The astute traveler taking the Ruddock exit off Interstate-55 might notice there is no Ruddock. All that seems to be there is the Manchac Greenway going off in either direction and the empty cypress swamp dead ahead. The reason for the absence of this place is that Ruddock is only a ghost of history and virtually all that’s left of this once thriving town is the name.
Farmers of French and German descent first settled the fertile southwestern shore of Lake Pontchartrain in the 1840s near a place called Frenier. Then the Jackson & Great Northern Railroad was built through here in the 1850s. Since locomotive technology at the time required frequent watering stops, wells and water tanks were installed at appropriate intervals on the line and wherever the train stopped for water, settlement and commerce could happen and the farmers were able to send their produce to market. Thus, these whistle-stops became the nuclei of hamlets up and down the isthmus with names like Frenier, Wagram, Strader, Jena, Owl Bayou, Sharkey, Akers, Galva and the area’s largest settlement, the lumber mill town of Ruddock. Only Frenier, Galva and Akers remain today.
The town was named for the Ruddock Cypress Lumber Company and that got its name from Chicago lumberman C.H. Ruddock. He and his partner, Kentuckian William Burton, acquired a sizable portion of the land on the Isthmus of Manchac to harvest its virgin cypress forest.
At the height of its prosperity Ruddock was an 1890s boomtown built on stilts above the black waters of the swamp and joined together with wooden sidewalks that ran the length of the village and branched out to houses on either side. At one time, some 1,200 people lived and worked here.
As a purpose-built company town, Ruddock had a community center, blacksmith, locomotive repair shops, an office, a commissary, a one-room schoolhouse, the Holy Cross Catholic Church and a railroad depot with a two-story rooming house attached. The Owl Saloon providing men’s entertainment was at a discrete distance a half-mile south of the town. Of course, the large millworks with its many buildings, smoke stacks, roadways, water tower, tracks, ponds and yards, which were stacked with logs, wood scrap and finished lumber, took up the majority of this clearing in the woods. Most of the structures, particularly those located trackside, are said to have been painted “railroad grey.”
The sawmill burned down in 1902 but there were still plenty of trees to cut down and lots more money to be made so it was quickly rebuilt. The nearby Ruddock Canal was also dug to Lake Maurepas so cypress cut from the swamps surrounding the lake could be floated to the mill.
The mill and village continued to thrive and was well on its way to eliminating the surrounding primeval cypress forest when the West Indian Hurricane of 1915 arrived on September 29. It destroyed the town and killed 58 of its citizens plus another 150 or so in the area. The town was partially rebuilt and staggered along until it closed for good in the 1920s. Now all that remains are a few concrete footings, assorted detritus and scraps of lumber rotting away in the recovering swamp.
Many artifacts collected from this site can be viewed at the Louisiana Treasures Museum & Educational Center at 10290 Hwy. 22 in Springfield, west of Ponchatoula, LA.
For a sense of what Ruddock was like, read about the fictional mill town of Nimbus in “The Clearing” by local author Tim Gautreau. His research on the machinery and infrastructure of Ruddock and similar towns of this industry’s era inspired this setting.
The sawmill building at Ruddock.
Image courtesy Southeastern Louisiana University’s Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies