Ghost riders: The Antique Cypress Putt-Putt Boat Club hosts Annual Pilgrimage to Bayou Chene

Ory Mendoza, foreground, and son Dana Mendoza install a gasoline-powered marine inboard engine in an antique cypress putt-putt boat recently to be used for an annual pilgrimage to Bayou Chene. 

PLAQUEMINE - Ory Mendoza and The Antique Cypress Putt-Putt Boat Club held its Annual Pilgrimage to Bayou Chene April 27.

Bayou Chene, which translates to Oak Bayou, is more or less a ghost town today but once was a vibrant, economically prosperous settlement deep in the Atchafalaya Basin.

Located about 20 miles west of Bayou Sorrel in St. Martin Parish, the small unincorporated community could only be reached by boat.

"At one time, they probably had 500 families living on Bayou Chene," Mendoza said.

Settlers had a church, school, merchandise store and post office all located on the bayou. Inhabitants were swampers, lumberjacks, trappers, farmers, fisherman and moss pickers.

"When they raised sugarcane, they had about 25 sugar mills out there," Mendoza said. "They were small mills and everything was done by horse and boat."

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a spillway to reroute floodwaters from the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya River, it forced most of the residents to leave.

"The water kept rising and taking peoples' homes," Mendoza said. "It was getting to where there wasn't anything left. The swamp was gone. The fishing was going bad and people just kept moving out a couple of families at a time. Before long there was nobody left out there."

Mendoza said if not for the cypress putt-putt boats, the settlement probably would have never existed. Today, these vessels still provide transportation to the site.

"This is the only boat they had to travel in," Mendoza said. "That is the only type of boat they had to go anywhere. You used them for everything."

A fascination with these boats has led Mendoza to craftsmanship of the vessels.

"We make them," Mendoza said. "We are doing this more or less as a hobby to keep the tradition going."

Others in the club would gather at Mendoza's camp to run the long, slim bateaux style boats with gasoline-powered marine inboard engines.

"We just decided to go to Bayou Chene," Mendoza said. "Then, people kept asking to go and have a reunion out there. One thing let to another until we got enough people together to do it."

And in 2010, the initial Pilgrimage to Bayou Chene began on the boats with small engines between 2 ½, 4, 6 and 8 horsepower.

"No one lives out there," Mendoza said. "We just go to a location where they have seven or eight camps all close together. It looks like it used to."

The pilgrimage is always held in the spring and includes a cook out. The site of the former school and a Methodist Church and Cemetery is within walking distance.

"It is sanded up on each end so you have to wait until the water comes up in the spring before you can get to it," Mendoza said. "It is a tradition. We are going to do it every year."