History program on Bayou Plaquemine presented for Louisiana Bicentennial

PETER SILAS PASQUA news@postsouth.com
Allen Kirkland describes the process of a tug boat in a painting framed in cypress to Verna Kirkland Roberts and Charles Kirkland during a history program on Bayou Plaquemine in celebration of Louisiana's Bicentennial on Friday afternoon. 
POST SOUTH PHOTO/Peter Silas Pasqua

Wooden airboats, sinker cypress logs and a soldier dressed in attire from the War of 1812 were some of the displays for a history program on Bayou Plaquemine presented to celebrate the Louisiana Bicentennial last week.

Hosted by the Plaquemine Lock State Historic Site, Friends of the Plaquemine Lock and the Plaquemine Main Street program, the event drew nearly 300 school children on Friday morning, according to Friends' president Joyce Hebert.

They came from St. John School, Math, Science and Arts Academy West and Holy Family to learn about the cypress logging industry, the people and vessels that traveled the bayou and the many commodities that went up and down it.

"We decided to focus on Bayou Plaquemine since it is right here and has a lot of history," manager of the site Stanley Richardson said. "It played a pivotal role in the history of these last 200 years."

The lock was opened in 1909 and took 14 years to build, according to volunteer tour guide Buddy Roberts, whose father was one of the last lock masters before it was closed 50 years ago.

"The same man that built the Panama Canal designed these locks," Roberts said. "This lock had the highest lift of any canal in the entire United States at the time it was opened."

The lock featured a 50-foot lift that allowed boats to pass through even when the river and water level were not the same, which only happened maybe once a year, according to Roberts.

"There were pumps down under and six foot tunnels on both sides," Roberts said. "They would close the back gate and the water would come into the chamber allowing the boat in the river to enter. Then they would let the water out into the bayou right down to its level."

Roberts said the lock is not in operation anymore and another in Port Allen has replaced it.

"They needed a bigger lock," Roberts said. "This just got to where it wasn't big enough. The tows were so big that if they came here with three big barges it would take them almost all day to get through. There is also a bad curve back here in the bayou that made it very difficult."

Some of the most famous people to pass through the locks included Santa Ana, Jim Bowie, Rezin Bowie, General G.W. Butler, Leonidis Polk, St. Rose Philipine Duchesne and Emmeline LaBiche, who was portrayed as Evangeline in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, according to volunteer tour guide Mike Eby.

"We had some interesting people past through Bayou Plaquemine," Eby said. "There were many different kinds of boats that came through and there was no charge. They even had little rafts. This one had an outboard motor on it so we know it is not Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn."

While Rezin Bowie may have not been as famous as his brother Jim Bowie, he did have a closer connection to Iberville Parish.

"They would make several trips to New Orleans during the year passing Bayou Plaquemine and he liked it so much he bought a plantation here right across from the St. Gabriel Catholic Church," Eby said.

In fact, Bowie was originally buried in the church cemetery before his body was disinterred and reburied in Port Gibson, Miss., the home of his daughter Elve.

At one point there were as many as nine lumber mills along Bayou Plaquemine shipping out millions of dollars worth of shingles throughout the world, volunteer retired school teacher Allen Kirkland said.

"Shingles were very thin pieces of wood but they were sometimes four-foot wide," Kirkland said. "They just completely depleted the forests but after the land was cleared, sugarcane was planted."

Examples of how wide the boards from cypress could be were seen on Kirkland's grandfather, Widmer Kirkland's airboat built in

1936.

"That is one continuous board four-feet wide from the front all the way back 21-feet long on the bottom and the top," Kirkland said.

Henry Newton Sherburne, a former Iberville Parish Sheriff, developed the original patent for the airboat called Miss Plaquemine, which was then bought by Widmer Kirkland, according to Kirkland.

Airboats were used by the Corps of Engineers to enter the Atchafalaya Basin for survey in preparation of building of levees around the area, according to Kirkland.

All the lumber used by Kirkland's grandfather to make the airboats came from A. Wilbert's Sons, which was sawed at one of the local mills, Kirkland said.

"Most of Louisiana Red Cypress came from the spillway but a lot of it came from the Mississippi River," Kirkland said. "The reason why they called them tug boats is because they pulled the logs, they didn't push them. They chained them together and tugged them to the mills."