Rapides, although its shape and size has changed since its beginning in the early 1700's under the French as a distric, is located in the rich delta land drained by the lower Red River. The western and northern portions of the parish, on the other hand, are part of the "highlands" characteristic of North Louisiana. The low, rolling hills, covered with pine trees, once boasted almost numberless springs of ice-cold water which flowed into clear creeks. With the cutting of the trees and man-made as well as natural changes in drainage patterns, the springs have mostly disappeared.
Kisatchie National Forest covers much of this area.
If the "highlands" had springs and creeks, the lowlands of Rapides are threaded by meandering bayous. Some may have once been the main channel of Red River, Bayous Boeuf, Lamorie, Rapides, Jean de Jean, Robert, Clair, Flaggon.
Indeed, Rapides significantly possesses geographical characteristics of both North Louisiana and South Louisiana.
In 1869, "Colonel Samuel Henry Lockett, professor of engineering , and
Frederick U. Hopkins, professor of chemistry and geology, drove away from the
old Louisiana State Seminary grounds at Pineville behind a pair of mules
hitched to an army ambulance." The legislature provided funds for this
survey of the state which the men conducted by walking, by riding horses or
mules, riding in buggies and sulkies, on train, or in boats. The report made
on Rapides Parish is so thorough and contains so much intertwined history that
it is given here:
" Rapides. Since my first Annual Report on the Topography of Louisiana , Rapides has been much diminshed in size by the creation of new parishes. Therefore, my first description of it will have to be considerably modified. It is bounded on the north by Natchitoches and Grant, on the east by Catahoula and Avoyelles, and on the south by St. Landry and Calcasieu, on the west by Vernon. It is one of the largest and most important parishes of the state. Although I have classes it among the Pine Hill parishes because the larger part of its surface is covered with the longleaf pine, it has a great deal of fertile land within its borders and is a wealthy, populous parish.Next - Section 1 - The Colonial Period
Red River runs through the parish, from the northwest to the southwest corner. On the northern side the base of the hills is not very far from the river. At Pineville, opposite Alexandria the hills strike the river bank. From this point northward, they bear off from the river and follow the course of Bayou Rigolette. South of Pineville, the hills are never more than a mile from the river's banks and form bluffs at numerous points to Grimes' Bluff in Avoyelles just beyond the limits of Rapides. On the south side of Red River, there is a bluff just south of Colfax, called De Roches' Bluff, then another above the mouth of Bayou Jean de Jean, and from this point, the base of the hills follows the course of Bayou Rapides and Bayou Boeuf to Cocodrie Lake. Thence Bayou Cocodrie is the limits of the upland. The space included between the lines thus traced is all Alluvial Land. It is between ten and fifteen miles wide and nearly forty miles long. The banks of Red River are generally arable land, settled and under cultivation. From Alexandria southward a good deal of the Red River land has been abandoned and is lying idle. The levees are broken and the certainty of overflow had discouraged the planters.
The best part of the parish is the bayou country which I will now endeavor to describe. Bayou Rapides, or Jean de Jean as it is called near its northern mouth, debouches from the Red River at Cotile Landing and reenters the river at Alexandria. The island thus formed is about fifteen miles long and varies between two and five miles in width. Along both sides of Bayou Rapides is found the usual tier of fine plantations. Within the island is a low, swampy basin, with cypress brakes and several small lakes scattered through it. This basin is subject to deep overflow and is not cultivated.
The Bayou Rapides country is naturally one of the best in the state, but it suffered much during the War and has been slow to recover. Much of its best land is lying idle, and some of the finest plantations are yet unenclosed Bayou Boeuf rises in a cypress lake near McNutt's Hill, and, after receiving several clear streams from the pine woods, becomes a bold broad bayou some six or eight miles below Alexandria and so continues throughout its course. Its total strength to the junction with Bayou Cocodrie is not much less than eighty miles. It receives, as a tributary from Red River, Bayou Robert which debouches from the river, or rather from Bayou Rapides two miles from Alexandria, and enters Bayou Boeuf twelve miles from that place. Three miles farther down it sends off Bayou La Mourie through an extensive swamp back to Red River. From the south the main tributaries of Bayou Boeuf are Bayou Valentine and Bayou Clair.
