Castor recalls past when rails came to town

By Mary K. Hamner
Special to The Journal

Castor, located in the southwest corner of Bienville Parish, Louisiana, a little over 20 miles south of Minden, is littered with the wreckage of the past. The wreckage is most often not seen and few remember the wrecks, the fights, the logging camps, and even the L&A Railroad. The L&A, which was sold to Harvey Crouch in 1928, eventually became the KCS and its Castor line was closed down in 1985. The advent of the train created quite a stir in 1900.

William Buchanan built the Louisiana & Arkansas railroad as a means of hauling logs to his sawmill located in Stamps, Arkansas. Buchanan, who headed up the Bodcaw Lumber Company, had sent land-buying agents to buy up timber producing acreage preparatory to building his railroad. Timber resources in the left leaning V between the Red River on the Northwest and the Quachita and Black Rivers on the Northeast looked inexhaustible. Sawmills, logging camps, and small towns along the new line sprung up like toadstools after a summer rain. As early as 1908 narrow gauge tramways, furnishing a means of transporting logs to the mills, extended like spider webs throughout the lush pine timber surrounding the town of Castor.

William Henry Stovall was employed in early 1900 with the Gravel Logging Camp of Winnfield. His family moved with the company to Castor several years later. Gravel transported their equipment and the families employed by them by train. The company located between Lucky and Castor and built train tracks, known as the Old Railroad Logging Tram. (Stovall Family History from Bienville Parish History, Billie Gene Poland).

The Gravel Logging Company later became Grace Logging Company and was directed by R. F. Chandler, president. Land records indicate that Chandler purchased 139 acres stretching along the edge of Ridge Road in 1921 and he continued to operate the company located there as Chandler's Camp.

The business had a Commissary, railroad tracks for the locomotives, and houses for the people who worked for the company. The Commissary was a supply source for logging teams and their families furnishing grocery items, clothing, tobacco, tools and household supplies. Cars used to haul the logs were washed in a water hole dammed up alongside Castor Creek. Housing was primitive, small, and arranged in rows like many other early sawmill towns. Chandler also built a large home for his family. (The Chandler house, one of the older Castor structures, still exists but under new ownership.)

If the mind is geared for searching them out, earthworks of the logging tramways can be visited. The size and permanence of the mounds, built by mule teams and slips, indicate a better-built railroad than some others of that period. Early records indicate that logging companies and sawmill owners often built their own tracks in order to access the main line. Railroad spikes and couplings are still found along old tramway locations.

Logging teams worked both sides of the tram, and were made up of tree fellers, saw filers, and muleskinners. The tree fellers, or "flatheads" cut trees with two-handled crosscut saws. Saw filers kept the saws sharp and clean. Tough old trees could take the bite out of a saw's teeth within a couple of hours. Mule skinners and bull whackers handled the teams of mules or oxen.

"Oxen worked better in the mud. Getting the logs onto the rail cars was accomplished by taking the team off its wagon and using them to pull the logs up a skid pole by using a chain attached to the log on the opposite side." (Henry Koonce (1900-1976).

Log trains traveled back and forth to the mills several times a day. Logs were stockpiled in the millpond to soak until needed. "Those old steam engines could pull up to thirty five cars from those lines. I will always remember one of those engines colliding with another. He was going up a hill, pulling a string of cars, and suddenly there was another engine coming up the other side. He couldn't stop! The engines collided. One man was scalded by the steam and died before he could get to Shreveport" (Bill Williams interview 1999) Claude Chandler was the engineer driving on that fateful day. Chandler died instantly when the engine turned over and pinned him underneath. The fireman also died when the steam scalded him. (Bienville Democrat 10/4/23)

The tall virgin pines disappeared as did the commissaries, logging camps, tramways, and local trains. The timber-logging boom was more or less over by 1920. Once beautiful woods were left with pitiful, naked stumps. Finally, economic conditions of the times caused R. F. Chandler to look elsewhere for a means of supporting himself and his family.

Chandler purchased a fishing camp on Black Lake (1930?) which prospered. Houses from his Logging Camp on Castor's Ridge Road were relocated to his fishing camp for lodging for his customers. He was in business there until he sold the fishing camp in 1950. (Letter Jackie Bogan Ford).

Mule teams pulling log wagons, Chandler's Camp, Bienville Parish. Pictured are Marion Myers, and Lee Goss, mule skinners. Photo courtesy of T.S. and Mary D. Myers.

Steam locomotive for log train at Sherman Gravel Camp, later Chandler's Camp, near Castor Creek east of Castor on Ridge Road. On front of engine, left, Legree Jackson, Jack Daniel, Pete Burr. Others unknown. Photo courtesy of T.S. and Mary Daniel Myers.

Crosscut sawyers pictured with huge felled log, Chandler's Camp, Bienville Parish, Louisiana. Left to right, Edgar Myers, Charlie Rogers.

Logging camp home in the early 20th century is pictured, located at Chandler's Camp, Bienville parish near Castor. From left, Mrs. Callie Myers, Mrs. Lou Myers, and Oma Myers.