Of Camp Salmen’s total of 130 acres, it is estimated some 20 acres are old clay pits left from when Fritz Salmen mined clay here in 1901- 1924 for his brick factory by the tracks in Olde Towne Slidell. He had acquired this, and many other parcels of land in the greater Slidell area with an eye toward harvesting their stands of virgin Longleaf Pine and the clay from underneath.
The depressions left by these mining operations afford variety to the topography and hydrology in today’s nature park and affect its plant life. As these areas hold water for part of the year, the presence of certain trees and plants are favored or diminished and certain ecologic zones like our Gum Swamp are maintained.
The clay deposits likely came from North America’s post-glacial period when rivers across the Southland flowed in greater volume, were more interconnected, and carried heaps of sediments from up north toward the southern sea. This likely caused the mighty Pearl River and Bayou Liberty to have not only sandy ridges deposited along their banks, like the park’s Camp Ridge, but also finer clays that settled in the still waters that ponded behind these ridges, where the old clay pits are found today.
The earliest French settlers on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain who founded old Bonfouca on Bayou Liberty had taken advantage of the extensive clay deposits found on either side of the bayou to make bricks for local use and export to the growing capitol city on the south shore. Numerous building footings, chimneys, hearths, floors, patios, walks, walls and steps in today’s French Quarter were no doubt made of Bonfouca brick.
Brick making was merely a cottage industry for generations of residents up and down the bayou until Fritz Salmen came to town. Through his hard work, determination, genius and good timing, he created a modern brick-manufacturing juggernaut by the track, literally putting Slidell on the map and providing thousands of jobs and millions of bricks for the region.
Fritz’s principal tools for mining or, in the parlance of brick making, “winning” the clay, were the railroad track and the dragline. In these steam-driven times railroads went pretty much everywhere and temporary tracks were laid wherever heavy equipment was needed. Indeed, rail bed scars remain in the park where the ground was leveled and drained with ditches for railways to the pits. First the trains were used to remove the trees after logging then the draglines were bought in.
Fritz probably employed skilled prospectors who knew the lay of the land and the most likely spots to find these clay accumulations and probably used core sampling to get a more precise fix on their location.
The draglines of Fritz’s time looked like wooden cabooses with a smoke stack and housed the steam engine and machinery. A long crane stuck out toward the work and a large, horizontal bucket with teeth swung from a cable at the end. The bucket was dropped to the ground and drug toward the cab, filling with dirt then lifted and dumped either to the side or into rail cars waiting to take their precious load to Fritz’s factory. A modern term for this is strip mining, where an overburden is removed, in this case dirt and organic debris that had accumulated since the clay deposit was made, then the clay deposit itself was scraped out of the pit.
These procedures were duplicated numerous times in and around Slidell, and the pits from this era can be found today here and there in and outside of the city and up and down the Great Pearl River Valley.