History

The Lake Thoreau Environmental Center comprises two preserves, the Eubanks Preserve and the Longleaf Preserve.  These preserves and the surrounding areas have rich ecological and cultural histories.

 

Longleaf Pine Forests - Prior to European settlement, south Mississippi uplands were covered by majestic longleaf pine forests.   In 1783, Explorer William Bartram described this as "a vast forest of the most stately pine trees that can be imagined.” Pristine Longleaf Pine habitat Frequent fires set by lightning and Native Americans maintained this savannah-like landscape.  Bison roamed these grassy understories until the mid-1800s.  As timber and rail industries developed, these forests began to disappear.  Today longleaf pine has been eliminated from almost 97% of its former range.   The Longleaf Preserve at the Center is an important remnant of these forests.

 

Choctaws – Several Native American peoples historically inhabited Mississippi, but the Choctaws were the largest group.  Prior to the early 1800s, the land that comprises the preserves at the Lake Thoreau Environmental Center belonged to the Choctaw people.  In 1805, this land was ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Mount Dexter that was signed by the great Choctaw leaders, Apukshunnubbee and Pushmataha.

 

Timber and Rail Industries – Longleaf pine lumber was greatly prized throughout the world in the late 1800s.  The lumber boom, from 1840 to 1930, prompted the building of railroads through the virgin forests of the Pine Belt.  In 1883, the completion of the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad rail route from New Orleans to Meridian opened south Mississippi up to commercial lumbering.  The second large rail system in the area, the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad Company, was completed in 1897.  By 1904, two other rail systems passed through Hattiesburg, the Mobile, Jackson and Kansas City Railroad and the Mississippi Central Railroad.  In 1894, over 50 sawmills were operating within a 20-mile radius of Hattiesburg that allowed the Pine Belt to become the world leader in pine lumber production during this time.

In 1897, the current 160-acre Longleaf Preserve property was signed over by President William McKinley from federal to private ownership.  This property changed ownership several times and in 1916 it was donated to Mississippi Normal College (now USM) by the J.J. Newman Lumber Company.  In 1897, the J.J. Newman Lumber Company built the Pearl and Leaf Rivers Railroad that became the Mississippi Central Railroad in 1904.  This railroad passed through the property and is now the Longleaf Trace, a 43-mile paved multi-use trail that connects the main USM campus to the Lake Thoreau Environmental Center.

 

Lake Thoreau Recreation Area – In the late 1960s, Leon Mason Eubanks became a member of the English faculty at USM and built two lakes in the Hattiesburg area.  One lake (the aptly named Lake Forgetful) has since been filled and the land converted to commercial development.  The other lake, however, is now the focal point of the Center. Leon Eubanks Mr. Eubanks named this lake after one of his favorite writers, Henry David Thoreau.  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Eubanks would invite local residents to come and join the Lake Thoreau Recreation Club.  Residents could pay a small annual fee and bring their families to Lake Thoreau to fish and hike. Mr. Eubanks would frequently take his English students to Lake Thoreau for poetry readings.  When Mr. Eubanks passed away in 1999, his estate donated the Lake Thoreau property to the USM Foundation.  This 131-acre property is now the Eubanks Preserve.  It was Mr. Eubanks’ wish that this property be used as a nature preserve for scientific, educational and aesthetic purposes.

 

Lake Thoreau Environmental Center – In 2008, the Department of Biological Sciences began developing the concept of an environmental education and research facility centered around Lake Thoreau.  From that early concept grew the Lake Thoreau Environmental Center.  Once the Center was established, Natural History Collections Building, Lake Thoreau Environmental Centerfaculty began utilizing the project for research, teaching, and outreach.  Collaborations with local organizations began to be formed which resulted in the construction of over 12 miles of trails. In 2013, the Natural Sciences Collections building was completed at the Center.  This facility houses the USM Herbarium and Ichthyology Collection as well as a new classroom. Today the Center is home to many educational and recreational activities for all ages and is a critical site for environmental research for USM.