Out of Camp Salmen’s total of 130 acres it is estimated some twenty are old clay pits left from when Fritz Salmen mined clay here between 1901-24 for his brick factory by the tracks in Old Town Slidell. He acquired this and many other parcels of land in the greater Slidell area with an eye toward harvesting their stands of virgin Longleaf Pine for lumber and the clay from underneath for bricks. As Fritz always wished to see his land remain productive, he gave it to the Boy Scouts afterward for their summer camp.
The depressions left by these mining operations afford variety to the topography, ecology and hydrology in today’s nature park. Since 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 the park’s 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 with melt-water and heaps of sediments toward the southern sea. This likely caused the mighty Pearl River and Bayou Liberty to be interconnected leaving huge sandy ridges on their banks, like the park’s Camp Ridge. The finer clays settled in the still waters behind these ridges, where the clay pits are located.
The early French colonial settlers on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain who founded old Bonfouca on Bayou Liberty took advantage of these clay deposits by making bricks for local use and export to the growing south shore capitol city. Numerous building footings, chimneys, hearths, floors, patios, walks, walls and steps in today’s French Quarter were possibly made of Bayou Liberty brick.
Brick making was a “cottage industry” for generations of bayou residents until Fritz Salmen came to town. Through 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 local 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 steam shovel. In these steam-driven times railroads went pretty much everywhere and temporary tracks were laid for the heavy equipment that was needed. Indeed, rail bed scars remain in the park where the ground was leveled and ditched for tracks to the clay pits.
Logging first removed the trees by train then Fritz probably had skilled prospectors “read” the lay of the land to find the most likely spots for the clay accumulations. Core sampling probably got a more precise fix on them.
The steam shovels of Fritz’s time looked like a wooden caboose with a smoke stack that housed the engine and machinery. The scoop dumped the clay into special rail cars that took their precious load to Fritz’s factory. A modern term for this is strip mining, where an overburden is first removed, in this case dirt and organic debris that had accumulated above the clay deposit, and 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 inside and outside of the city and up and down the Great Pearl River Valley.