Washington's claim to settlement in 1720 puts it a year ahead of New Orleans, but it wasn't until March 31, 1835, 177 years ago yesterday, that the town was officially incorporated. In the 1800s, Washington became a significant inland port for the Opelousas district. Steamboats reached the area from New Orleans by way of a maze of bayous and rivers that ran through the Atchafalaya Basin and connected to Bayou Courtableau. The route had apparently been established by the late 1700s. Land in St. Landry Parish was fertile and well suited to agriculture and cattle raising. As pioneers arrived and the area began to flourish, water transportation to New Orleans became increasingly important. In the 1790s, businessmen, planters, and others put up their own money to clear the Courtableau and the Atchafalaya of huge logjams and other obstructions so that boats could reach Acadiana.
Washington was as far up Bayou Courtableau as a decent-size steamboat could travel and it became the collection point for produce from the plantations in the area.
Cotton, sugar, and livestock were brought to Washington by wagon or in small boats and then transferred to steam packets bound for New Orleans. By the middle 1800s, Washington had become the most important port in St. Landry Parish and as important as any others west of the Mississippi River.
In 1860, for example, there were 91 steam packets (boats that carried both cargo and people) operating on Bayou Courtableau, as compared with 90 in Bayou Lafourche and 94 in Bayou Teche. Thus, Washington was the head of a a major commercial route.
A study in 1877 showed that more than 30,000 bales of cotton were shipped that year from the Washington port, as well as 32,000 sacks of cotton seed, 3,000 hogsheads of sugar, 5,800 barrels of molasses, 30,000 dozen poultry, 15,000 head of cattle, 20,000 hides, 200 barrels of rice, and 2,000 sacks of wool.
All of that added up to commerce worth some $7 million running through the steamboat town--a healthy chunk of change in 1877. The steam locomotive meant the end of the steamboat era in Washington (as in many other places) but the town still gets an economic boost from the old steamboat trade. A steady stream of visitors still comes to see houses built in the heyday of the steamboat and to do a bit of antique hunting.
Even the celebrants at the annual Catfish Festival (this year April 19-22) who come to dance to modern music are not too far away from the history of the town. Just a few hundred yards from the stage are remnants of an old cotton gin that made its living off the bayou trade. A few hundred yards in the other direction is the old "steamboat turnaround," a cut in the bayou that allowed bigger boats to back up, turn around, and head to New Orleans with its first deck filled with St. Landry trade goods and the upper deck with passengers who prayed that the cargo this time was cotton, or sugar, or even chickens--and that they wouldn't have to live for nearly a week above a herd of motion-sick cattle.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.