Steam engine power in a city built in the 19th century

Editor’s Note: This is the 23rd in a series of articles to be published in the Pensacola News Journal to celebrate Escambia County’s 200th anniversary. Look for these stories every Monday in print.

In the late 1830s, Joseph Forsyth, the guiding force of the Arcadia Hydraulic Industrial Park on Pond Creek, realized that steam engines were the wave of the future. Having a steam engine to power your mill didn’t limit you to the geographic limits of a moving stream. So in 1840 he closed his hydraulic sawmill operations in Arcadia and moved them three miles downstream to the confluence of Pond Creek and Blackwater River. The company already had loading docks there; and a new mill, and a company town, was established – Baghdad. Steam engines from Rhode Island were brought in, but due to the brackish water at the site they used a freshwater source a mile and a half away and using a waterwheel and buried logs ( hollowed out and connected by metal clamps), they were able to pump fresh water to the new mill site.

History of the Arcadia mill:Watermills like Arcadia played a key role in the development of the early Pensacola

The new mill quickly overtook production at the Arcadia site, producing both rough and planed lumber from the lush, yellow-leaved pine forests that covered the Panhandle. The company shipped millions of feet of lumber, battens and shingles to ports in the Gulf of Mexico. They added a frame factory to the complex, and by 1850 the company employed over 100 people and produced lumber products totaling about $ 315,000 per year. Some of the lumber was even shipped to Boston and New York. Steam revolutionized corporate production. As one person described it, “a man has nothing else to do but watch and see his work magically accomplished.” Other businesses began to convert to steam in the surrounding area, and within 10 to 15 years there were steam sawmills and planing mills on Blackwater, Bay, Mulat Bayou and Escambia Bay (the remains of the The Hyer-Knowles Steam Planer Plant can be seen today at the ‘Old Chimney’ on the Scenic Drive).

Baghdad mill workers gathered in front of the mill in the early 1900s.

Baghdad was described at that time as “a beautiful village” which was “built in a beautiful style”. The locals would ‘live in style and have fun as a result. They are kind and accommodating to the strangers who are among them. The company is very pleasant; and young girls can entertain their guests with excellent music on the piano, guitar or violin. . “

After Joseph Forsyth’s death in 1855, Forsyth and Simpson became EE Simpson and Company. In 1860, the year before the Civil War, the Baghdad Company was the largest industrial enterprise in the state of Florida; in fact, the Baghdad mill alone accounted for over 10% of the state’s total industrial products. Ezekiel E. Simpson’s personal property was valued at $ 2.5 million. However, the civil war brought disaster to Baghdad and the Pensacola region in general. The Baghdad Mill and all other steam enterprises were set on fire by the retreating Confederates in the spring of 1862. Much of the Panhandle was “no man’s land” during the war years, and the people of Pensacola themselves are fell to less than 100 people. Grass and bushes grew in the streets of downtown Pensacola.

The Baghdad mill is pictured after its reconstruction after the civil war.

After the war, life was difficult for West Florida. Industrial production was only 17% of its pre-war level. Many sawmills in the region were rebuilt, including the one in Baghdad which, in the early 1870s, was once again enjoying a period of prosperity. Logging railways in the late 1800s allowed more timberland to be exploited, and the various sawmills exported even more lumber than they did in the days before. American Civil War. In the late 1800s, Simpson and Company was one of the largest producers and exporters of yellow bigleaf pine lumber. Timber from Baghdad was shipped to Italy, South America, England and Scandinavia, as well as to national ports.

In 1903, Simpson and Company was sold and renamed Stearns and Culver Lumber Company. The property consisted of 200,000 acres of lumber, 40 miles of log canals, a railroad, sawmills, dryers, planing mills, a power station and a large number of ships. Modernization began with a new railway line extending to Alabama, more logging railways connected to more forests, and the company employed more than 1,000 people. In 1922 the company was renamed the Baghdad Land and Lumber Company and stayed afloat by purchasing a very large expanse of unspoiled pine groves. But without a reforestation program, the “inexhaustible” pine forests eventually ran out and the last log was sawn at the mill in 1939. The Baghdad mill closed its doors, ending a saga that began in 1817 with Juan de la Rua and the birth of Arcadia. If only Forsyth had more foresight to start a reforestation program before it was too late, there might still be a viable forestry industry in the Panhandle to this day.

An aerial view of Baghdad around 1939 when the mill closed.

The city of Baghdad, despite the closure of the mill, survived. Historic preservation efforts began at the end of the 20th century, and in 1987, Baghdad’s Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Baghdad Village Preservation Association operates a local museum of local history on Church Street in Baghdad, and in 2016 the original 1840 mill site was converted into the 20-acre Baghdad Mill Site Park.

Brian Rucker is professor of history at Pensacola State College.

Catch up with the rest of the series

Part 1:Preparing the ground: Our Pensacola is the fifth Spanish settlement on the bay of Pensacola

Part 2:How did Pensacola come back under Spanish control for the second time?

Part 3:How Andrew Jackson Established “Good Government” for Pensacola and Florida

Part 4:From newspapers to circuses, Escambia County and Pensacola have many “firsts”

Part 5:How Pensacola treated early epidemics and the role of healthcare

Part 6:Cultural survival on the run: the story of Pensacola shaped by Native Americans

Part 7:Life in the 1820s in Pensacola was primitive, but cosmopolitan. A look at our early years.

Part 8:How the Sampler Project aims to connect us with our Pensacola ancestors of 1821

Part 9:Dances, Patgo and “Star-Spangled Banner”: How Pensacola Embraced Early Entertainment

Part 10:How mail was (and often was not) delivered in the early days of Pensacola

Part 11:More than a name: meet some of the residents of Pensacola from 1821

Part 12:The historic Saint-Michel de Pensacola cemetery is home to a memory paradise

Part 13:A closer look at the fascinating Spanish colonial heritage of Pensacola | Part 1

Part 14:What Census Data and Land Records Tell Us about Spanish West Florida | Part 2

Part 15:The food that the early settlers of Pensacola ate reflected the diverse cultures of the region

Part 16:What a typical house in Pensacola looked like during the Spanish colonial period

Part 17:Forts and bricks: how the military and industry evolved in the early days of Pensacola

Part 18:Archaeological traces of late colonial buildings persist in Pensacola

Part 19:How the indigenous workers of Mexico built and rebuilt Pensacola

Part 20:The shift from Spanish rule to American rule opened doors for Pensacola companies

Part 21:From primitive roads to stranded steamboats, transportation problems abounded in early Pensacola

Part 22:Watermills like Arcadia played a key role in the development of the early Pensacola

How to get involved

What: An interactive web-based mosaic of faces from our modern community honoring the community of 1821.

Why: Celebrate our rich and diverse heritage through a reflection of our modern community.

Who: Residents of the region, of all ages, ethnicities and sexes.

How? ‘Or’ What: Fill out the form on and upload your photo to represent a member of the 1821 Pensacola community (use a clean background, clearly showing the face and shoulders, no hat please, and names optional.

So far, researchers at the West Florida Genealogical Society have identified more than 2,000 people who were here when Florida moved from Spain to the United States. They were more than names; each person had a rich life and history. By honoring a community member of 1821, you are participating in this celebration of our rich and diverse Florida heritage.

Edward K. Thompson