Terrebonne's vast cypress swamps were entirely "cut over" by the 1930s, and mill towns like Donner virtually vanished. I met a few of the surviving loggers in the early 60s and learned that trees were deadened months in advance of being cut down, to be sure the logs were light enough to be floated out.
Unfortunately, I failed to interview the veteran timber men about other facets of cypress logging. This account, "Cypress Logging in Terrebonne," published in 1891, was written by a man identified only by his initials "H.C.H.," who had run a Terrebonne cypress saw mill:
“The writer has been two years in the swamps of Terrebonne, running a cypress mill, and by personal attention to every detail, from 'deadening' the timber to shipping the finished product, has had an opportunity of being posted.
“The swamps of Terrebonne are all subject to over-flow from breaks in the Mississippi, great levees of Morganza and Point Coupe being the principal; breaks in the bayou Lafourche; and excessive rainfall.
“In the overflow of 1890 trees cut down left stumps eight feet clear of the ground and from 10 to 15 feet higher than low water mark. Timber floated at this time has all been deadened by cutting a ring around through the sap, at any time two to three months previous to the time water is expected.
“Should it happen that no timber has been prepared, the choppers undercut a tree to the heart, and if the heart chips float, the tree is felled, as it will in all likelihood float. The barrel idea of floating might be made use of in getting out 'low floaters' or 'sinkers,' the method of treating these logs in the rafts being out of the question in the swamp, where logs are snaked around stumps and crooked trails, one at a time.
“Once in the canal, the logs are dogged end to end, two in the lead, and two men pole them in for eight or 10 miles, making two trips a day. This method of getting out timber is only possible in case of an overflow. At other times the method is as much more difficult as it is costly.
“We had what are termed 'pull boats,' being a boat of about 10 X 30 feet, and of light draft, containing a stationary engine and boiler and a geared windlass, the spool of which holds 2,000 feet of 7/8 wire line.
“To a block swung 2,000 feet back from the bayou, a light grass line (rope) is passed and the heavy wire line is hauled out to the farthest log to be reached. The tree is then felled, the small end pointed, and two holes bored near the end, to hold the bridle pins; to these pins the wire line is hung, and, after seeing that the boat is properly bridled from the stern to a heavy tree on the opposite side of the bayou, and clear water in front, the logs are hauled 'by the nose' through brush and mud, around trees and stumps, much after the manner of a huge alligator, until the bayou is reached, into which it is pulled, where it rolls and quivers in the clear water like a vanquished hero.”
Dragging these logs through smaller standing timber scraped and scarred the swamp floor to the extent that aerial photos taken decades later showed the radiating pull boat drag patterns.
“Logs pulled in this manner are taken as they come, dead and green, and the 'low floaters' are yoked between two 'high floaters,' and 'sinkers' done the same way. These rafts are then dragged end to end and poled out to the main bayou near the mill, where the log scale and the chopper’s name are entered on the log book.
“In 1890 we made a float in this manner for the first part, and by high water in the last part, that came out of the canal in good shape and scaled 2,300,000 feet (meaning estimated 'board feet' of lumber).
“After getting them out, the main trouble was to keep them up, as all 'low floaters' get to be 'sinkers,' and all 'sinkers' go to the bottom unless well dogged to good floaters. It took 1,200 iron chain dogs to hold the float together, and in spite of this the boom men raised over 400 'sinkers' during the year, for which we paid 25 cents each.
“I will close this by telling of the two giants we got out: One log was 51 feet long, 43 inches at top, and the other was 41 feet long, 53 inches at top.”
Even today, more than a century later, with all the old-growth virgin cypress timber gone, operations to find and raise sinkers, which have been preserved from oxidation and rot by being buried in the mud, recover prized old growth logs and convert them to lumber.