The Boeuf has at all seasons a steady current of pure water and is one of the prettiest bayous of Louisiana. On either side of the Boeuf and Bayou Robert throughout their length are, or rather were, some of the finest plantations in the state. The La Mourie is only partly settled. The front lands of Bayou Boeuf are fertile in the highest degree - light, sandy, reddish colored, and easily worked. The plantations run back from a half mile to more than one mile, but generally the back parts of the cultivated lands are of inferior quality to the front. The soil becomes either dark Indian-red or nearly black, sticky, and hard to break up.
The stiff land is good for corn and cotton but produces cane by no means so well as that immediately along the bayou. It is a painful sight to see thousands of acres of this most excellent country lying idle and unenclosed. In all probability the amount of such untilled lands will reach between one-third and one-fourth of the total area of cleared lands. Several entire plantations numbering more than a thousand acres of open land are without fencing and have not had a plow in their soil since the war. The Boeuf is navigable most of the year to Lecompte, and with a little labor, could be made so the entire year round. The crops are corn, cotton, and cane, all of which succeed as well as in any other part of the state.
Bayou Cocodria, which rises nearly as far north as the Boeuf, and runs nearly parallel to it for a long distance, is very different in its nature. It is generally a Pine Hill stream, and has no extensive areas of fine lands. One of its interesting features is the swamp and lake in its course some twenty miles south of Alexandria, which are celebrated for the fine fishing they afford at all seasons of the year.
The Cocodria and Boeuf by their junction form the Courtableu, a stream about sixty yards wide and thirty miles long that forms an outlet into the Atchafalaya River.
The network of bayous included in the region just described is a feature of considerable importance to the parish. They are all naturally connected with each other, and competent engineers who have carefully examined the, are of the opinion that one and all of them could be made into serviceable canals at comparatively small cost, thus becoming certain, easy, and cheap channels for the shipment of the immense crops that are produced upon their banks. How soon they shall become so and the impassable roads of the country be abandoned, with all their concomitants of exhausted teams, broken wagons, and injured produce, is certainly a question worthy of the most serious consideration on the part of those interested.
Before leaving the Alluvial Lands of Rapides, it may be well to notice the falls one mile above Alexandria on Red River which, though scarcely entitled to the name of falls, deserve to be especially mentioned as being the first serious obstruction to low water navigation. They are a mere series of rapids caused by a ledge of sandstone that crosses the bed of the stream from the Pine Hills that here abut the river. As to the practicality of removing this obstruction, there can be no doubt, and that the great amount of Red River would justify the attempt at so doing, there can also be no doubt. Scarcely a year passes but some serious disaster happens to the steamboats that venture to pass these falls in an unfavorable stages of water. It is more than probable that the cost of any single boat which has been lost on or near this obstruction would be amply sufficient to remove all danger in its passage.
After having so frequently described the Pine Hills, it will be needless to say much concerning those of Rapides. In the region lying north of Red River, the valley of Bayou Flacon is a very good farming country and has been extensively settled within the past few years by immigrants from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
Horsepen Creek and Big Creek have also a good number of small farms along them.
In the extreme northeastern part of Rapides is a fine prairie, called Hollaway's Prairie, and several others of less extent. These prairies lie in a belt of land that I think is undoubtedly a part of the Bluff formation. South of Red River the uplands are the genuine longleaf Pine Hills. Cocodria Bayou, Calcasieu River, and their tributaries all have lands along them which are good and are settled by small farmers.
In the piney woods on either side of Red River, the planters of Rapides once had their summer residences. Nearly everyone of these residences is now destroyed, and their former sites can be found only by the clumps of fruit trees, crepe myrtle bushes, and and other exotic shrubs that still struggle for existence in the midst of the vast forests of pines. It is a melancholy site - these mute and ofttimes delicate and beautiful witnesses of a glory now very different from each other. Wealth, prosperity, luxury are the elements of the introduction to this story: war, ruin, desolation, the burden; poverty, the conclusion."