TIME IS VISIBLE AT CAMP SALMEN - Part 1
Besides the trees and wildlife, layers of time can be seen at Camp Salmen Nature Park.
The land itself reflects the geologic past. Bayou Liberty was formed when the sea level lowered a couple of million years ago, uncovered the land and let rainwater find a way to channel to the sea. Much of the topography in the area is from the huge quantities of Ice Age melt water, silt, sand and gravel carried from the far north by the Pearl River.
Also during the Ice Age, sea levels were lower and the people later mistakenly called “Indians” walked into North America from Asia. They eventually migrated to these parts and lived on the banks of the bayou and hunted in the marshes. They left shell, stone, bone and pottery pieces on the ground in piles called ’”middens” which became evidence of their thousands of years of occupation.
It is said the presence of these natives in the neighborhood was one of the reasons Joseph Laurent built his trading post here in the early 1800s. It is now called the “Salmen Lodge.” Of course, La Liberte’ was one of the first Europeans to come to this bayou nearly three quarters of a century before. Many of his fellow Frenchmen followed his example and also produced building products – lumber, charcoal, pine tar and bricks from the forest.
Laurent was a trader who used his schooner “Marguerite” to carry the settler’s products and produce to the growing city across the lake and bring back manufactured goods. He probably used the wide part of the bayou in front of his store to turn his schooner around to make it ready for another trip. He also evidently made bricks on his property and you can still view his clay pit remains. The building continued as the neighborhood store for almost a century. Hidden in the ground around it are old privy holes, the footings of out buildings, cisterns and many other artifacts that would be an archaeologist’s dream.
Over the course of the next 150 years, the community on the bayou became known as “Bonfouca” and the Frenchmen were gradually replaced with native-born Creoles. Then something new happened just a few miles to the east. A railroad from Mississippi to New Orleans was built in the 1880s and the project’s work camp became the town of Slidell. Fritz Salmen and his enterprising family carried on the traditions of Northshore forest products and put the town on the map with their highly successful building products industry. Eventually they bought this land, extracted its timber and clay, and changed it by leaving clay pits, railroad beds, brick fragments and the beginnings of a new forest. In next week’s column learn about changes to the land when the Boy Scouts and St. Tammany Parish government made an appearance.
CAMP SALMEN’S HISTORY - STILL HERE TO SEE - Part 2
Last time we learned that Salmen Lodge was Joseph Laurent’s old Indian trading post and was a part of the “ancient” Creole community of Bonfouca on Bayou Liberty. The community was nearly a century and a half old when the upstart town of Slidell showed up on the railroad tracks nearby. Since then, more history happened at Camp Salmen Nature Park and more evidence of time’s passing was left behind.
Fritz Salmen was a forward-thinking man who believed in putting his land to good use after extracting its timber and clay. He had numerous land development projects like farms, pastureland and housing. His idea of donating some of it to the Boy Scouts of America led to a considerable amount of infrastructure being emplaced over the next 60 years for the enjoyment of nearly 400,000 boys.
Remnants of the Boy Scout Era are everywhere in the park. The woods contain traces of wire, plumbing and lumber from out buildings once scattered around the encampment. Some of the trails follow the paths between them. Their first cafeteria left a pile of stove coal and the newer cafeteria left a slab that sprouted a big, brand new picnic pavilion, the centerpiece of the new parish park. The “Leaning Oak” on the parade ground was propped up with a couple of poles to hold it up for generations of climbers. The old water tower looms, rusting overhead, as its water well still functions nearby. The bayou bank has remnants of the scout’s canoe dock and their old boat slip hides in brush. The mound of dirt over the swimming pool is now a lovely picnic area and curbing under a nearby oak shows the location of the previous ‘20s era pool. Mary’s Grotto demonstrates the care taken for the scout’s spiritual development.
Bridging into the new era of St. Tammany Parish parks is the monument honoring Fritz Salmen for his generous donation to the scouts. A new flagpole represents the scout’s patriotic ideals. A brand new copy of their old amphitheater will continue to provide a place for the spirit of community.
A winding new paved Parish Parkway meanders through the woods to replace old Camp Salmen Rd. There are bricks, bricks and bricks — everywhere — mostly buried. Nearly a century of brick making took place here, in addition to brick rubble from Slidell’s brick manufacturing heritage, and demolished brick scout buildings. The place might as well be called “Camp Brick.”
For the future, the young “upstart” Slidell continues to grow out from its beginnings on the railroad track and now surrounds Camp Salmen where our Nature Park remains a valuable island of refuge and an important link to the past.