Back to life: Plaquemine Lock State Historic Site hosts annual reunion, tour

PETER SILAS PASQUA news@postsouth.com
Participants are given a chance to discuss their experiences at the Plaquemine Lock State Historic Site’s annual reunion on Saturday morning. 
POST SOUTH PHOTO/Peter Silas Pasqua

PLAQUEMINE - The Plaquemine Lock State Historic Site hosted its annual reunion for relatives of former lock employees, boaters who once used it and longtime residents of Plaquemine on Saturday morning.

Reunion participants were encouraged to bring pictures and newspaper clippings associated with the Plaquemine Lock. A tour of the lock house, chamber and antique boat pavilion was also given.

The reunion began in 2002 and is held every year in January, according to Park Manager Stan Richardson.

"It just really brings the lock back to life when you have this kind of program because these folks remember when it was still in operation," Richardson said.

"Some of the folks that came in the early years are unfortunately no longer with us so we are glad to keep this going. To have all these folks come share their memories of the lock is really priceless."

The Plaquemine Lock was designed by Colonel George W. Goethals, who later gained distinction as chief engineer of the Panama Canal.

When completed in 1909, it had the highest fresh-water lift of any lock in the world measuring 51 feet. The first vessel to pass through the lock was the Carrie B. Schwing, a steamboat named after the daughter of the Schwing Lumber & Shingle Co. owners that transported logs to the sawmill.

James "Fry" Hymel's grandfather Philo Marionneaux Sr. was captain of the vessel, which eventually sank to the bottom of the Mississippi River along with two men from Plaquemine.

"They are still entombed in the boat at the bottom of the river," Hymel said. "It was never raised."

Increased river traffic put a severe strain on the lock's capacity resulting in the construction of a larger lock in Port Allen and the Plaquemine Lock was closed after 52 years of service in 1961.

The structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and ownership of the lock was transferred from the Corps of Engineers to the State of Louisiana in 1978.

The area includes the Gary James Hebert Memorial Lockhouse, which serves as a museum and visitors center. Hebert worked to prevent the destruction of the lock and campaigned to have the area preserved.

"Gary loved this place," Hebert's widow and Friends of the Lock President Joyce Hebert said. "He was raised right across the bayou and his daddy worked here."

Hebert said traffic problems resulted in plans for a two-lane highway where the lock stood. Owners of the Post South at the time, she said "we were almost outcast for a while," and it wasn't until the site received national status that it was saved.

"That was the one thing that saved the locks," Hebert said. "Otherwise, it would be gone today because they had actually accepted bids on the highway.

"It was a hard fight but he felt it was worth saving so he did. It the long run, it was."

Faith Roussel Willis is currently in the process of transforming the lock's machine shop into a house. The original Lock Masters' House has been moved to Brusly.

"We are keeping the integrity of the architecture of the building," Willis said.

Vera Roberts recalled catching logs, some 32 inches in diameter, of mostly cottonwood in her youth near the lock. She was married to Buddy Roberts, another product of the lock, 40 years later after both were widowed.

"I didn't know her but I thought I recognized her," Roberts said. "I have a lot of memories about this place. It illuminated at night and was always noisy but like everything I found, I got used to it."

Richard Trepagnier remembered lock masters being very conscience about safety.

"They didn't like kids play on the locks," Trepaignier said.

Joe Graves recalled a tug operation as "a slow process."

"The Bayou is so crooked that you had to pull them on ropes," Graves said. "It took two or three days to get a tow out of here one barge at a time."

Volunteer Michael Eby said tourists from over 40 states and 50 countries have visited the site and that a Civil War Re-enactment is planned for the grounds April 19-20.