Steamboats in St Landry Parish

by John A. Speyrer

After having read Christophe Cuntz's diary and his mention of his trip by steamboat from New Orleans to Port Barre in the Spring, 1994 issue of the Speyrer Family Association Newsletter and realizing that Conrad Speyrer almost certainly arrived in Leonville following the same route, I decided to find out what I could about steamboat activities in St Landry Parish. Unfortunately, I was able to uncover very little information. I am not implying that the information is not available, but rather that I was unable to uncover it. I will share with you the little information I did find.

The steamboat port of Port Barre, where the early Speyrers disembarked for their overland trip to the Leonville area, had its origins as an integral part of a settlement and trading post which date to the early 1700s. Fortunes were made by adventurous "`coureurs de bois'' (literally "woods runners") who traded whiskey and other merchandise with the Opelousas Indians for furs. At that time, Bayou Courtableau was known as the Opelousas River and it was near the junction of that river and Bayou Teche where that first trading post was established. The name of the Opelousas River was changed to honor the memory of Jacques Courtableau, an influential and adventurous Indian trader who amassed a fortune in land, cattle and slaves. He died in 1770.

The steamboat had its first U. S. commercial success in 1807, twenty years after it was introduced in this country. By 1830 there were over 200 steamboats on the Mississippi river. With its paddlewheels, the steamboat navigated easily in the shallow waters of our area bayous. For over 50 years it was the most important mover of goods, primarily cotton and sugar, to market.

Searching for the flavor of the times, when the Speyrers arrived in St Landry Parish by steamboat, I examined the micro-film files of the Opelousas Courier newspaper at the Opelousas public library. The earliest issue I found was published in 1856, twelve years after Conrad and his brothers and sister had arrived in America. In those days the Courier was published in both French and English. The newspaper posted advertisements for steamboats, ``Mary Bess,'' ``Frank Keeling,'' ``Opelousas,'' ``Union'' and ``Sydonia''. One advertisement touted the virtues of the Sydonia as follows:

``The elegant and fast moving steamer Sydonia having been thoroughly repaired as soon as the water will permit it, ply as a regular packet between Opelousas, Washington, Bayou Boeuf and New Orleans. This boat is safe comfortable and fast runner, admirably build and of light draft.''

But even in those early years, steamboats had competition, since the Courier also had advertisements for stage coaches. One issue, dated Dec. 1, 1855 announced that ``Stage coaches leave Opelousas for St Martinville every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6:00 am arrives at 5 pm. via Port Barre (The head of the low water navigation on the Courtableau).''

The Courier had many of its advertisements on the front page. There were advertisements for sheriff sales, patent medicines for every type of sickness and notices of escaped slaves. In the newspaper, Port Barré was usually called Barré's landing but the advertisement above used the modern name so even by 1855 the transition of names had begun.

By 1870, the railroad had supplanted the steamboat. Attorney Kenneth Deshotel informed me that by the year 1900 the heyday of steamboat transportation in our parish was over. He said that year marked the end of regularly scheduled freight and passenger services to the town of Washington. He also traced for me the route of the steamboat lines from New Orleans to Washington. The steamboats on which both Conrad Speyrer, his brothers and Christophe Cuntz arrived in Port Barre probably followed this route from New Orleans' Mississippi River:

  • From Plaquemine Bayou to Grand Lake,
  • From Grand Lake to Grand Bayou,
  • From Grand Bayou to Bayou Plaquemine,
  • From Bayou Plaquemine to the Atchafalaya River,
  • From the Atchafalaya River to Bayou Courtableau
The Atchafalaya River basin was very different from what it is today. Indeed, it is different from what it was a decade ago.

Steamboats also went up the Courtableau north of Washington to Bayou Boeuf.

Arthur Hinckley of Washington mentioned to me that the area where the steamboat docked in Port Barre was on land owned by the Charles Barr family. Hinkley also told me that near the mouth of Bayou Courtableau there was an area known as the ``Little Devil." When water was low, steamboats could not proceed, and sometimes workers had to move all of the freight from the steamboat to barges which then made the rest of the trip to Port Barre and Washington.

One of the most interesting historical periods in St Landry Parish was during the Civil War. The steamboat was an important method of transportion of both goods and people and thus played an important part in the conflict. The steamboat was used to transport army volunteers from this area to induction centers in New Orleans and other areas. So many troops were dispatched to serve in other areas of the country that none remained to defend Louisiana. Finally, in the Summer of 1862, reinforcements arrived in Opelousas which at that time was the capitol of the state.

The Union forces wanted to open up the Red River which was an important source of supply for the Confederacy. On April 20, 1863, Opelousas and Washington fell to the Union forces. Earlier during the year there had been a Federal operation with gunboats on the Atchafalaya River. Several times during that year, Port Barre area was center of skirmishes. One was the attack of the Federal steamer, LaBelle, at Barré's Landing. There also was a heavy skirmish along Bayou Courtableau on May 22, 1863 , which was the result of the Union Army hauling off a boatload of captured bales of cotton from Washington. Further down Bayou Teche, Butte La Rose had been captured by the Union Forces and Opelousas fell to General Banks on April 22, 1863.

Raymond Resweber of Port Barre mentioned to me that the dock where the steamboats tied up was on Bayou Teche, near the former residence of Clerk of Court Charles Jagneaux. This was near the old Methodist Church, near the junction of Bayous Courtableau and Teche. He says he can remember, as a child, in 1917, packet steamboats pulling logs out of the Atchafalaya basin for various mills such as Botany Bay Lumber Company's lumber mill.

But passenger steamboat service had terminated long before then. Its demise was no doubt caused by the beginnings of railroad passenger service which resulted in both a time and money savings. During the later part of the nineteenth century the cost of a one-way ticket to New Orleans by boat was $15.00, an expensive price when money was difficult to earn. In 1857, the New Orleans, Opelousas and Great Western Railroad was completed. Called an engineering feat by many, it allowed the trip to New Orleans to be made by a combination of steamboat and railroad. The trip between Algiers (across the river from New Orleans) could be completed in comfort by rail. But the remainder of the trip through Grand Lake, up the Atchafalaya to Port Barre still necessited the slow steamboat service.

But even the railroads, which soon completely doomed the steamboats, had a relatively short heyday as track construction peaked nationalwide in 1919. Automobile production boomed at the end of World War I and the highway with personal vehicles became the preferred mode of travel.

Bayou Teche was supposedly too small for steamboats to navigate, but I found references to Union army gunboats on the Teche during the Civil War. And ,as a teenager, I recall a dredging operation of Bayou Teche in Leonville which uncovered a small cannonball and Union saber. The handleless saber was given to my father. I still have it in my possession. Yet, Mr. Resweber told me that, during the summers of his youth, one could actually walk across Bayou Teche in Port Barre !

If that is correct, the only conclusion one can make is that the water levels in Bayou Teche have recently varied to a considerable extent. Indeed, David C. Edmonds, author of Yankee Autumn in Acadiana wrote of Bayou Teche that ''. . . it was navigable, depending on the time of year and size of vessel, from its mouth on the Atchafalaya almost as far north as its source on Bayou Courtableau near Barre's Landing.''
After the 1927 flood, the Atchafalaya basin spillway with adjacent levées was built. The levée embankments effectively stopped all water traffic.

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