Heart of Louisiana: How the city of Sulphur got its name

(Source: Brimstone Museum)
Updated: Oct. 2, 2018 at 9:08 PM CDT
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(WVUE) - Today, this Southwest Louisiana city is in the middle of a massive petrochemical complex. But a century ago, it was home to sulfur mining.

You can safely assume that a town named Sulphur likely has a connection to the yellow mineral found in fertilizers, medicines, match sticks and gunpowder. But in Sulphur, Louisiana, sulfur was huge.

“This sulfur mine in our area was producing more than the rest of the world for small periods of time like that, all combined the rest of the world,” said Thom Trahan, who runs the Brimstone Museum.

The museum explains the revolutionary process invented by a pharmacist and German immigrant Hermann Frasch. The “frasching process” made sulfur mining possible in the swampy earth of Southwest Louisiana, where digging mine shafts was difficult and deadly.

“On Christmas Eve was the first time they successfully mined sulfur using his process,” Trahan said. “They would drill down to the deposit. They would pump in super-heated water and compressed air, and the two would melt the sulfur under the ground, and then they could pump out liquid sulfur from the deposit.”

This single photograph from 1921 shows the sulfur mining in its heyday.

“This is a photograph showing the sulfur wells actually producing sulfur in the background over here,” Trahan said. “They’re actually standing on top of a 40-foot-tall block of sulfur, so you can see that goes back as far as the tree line there, and it’s just a massive block of sulfur, probably one of the largest ones out there.”

The mining operations are gone. Today, sulfur is removed from crude oil during the refining process. All that’s left of the Union Sulphur Mine that once employed thousands of workers are these overgrown structures.

“The administration vault, that would be the vault that was attached to the administration building,” Trahan said. “And there are two dormitory showers that were for the men’s dormitories that are still standing.”

“I think it’s important because this is something that happened right here in our backyard. This revolutionary sulfur mining process that affected the world, and it all kind of started in, contributed to the industry in this area,” Trahan said.

Old photographs tell that story, from the rich natural deposits of sulfur to the genius of an immigrant pharmacist, to a city whose name reveals why people settled here.

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