Jim Bradshaw: Changing the Intracoastal's path seemed a good idea

When the Intracoastal Waterway was nothing more than a series of lines on a map, the idea was to send it through Vermilion Bay.
But some folks in Vermilion Parish, and elsewhere in south Louisiana, thought that route would cause more problems than it would solve — and convinced the Army Engineers that there was a better way.
Henry Gueydan, son of the founder of the Vermilion Parish town, was one of the early visionaries who saw the possibilities of linking lakes, bayous and rivers along the Gulf Coast into a single inland waterway. In a letter in the Abbeville Meridional in January 1900, he called it “a project that … would prove of incalculable benefit to Louisiana; and more especially to the Southern portion of the state.”
A stretch from the Mermentau River to Schooner Bayou in lower Vermilion was finished in the early 1900s, and that’s when some concerned citizens started pushing the Army Engineers to look into the idea of dredging a channel connecting the Vermilion River with the inland canal.
W. H. Bixby, chief of engineers, reported to Congress on Feb. 1, 1913, that 95 percent of the commercial vessels using the Vermilion used the protected waters of the Mermentau River and the new inland waterway to get to the mouth of Schooner Bayou, but then had to cross Vermilion Bay.
“The danger of the open waters and the shallowness of the water in West Vermilion Bay have rendered unprofitable previous attempts to run boats from New Orleans to Abbeville,” Bixby wrote, “and it appears that local commerce is greatly ... hampered by the unsatisfactory navigation conditions.”
He said a yet to be built stretch of the inland waterway between Franklin and Mermentau that would also cross Vermilion Bay “appears to be one of the most important portions of the entire intercostal waterway,” but that there were problems with the planned route “on account of the exposure, shallow water, and unfavorable experiences in maintaining a channel in Vermilion Bay.”
He recommended an alternate route through the marsh north of the bay that would provide a safer link to Franklin and also a better connection to the Vermilion River and Abbeville.
Major Edward Schulz, the district engineer who actually made the study, attached a letter agreeing with the change, quoting a statement from D. L. McPherson of Abbeville, a man “who is interested in this improvement.”
McPherson said that “the inadequate depth of … Vermilion Bay from the mouth of the Vermilion River to Schooner Bay deters the larger boats in the trade west of the Vermilion from extending their operations to the Vermilion River.
During the fall and winter months none but very shallow draft boats can cross the western arm of Vermilion Bay.”
He said boats from Grand Chenier, Cameron, Lake Arthur, Lake Charles, and Pecan Island had been forced to quit trading with Abbeville “on account of insufficient water depth in Vermilion Bay.” Further, he said, “the water depth is so inadequate across Vermilion Bay that the Post Office Department directs [that] mail from Pecan Island [should be] carried [to Abbeville by way of] Lake Arthur . . . [which is] a longer haul, rather than risk having the mails tied up by low water in Vermilion Bay.”
Bixby agreed. “The cut-off is very much needed,” he said. “The uncertainty of crossing from the mouth of the Vermilion to the mouth of Schooner Bayou keeps many boats from coming to or leaving Abbeville during the winter season, the heaviest shipping season of the year. … Local commerce is greatly reduced and ... merchants hesitate to ship fragile or perishable freight. It is understood that boats have been grounded for several days and nights.”
One of the valuable winter commodities shipped from Abbeville each year, he said, was some $30,000 worth of pelts that came in from Pecan Island and the surrounding area.
He suggested a channel running about three and a half miles from the mouth of the Vermilion to Schooner Bayou that would have roughly the same dimensions as the Intracoastal Canal section already constructed from Vermilion Bay to the Mermentau River — 40 feet wide and 5 feet deep. Schultz estimated the cost of the project at about $70,000 and said it could be maintained for about $1,800 a year.
It takes a while for the Corps of Engineers to move from idea to actual project, and even longer for members of Congress to let loose the money to do the dredging, but Bixby’s and Schultz’s and McPherson’s arguments were eventually heard, and the Intracoastal does in fact run north of the open water of Vermilion Bay, connecting with the Vermilion River at Intracoastal City, a community that probably wouldn’t exist if the debate had gone the other way
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at jimbradshaw4321@gmail.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.
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