Pierre Baillio secured the land grant for the Kent House off Bayou Rapides in 1795, but it wasn’t until years later that the town of Alexandria was officially laid out on a map and incorporated. Industrialist Alexander Fulton requested the town’s first land survey in 1805, according to records at the Louisiana History Museum on Washington Street. That museum sits directly in the center of the 91-block area plotted out by Fulton.
As the Union Army retreated down the Red River in 1864, Union soldiers plundered downtown Alexandria, population 5,000. First-person written accounts describe a chaotic scene of destruction and heartbreak as area residents watched their businesses and homes be burnt to the ground.
The soldiers decimated 90 percent of the town. Courthouse records and valuable library volumes were destroyed, taking some of the parish’s history with it. “If that had not happened, you might wonder what kind of historical buildings we’d have from the antebellum period,” said Jerry Sanson, history professor at Louisiana State University in Alexandria. “The Kent House is about the only one left, because it was located a little further away from the path of destruction.”
In the mid-19th century, Rapides Parish was poised to be the scholarly center of the state with the new land grant university located near Pineville. The institution, now known as Louisiana State University, opened Jan. 2, 1860, with 19 cadets and five professors. However, another unfortunate fire in 1869 changed the destiny of the state’s premier institute of higher learning. Classes were moved out the charred building in Pineville and resumed in Baton Rouge, where the main campus remains today with more than 34,000 students and faculty. “If LSU had stayed here -- oh, my gosh -- that would have made a tremendous difference in Rapides Parish,” Sanson said. He explained that could have largely shifted the state’s economy into Central Louisiana with the creation of a more-educated workforce and the need for businesses to serve so many students and faculty. “There would be a large difference in quality of life here,” Sanson said.
Rapides Parish saw the launch of a new industry around 1891 when Joseph A. Bentley and his partner E.W. Zimmerman started their lumber business just north of Alexandria. Numerous loggers followed their lead. Northern companies that had cut out most of the New England timber started heading south on Louisiana’s new railroad. However, those companies had stripped the forests in the 1920s and didn’t stick around long enough to replant. That brought the Depression to this region early, so Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps couldn’t come soon enough. The CCC trained men in forestry and agriculture, teaching them to replant and build nurseries that eventually revamped one of Rapides Parish’s major industries.
One of Rapides Parish’s most significant contributions to the free world came during World War II, when thousands of soldiers trained in the region’s six military outlets. During World War II, Alexandria grew from about 20,000 people to about 200,000 as businesses moved in to serve the troops. Struggling businesses were revived, but the war ended, and the troops left and took their spending money with them.
The integration of schools is a turning point for nearly every community. For the Alexandria area, that occurred first in 1969, eight years after a school desegregation lawsuit was filed. But a 1980 desegregation court order is perhaps what most rocked the foundation of Rapides Parish’s school system. That’s when U.S. District Judge Nauman Scott insisted that the school system integrate with a massive new plan that closed some schools, forced busing, created neighborhood schools and reassigned principals. The district has changed school zones since then and remains under desegregation orders that still affect nearly every zoning and hiring decision the School Board has made in the past four decades.
Transportation developments have significantly transformed Rapides Parish throughout the years, including the first bridges and river access, but Interstate 49 has taken the parish’s accessibility to a new level. Transportation officials and politicians said the highway would be done in 1973, then 1984, then 1993, but botched land deals, environmental studies, bond glitches and typical political setbacks took decades to overcome. While the majority of the road was finished in the early 1990s, the last stretch through Alexandria wasn’t completed until 1997.
The parish has a total area of 1,362 square miles, of which 1,323 square miles is land and 39 square miles (2.89%) is water. The population recorded in the 1900 Federal Census was 39,578. The 2020 census recorded 129,648 residents in the Parish.
Neigboring parishes are Grant Parish (north), La Salle Parish (northeast), Avoyelles Parish (east), Evangeline Parish (southeast), Allen Parish (southwest), Vernon Parish (west), and Natchitoches Parish (northwest). Communities in the parish include Alexandria, Pineville, Ball, Boyce, Cheneyville, Glenmora, Lecompte, Woodworth, Forest Hill, McNary, Deville, Libuse, and Tioga.