This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

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Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Basin Steamboats

In an age that many who read this cannot remember, there were steamboats in the Atchafalaya Basin. The smoke pouring from the smokestacks could be seen from long distances down Grand Lake, signaling yet another load of cypress logs being towed to a place where conversion to usable lumber was a final destination.

“Booms” was what they were called, these long rafts of cypress logs. Their transmutation from living tree to building material is part of another story, but the steamboat is the vehicle first associated with that journey. Since the logging industry offered employment to people who knew how to function in the swamp environment, those people knew and were familiar with steamboats as the “heavy haulers” of the Basin. People cut the trees, “floated timber” out of the swamp to bayous, and then formed up the logs into the booms. The booms were hooked up to the rear of steamboats and the boats pulled the rafts to a sawmill located on the edge of the Basin. Myon Bailey and his son-in-law Edward Couvillier were eye witnesses to the time when employment by the logging operations was very appreciated. However, it is worthwhile to remember that all the people interviewed here were fishermen first and last.

MB: When I first was livin at Williams Canal across there, them steamboat, Albert Anslem [Hanson?], them lumber company, big steamboats, goin cut timber across there. All the way down. Albert Anslem [steamboat] parked many times in the end of that canal where I was livin.

EC: I remember when that sucker [boat] used to go up to Catfish [bayou], hook on to that timber, and that steamboat would pass, then you could just see that timber goin for miles.

MB: Miles and miles. Oh yeah.

JD: Really? Those floats, those rafts would be that big?

EC: Miles and miles of that stuff.

That was how it was done. But the memories of the Myette Point families can be even more personal than that. They do remember steamboats for the work they offered, if indirectly, but also for the times the boats brought presents in the form of sweet things to eat or holiday presents for the children along the bayous. You also sense a feeling of wonder in their voices as they talk about the giant boats (on a relative scale) and the power they exhibited in doing the work they did. Neg Sauce was born in 1924 and was there for the last of the steamboat/logging operation. As fishermen, they sometimes got pieces of iron from the boats for trotline weights, and they could watch in rough weather to see the big log booms break up, many logs sinking never to be recovered.

NS: Yeah, a kid, I was a kid. I was little. Sometime we’d get some from them, you know? They had to have them big old boilers settin on the steamboat, to run the steamboat with. Steam engine.

JD: Umhm. So they had to have wood that they would throw in the boiler to boil…

NS: Yeah. They’d use wood. And they’d pile up wood on that boat. Throw a big old piece of wood in there, and they ready to take off, boy! That’s some powerful boats, them… yeah! Oh yeah! Pull seven, eight booms of logs like nothin.

JD: Is that right? They would pull em, too, they wouldn’t push em, eh?

NS: Uhuh. They’d pull em.

JD: Those booms never did get away from those boats sometimes?

NS: Oh yeah! They lost a lot of em. Big, bad weather would come up, you know, like we still get. And get so rough, it would break em up. Yeah, a lot of em was lost like that.

The memories belong to the early years of the Myette Point interviews. Those who remember the steamboats best were born before 1950, when the last boat to affect the families was seen. The recollections of Myon Bailey who was born in 1905 and worked in support of the steamboats are perhaps the richest. Myon was one of those who cut the trees and processed them for the booms. He speaks here with his son-in-law Putt Couvillier.

PC: But goin back to the olden days, what’s the name of that steamboat? That was the Albert Hanson, and the Captain, uh…

MB: Captain Clifton.

PC: Captain Clifton. And uh, Oscar Lange, what’s the one Oscar Lange had?

MB: He had uh, let’s see…

PC: Edmond Hughes, I believe, Edmond Hughes, or something like that. They had three steamboats. They had the Captain Clifton, the Albert Hanson and the other one…

MB: Suwanee. The Suwanee. Williams boat. The Suwanee, yeah, that was Williams, S.B. Williams boat. Yah. That’s the fastest steamboat they had around.

PC: We used to eat biscuits…they’d pull up in the channel there…

MB: That…that was the Captain Clifton …[or, remembering better] that was the Albert Hanson, they call it. The boat.

And he adds that he was stranded once, not quite a stowaway.

