major rivers and streams at locations such as Pearlington and Logtown along the Pearl River, Moss Point on the Escatawpa and Pascagoula rivers, and Handsboro on the banks of Bayou Bernard near present-day Gulfport.

River rafting

These early mills depended on water transportation to ship logs to the mills. Loggers cut trees along the banks of streams. They then tied the logs together to form rafts that were then floated downstream to sawmills at the mouths of coastal rivers.

Then several important developments in the late 1800s made possible the growth of the lumber industry in the state. By the 1850s, Mississippi sawmills began to replace less efficient reciprocal saws, which cut up and down, with the circular saw. Dry kilns, developed in the 1870s and 1880s, made it possible for mills to process long-leaf yellow pine for ever-expanding markets. In addition, the increased use of the crosscut saw replaced the more labor-intensive method of cutting trees by ax. Furthermore, with the exhaustion of timber supplies in the North and East, experienced loggers moved to Mississippi to build sawmills. Many local people became operators of large sawmills, some producing as much as 300,000 board feet of lumber per day. All of these factors led to the building of larger sawmills that produced lumber at phenomenal rates.

Timber industry thrives

But it was the building of railroads in Mississippi in the last quarter of the 19th-century that had the greatest impact on the timber industry. Railroads made it possible to build the large sawmills that dominated the industry by the early 1900s. The significance of railroads to loggers can be seen in the following statistics: In 1880, 295 sawmills had a total investment of less than one million dollars. Nearly twenty years later, in 1899, a capital investment of $10 million in 608 mills produced more than one billion board feet of lumber (a board foot is the equivalent of a board one foot by one foot by one inch).

The thriving timber industry during the 1904 to 1915 period ranked Mississippi in third place of lumber-producing states in the United States, behind Washington and Louisiana. In 1910, capital investment reached more than $39 million and the value of production climbed to nearly $43 million. Much of the total production was long-leaf yellow pine from the southern half of the state. In addition, many hardwood mills operated in the Delta region, and the east-central area of the state produced short-leaf pine.

Railroads expand industry

Sawmills depended on the railroads to ship finished lumber to growing markets in the north. Also, ports like Gulfport sprang up expanding the export lumber trade with foreign countries. Several railroads, such as the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, the Mobile, Jackson and Kansas City Railroad, and the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad, were built across South Mississippi.

Not only did railroads provide an outlet for finished products, they also opened up great areas of previously inaccessible timberland to lumber companies. As timber near the navigable streams was rapidly depleted, railroads provided mills a way to bring in logs that were far from rivers and streams.

Thus, many mills built their own rail lines into their timberlands. These rail lines, often called dummy lines, varied in length from mile-long railroads built with wooden rails to extensive railroads with steel rails that reached thirty or more miles into the virgin forests. By 1905, most sawmills cutting more than 25,000 board feet per day owned their own railroads.

Many towns and cities in Mississippi owe their existence to the railroads and sawmills built during the lumber boom. Typically, after a railroad was built, land buyers purchased timberland in the area and built sawmills. Towns quickly grew up around the sawmills. Many towns seemed to appear magically out of nowhere. Some of the towns became cities that still exist today — Hattiesburg, Laurel, Picayune, and Wiggins. Other towns — Inda, Howison, Hillsdale, Orvisburg, Deemer, and Electric Mills — quickly died after the mills closed.

Labor-saving equipment introduced soon after the turn of the century joined with railroads to spur growth. By 1905, the ancient caralog, a heavy ox-driven two-wheeled wagon, was replaced by the Lindsey Eight-Wheel Wagon invented by the Lindsey brothers of Laurel, Mississippi. In turn the skidder and steam log loader replaced the eight-wheel wagon. Skidders were huge winches with long cables. These cables were attached to logs, and the winches dragged them to the railhead. Such mechanizations cut logging costs and allowed for year-round operations.

Virgin forests depleted

However, skidder logging, though efficient and economical, brought complete destruction to timber too young for market. The skidders dragged large trees over smaller trees, crushing them and destroying new growth. As a result, thousands of acres were flattened each year. In the Delta and other sections of the state with good soils, removal of timber promoted profitable farming. But the great bulk of cutover lands was unsuitable for farming. Few people in the industry had an interest in planting a second forest on the devastated land, and the effort from 1909 to 1915 to make the pinelands into farms was a total failure.

New processes bring planting
of second forest

Then, in 1911 a plant at Moss Point, Mississippi, was built to produce paper from the waste products of the L. N. Dantzler sawmills. William H. Mason at Laurel, Mississippi, developed a process for manufacturing a building material called “Masonite”from young second-growth timber. These processes convinced land owners that quick returns could be had from young trees. So, they planted a second forest.

Sawmills brought the local population ample opportunities for employment during the first three decades of the 20th-century. People who had grown up on farms preferred jobs in the lumber industry and became loggers or sawmill workers.

George Teunnison, who worked in sawmills in South Mississippi before going to work for several railroads around 1900, said, “From about 1897 until 1919, an engineer could start out riding a local freight from Hattiesburg and he could just about always find a job on a log road long before he reached Lyman. It was the same way up toward Jackson.”

By the 1930s, most sawmills in Mississippi had been forced to close. Encouraged by local tax laws, sawmill operators tried to cut as much timber in as short a period of time as possible. Many small mills had cut all the timber available to them within a few years, while larger mills lasted more than forty years. Dwindling timber supplies, coupled with the effects of the Great Depression, forced most mills to shut down. Some companies, such as Gilchrist-Fordney Co. and the Finkbine Lumber Company, moved their operations to the West Coast. For the most part, the timber boom from virgin forests that started in the 1890s was over by the 1930s.

Tony Howe is president of the Mississippi Great Southern Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. For additional information, e-mail Tony Howe.

Posted May 2001

Further reading:

Nollie W. Hickman, Mississippi Harvest: Lumbering in the Longleaf Pine Belt, 1840-1915, The University of Mississippi, University, 1962.

Nollie W. Hickman, “Mississippi Forests,” A History of Mississippi, Volume Two, pp. 212-232, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1973.

Gilbert H. Hoffman, Dummy Lines Through the Longleaf: A History of the Sawmills and Logging Railroads of Southwest Mississippi, Quentin Press, Brookhaven, 1999.

Gilbert H. Hoffman, Steam Whistles in the Piney Woods, Longleaf Press, Hattiesburg, 1998.

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