If the State of Louisiana had its way in the early 1970s, the iconic Plaquemine Lock would only be a vague memory to people 60 and older today.
But for the determination of one man, the late Gary Hebert, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development would have had the building razed to turn La. 1 into a four-lane highway.
One of the first sites visitors notice when entering Plaquemine from the north, the distinctive architecture makes the building stand out on the banks of the Mississippi River, making it a popular stop for tourists. A couple from New Zealand visited the landmark just last week.
With a long and colorful history, the Plaquemine Lock was first authorized by the U.S. Congress in the 1880s to provide access from the big river to the island canal system to the Mississippi’s west.
When it opened in 1909, it gave tugboats and other watercraft access to a 125-mile shortcut to ship goods to the Gulf of Mexico.
At the time, it was “not only one of the earliest lock structures in the world but also had the highest freshwater lift of any lock in the world,” according to information provided by Friends of Plaquemine Lock State Historic Site Inc.
Hebert’s widow, Joyce Hebert, heads the group. She said the structure was used until 1962, then closed and boarded by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, abandoned when the much more modern Port Allen Lock was opened.
In June 1978, the Corps of Engineers transferred the facility to the State of Louisiana, which turned it into a $2.5 million state commemorative area in 1979. Using nearly $1.5 million from a state and federal Great River Roads grant, a museum was established documenting navigation on the Mississippi River.
The lock fell into a debate over its demolition after the Louisiana Department of Highways proposed filling in about 1,500 of Bayou Plaquemine and tearing down the lock house.
That’s when Hebert stepped in to save what was for him a beloved landmark.
“My husband was born across the bayou in north Plaquemine and he just loved this area,” Joyce Hebert said. “He ended up wanting to save the lock when the state was ready to tear it down.”
“Gary put up a big fight to save the lock,” his widow said, adding he went to the Corps of Engineers and numerous other agencies in an effort to convince them of its historical value.
The founder of the Plaquemine Post and later, after the purchase of the Iberville South, the publisher of the Plaquemine Post South, Gary used every tool at his disposal, including editorials in the newspaper to save the lock.
“This would all be gone right now if it weren’t for him,” Joyce Hebert said in an interview at the lock house. “He’s the one who actually saved this place.”
It was not an easy road for Hebert – with the growth in population in the area due to the construction and expansion of chemical plants along the river, people were frustrated with the traffic jams the two-lane La. 1 created.
“I remember people cussing him out,” Joyce said. “It was tough for a while there. I remember people being very rude. In fact, the whole community was against us, it really was.”
“The fight over the lock was unbelievable; it was terrible,” she continued. “It took a while before people began to realize it was worth saving.”
(Editor’s note: This is the first of a multi-part series on the history of the Plaquemine Lock and its progression from construction to state commemorative area. Also in this issue is an article on the City of Plaquemine’s plan to construct a levee top pavilion between the lock house and the Mississippi River.)