Isolated by the Atchafalaya swamp on the east, the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and the great virgin pine and cypress forests to the north, Lake Charles emerged as a settlement largely cut off from the mainstream mind of the South. From the city's very beginning, no one ethnic group, race, religion or politics dominated the culture. Oral tradition holds that Jean Lafitte frequented Contraband Bayou and the lake, a story best substantiated by a black man of Moorish descent who met Lake Charles' early settlers.
The first white settlers were Martin LeBleu and his wife Dela Marion. Leaving Bordeaux, France in 1775, they arrived before the beginning of the nineteenth century. Soon to follow was Charles Sallier, a native of Spain and the first white man to build a house within what are now the city limits of Lake Charles. He married Catherine LeBleu in 1802, and they had the first white child born in Southwest Louisiana. In an area earlier inhabited by native Indians, European immigrants began to hew out the land. By 1817, Jacob Ryan had arrived and settled 160 acres on the east shore of Lake Charles. Ryan was the first settler whose main objective was lumber, and it was he who built the first of many sawmills and the town's first industry. That mill stood near the Chase Bank building and the Capital One Tower. The town grew up along the lake, actually around the Jacob Ryan sawmill. Lumber was the town's reason to exist. Without lumber there would not have been the basic natural resources that early settlers knew how to refine into finished products necessary to develop the town's economy.
Between 1817 and 1855, longleaf yellow pine and some cypress remained the primary industry. It was in 1855 that Captain Daniel Goos, a Frisian by birth, came to Lake Charles. He too built a saw mill, but soon branched out into building schooners, tug-boats and even steamboats. "Charlie's Lake," "Charlestown" and finally "Lake Charles" found itself doing extensive trade with Galveston. A close bond grew between the two towns, and Lake Charles lumber found Galveston to be its gateway to the American West.
The beginning of the 1860's would bring the war years, but Southwest Louisiana had its own unique attitude toward the war. Both English and northeastern Americans had come to settle Lake Charles, not to mention a large influx of continental Europeans and Jews. Attitudes toward slavery in Lake Charles were mixed; and certainly choosing sides remained secondary to business interests. The citizenry did finally become involved in the war, and young men of local families went to serve the South.
Coupled with the cosmopolitan citizenry and the geographic location of the town, the outcome of the war had little or no socio-political effect on Lake Charles - except that the end of the war did produce a still greater lumber exporting business to Galveston and the nation. The cheap pine made the town flourish. Other settlers continued to move in. More sawmills were being built by men like Rudolph Krause, a native German; and a few years later, Midwesterners from Kansas, namely the Kings and the Webers, would also build mills.
The 1880's saw the small sawmill village develop into a boom town, thanks to the innovative advertising methods of a man named J.B. Watkins. With his astounding $200,000 advertising campaign, the town grew 400% in the 80's. Cultural activists became important, and Lake Charles had a definite geographic advantage. Traveling entertainment that New Orleans enjoyed was most often performed in Lake Charles on Sunday evenings. Texas had Sunday closing laws, and many traveling troupes which passed through the South to New Orleans and on to Galveston and Houston usually found Lake Charles a good place for a one-night Sunday performance before going west into Texas.
By the 1890's, finer homes were being built. Although the town had no real architects, carpenters of significant artistic ability each tried to out-build each other with their use of elaborate fretwork and Victorian decoration. Fancy spindles, newel posts, soldiers and paneled doors - all native of pine - filled the houses. Merchants like Leopold Kaufman imported fine linens, china, furniture and all kinds of household goods for the affluent society of the time.
Many events would transpire in Lake Charles during the next hundred years, but enough of the old part of the residential district has been preserved to reveal the city's grand past. The virgin pine and cypress forests are gone and the last mill has long since closed, but the pine and cypress houses of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries stand as a reminder of the great lumber era that contributed so much to the growth and development of Southwest Louisiana.
*Information provided by the Louisiana Preservation Alliance.