For more than a century, boat traffic has needed help getting in and out of the Mississippi River. One of the oldest locks, a sort of water-filled elevator, is located in Iberville Parish in the city of Plaquemine. In tonight’s Heart of Louisiana, Dave McNamara takes us to this historical site that was almost lost to progress.
As levees went up along the Mississippi River, it created a challenge for shipping. The river level grew higher, and boats needed a lift to get in and out of the lower water levels of inland bayous. That’s why this massive concrete lock was built more than a century ago, connecting the Mississippi river with the bayou at city of Plaquemine.
“It was designed by George W. Goethals. He designed the locks, and he also designed the Panama Canal,” said site manager Richard Trepagnier.
The 545-foot-long Plaquemine lock was an engineering marvel.
“It was the highest fresh water lift in the country,” Trepagnier said. “The lock chamber is 50 feet deep, but we are talking about a change in water elevation about 35 feet.”
Trepagnier’s father was the assistant lock master.
“On Sunday, hey I could sit in the swing and watch a boat come through the front yard,” Trepagnier said.
Trepagnier now give tours of the old lock.
“Water from the Mississippi River would go into the lock chamber,” he said.
An animated model shows how boats would pass from the river into Bayou Plaquemine. This lock operated for 52 years until it closed in 1961. As boats and barge tows got bigger, the old lock was simply too small. This modern lock upriver at Port Allen is nearly a quarter-mile long – more than twice the size of the old lock.
“You can put a six pack, which is typically two barges wide by six long,” said Vic Landry with the Corps of Engineers.
The water mark on the gates shows the huge difference in elevation when the river is at its highest stages.
“This lock never shuts down, has traffic 24/7 I would say on a daily basis,” Landry said. “In a 24-hour period, we probably lock 30 to 35 tows.”
After this lock opened, the state highway department wanted to bulldoze the Plaquemine lock and build a new four-lane highway.
“They wanted it their way” said Cheryl Hebert, with Friends of the Lock.
But Hebert’s late husband, newspaper editor Gary Hebert, led a crusade to keep what he considered a historic site.
“People sent him horrible letters,” Cheryl Hebert said. “They didn’t appreciate it. They wanted the traffic to move, and it didn’t matter to them if we lost the lock.”
Hebert succeeded in getting the old lock on the National Register of Historic Places.
“After that, people knew it couldn’t be torn down,” Hebert said.
The highway department revised its plans and simply widened the existing roadway, leaving this historic lock intact. Today, you can get a glimpse of the past, and see how riverboats and barges would get a lift in and out of the mighty Mississippi River.