History People & Places Places St Landry History

The Ancient Cedar Trees of Old Opelousas

CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY
Publisher and Contributing Writer

Feature photography from Carola Lillie Hartley Collection. The featured photograph shows the Frisco Depot located near the railroad tracks on North Union street in about 1910. At one time large ancient cedar trees graced that property where this depot once stood.

During the last days of March in 1945 as people drove by the Missouri Pacific Depot on North Union Street near the railroad tracks in Opelousas, they noticed the large group of people gathering pieces of wood from old trees that were cut down. On the day the trees fell, hundreds of people flocked to the property to get a piece of something from the ancient trees. One old man grabbed a tree branch saying he would use it as his walking cane, while another just wanted a small piece of wood as a memento of the trees.  Even the nuns from the convent in Grand Coteau were there on that day gathering pieces.

Missouri Pacific Railroad Depot on North Union Street – c. 1947

Many wondered “Why would anyone want chips of wood from those old trees?” What those asking the question didn’t understand was the significance of those cedar trees. They weren’t just any old trees. There was more to that story.

During the early part of the eighteenth century, French Courier du Bois came into the area of the Opelousas Indians. Others from France followed, settled the land and established a trading post at Opelousas. In 1763 Louis Pellerin was assigned by the French government to be a civil and military commandant at that post. During that year the French were forced to cede Louisiana to Spain as part of the peace treaty ending Europe’s Seven Year War. The Spanish took over the rule of Louisiana, but that rule did not reach Opelousas until Alexander O’Reilly became governor in 1769.

O’Reilly sent soldiers to the area to take control of the Opelousas Post. A large garrison was maintained, and this was the nucleus around which the present City of Opelousas grew. Some old-timers claim the Spanish garrison was located on the north part of Opelousas near the area where the St. Landry Catholic Church is located today.

The Spanish Mother and the Cedar Trees
As the story goes, sometime in the late 18th century, a Spanish soldier settled with his beautiful wife on property near what today are the railroad tracks on North Union Street. On a warm afternoon the young bride stood in the shade of the four giant cedar trees that graced the property, her husband by her side. She looked up at him, tears in her eyes, and said she had a premonition she would die giving birth to their child. She made him promise when that happened, he would cut down one of the trees to make a coffin for her body. She wanted to be buried under the remaining trees, near the house.

Just as was predicted, the Señora died while giving birth to their child. Her husband honored her wishes. He cut down one of the trees and made it into her coffin. She was laid to rest next to the house, under the tranquility of the three remaining trees.

As time ticked away, the house and the trees remained for over two centuries on that ground in Opelousas. The story of the young mother and the trees was handed down, generation to generation. During the latter part of the 1800s, Dr. James G. Campbell purchased the house and property with the old cedar trees.

When the railroad made its way to Opelousas at the end of the 19th century, passenger trains were available to take travelers to and from the town. Train depots were built at locations around Opelousas to accommodate the travelers. One depot was built in 1907 on the south side of the tracks along North Union Street.

Mary E. Walker owned the property during that time and sold it for $2,500 to the Colorado Southern Railroad. The property included a house and three old, very tall cedar trees. When the railroad workers began digging the ground to build the depot, they came across a nearly decomposed wooden coffin. From what remained it was determined that coffin was made of wood from a cedar tree like the three old trees on the lot. This confirmed the tale about the burial of the Señora that was handed down over the years.

Colorado Southern Depot on North Union Street soon after construction in 1907.

When the depot was completed, the old house and trees remained on the lot nearby. Years went by, the Colorado Southern Depot became the Frisco Depot and later the Missouri Pacific Depot, and eventually the old house was destroyed by fire. In 1945, the unthinkable happened — the old trees were cut down and used to make fence posts.

As word spread that the trees were being cut down, hundreds of people flocked to the property to get a piece of something from the special trees. Besides the fact that the trees were connected to the story of the Spanish mother, they were also very special trees because of their type. It seems after that coffin was discovered under the trees; the public became very interested in them. Word about the Opelousas trees spread around the country. In the 1920s a professor from Norfolk, VA came to St. Landry Parish to study the trees and declared they were over 1,000 years old. He also said they were not just old trees, but a special kind of cedar known as Jerusalem Cedars. These were very rare trees in America, and the three in Opelousas were among only a few that remained in the US.

It was later learned what the professor called Jerusalem Cedars were trees some called the cedars of Lebanon, and the wood from those types of trees was used to build many of the structures mentioned in the bible including the temple at Jerusalem. How those trees got to Opelousas, no one knows. They stood for ten centuries and grew to be over 75 feet tall and 25 inches in diameter. And they had a purpose. They provided the shade and a peaceful resting place for that beautiful woman who died much too young.

The property where the ancient cedar trees and the railroad depots once stood, taken soon after the old Missour Pacific depot was demolished.

So, we know the answer to why anyone would want a piece of the wood from those old trees. And we also know Opelousas lost another part of its history on that 1945 spring day. A few days after the trees went down the Daily World ran an article on April 1, 1945, that ended with the following: “a thing of beauty is a joy forever … but the time comes when the old must give way for the new, birds of the air, fish of the sea, sons of men, fruits of the earth. The cedar is no exception.” Perhaps that is true, but it is also true that those cedars would be such a beauty to behold today.

Was the story about the young Spanish mother true? Or was it just a folktale handed down from one generation of Opelousas citizens to another, and another and another? No one knows for sure. But it is a fact that Opelousas had Spanish soldiers in the eighteenth century, and many of their descendants live in the area today; those trees stood on that property for centuries; and that coffin was buried under the trees, just as the story said. What do you think?