“Right out here in the lake. They’d get timber by the big old booms, you see. They were steamboats…the Albert Hanson, Cap’n…uh, I think it’s the Cap’t Ace. But uh, he used to come down with large tows of timber out of that lake…pass way out back of the island [Goat Island] out there, all that was lake. And go on down with his timber. And when he come back up, we used to live along there in them campboats, and they’d blow their horn. And they’d tie up in the Cut, there, and give us all some biscuits and treats, you know, something to eat. And then they’d blow the horn and we’d get off the boat, and they’d take off and go on up. Comin up light, you see, they’d pass through that Cut, there. [. . . ] We’d go on that boat, but one time they pushed off with me on there. They had to come back to the bank and let me off. You know, they blowed the whistle, had to get off. ” [Putt Couvillier, 1974]

Edward Couvillier, born in 1928 toward the end of the timber operations, was still able to work “floating timber” and then booming up the logs. And Putt Couvillier and his wife Dot, both born in 1938, were, as children, in on the final phase of steamboats in the Basin.

JD: Now, is that…at that time, was that the only big traffic there was on the rivers, was those steamboats?

PC: Well, you didn’t see too many tugboats or nothing. Most…mostly steamboats.

JD: Ok, when was the last time you can remember steamboats makin any use of that, uh, that water at all? When…?

PC: Well, that’s been many a year ago, I mean. That’s right after I was…I was just old enough to walk and get around and follow the gang, you see? When they used to pass. I was born in ’38, so that wasn’t… I believe early ‘40s. Somewhere around there, I wasn’t very old.

These timber-industry steamboats were not the truly giant floating palaces that moved commerce up and down the big rivers. Those giants carried people and tremendous volumes of goods on their decks. Most of the Basin stern-wheeled boats were much smaller than that because they had to be able to negotiate the twists and turns of the swamp bayous pulling the very long, multiple-segmented booms. And because the places they went were usually shallow, the boats were designed to work in shallow water. The Carrie B. Schwing shown here was first built as a larger boat that was probably confined to the larger bayous and lakes in the Basin. After the original burned down, the second version was shorter and could probably maneuver in smaller waterways. Information on these two boats is taken from a self-published (2006) book by James Hymel, entitled “A Human Interest Look at the Carrie B.” The model by Billy Pontiff is also of one of the shorter boats.

The period when steamboats traveled the Basin coincided with the existence of the big cypress forests. There was some employment for them in the newly emerging oil industry but the busy season was over, so to speak. When the cypress was finally logged out in the late 1930s, the steamboats began to appear less and less, so that in a few years there would be only a reduced number for the young Putt Couvillier to remember. As though to prolong a sense lingering usefulness, the final page in the story of some of the steamboats was written in a way that commemorates their structural features rather than their nautical functions. Some ended as fishdocks in Calumet.

PC: Yep. Oscar Lange bought one of em for a fish dock.

JD: Is that what Oscar Lange’s building is? An old riverboat?

PC: Old uh, old uh, steamboat. Used to haul timber.

Others were finally rested in places like New Iberia and served as floating casinos or dancehalls. The one there was called the Showboat. Still others had their top decks removed and rebuilt as residences in the Basin, such as was done to house Myrtle Burns Bigler and her husband Harold, along the Atchafalaya River.

With the close of the timber industry and the beginning of diesel engines as a preferred propulsion system, and the deepening of channels in the Basin, the steamboats faded away. They are commemorated today only in pictures, some housed in the archives of the timber industry and others in museums etc.

The River is at 14.3 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 16.3 by May 12 five days hence. At good rise. The Mississippi and Ohio are supporting significantly more water. We’ll see.

Rise and Shine, Jim


Blogger Michael Child said...

You may find this post on the beginning of restoration of the last ocean going steam tug of interest.

Click here link in post to pictures.

July 24, 2009 7:28 AM  
Blogger jim said...

Thanks Michael, it's always fun to hear from someone so far away. It reemphasizes the reach of the web. Your work on promoting awareness of your local history is fascinating. Perhaps I can use some of your techniques. Thanks, Jim

July 24, 2009 8:59 AM  

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