January, 2012. Washington, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana

Posted on January 7, 2012

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We seem to be collecting “Washingtons”.  Perhaps you’ll remember previous posts on Washington, North Carolina, and Washington, Virginia, both of whom claim to be the first towns named after George Washington.

Even though Washington, Louisiana makes no such claim, of course we had to visit anyway.

What really intrigued me was a little research that produced a website claiming Washington is to Louisiana what Williamsburg is to Virginia.  Oh, come ON now. That’s quite a claim!

Upon close inspection, we could see that the little town of around 1200 people does have a number of outstanding examples of architecture ranging from brick three-story Federal, to board and batten cottages, to plantation-style homes.

The live oaks are big and beautiful and a few homes have been nicely preserved, but to be honest, some have seen better days. A drive up and down the back streets quickly showed us there’s plenty of squalor to cancel out the beauty.

The same website and a brochure we picked up at the local museum claim 80% of the buildings in town are listed on the National Historic Register.  If you’re counting those back streets as part of the town – well, I’m not sure about that.

But whatever.   Every place has a story, and Washington’s is more interesting than many, as we learned at the town’s nice little museum.

Washington is the third oldest settlement in Louisiana, dating from 1720.  The history of its name seems to be a bit hazy – it started out (I think) as Courtableau, as it is was located on the Bayou Courtableau, which took its name from the original land grant holder, Jacques Courtableau.  He eventually turned much (or all) of his land over to the Catholic Church, so in 1774 it became known as Church’s Landing.

Interestingly, I could find no indication of when the town was renamed Washington, and the nice lady at the Museum didn’t know either.

Washington’s glory days began in the early 1830’s when the first steamboat from New Orleans slipped into the Bayou from the Atchafalaya River. (A side note: the Atchafalaya River is the deepest and swiftest river in the U. S. today, so says the Museum lady.)

From the arrival of that first steamboat until the railroads came to town in the 1880’s, Washington was the largest inland port between New Orleans and St. Louis.

Cattle from Texas were driven to Washington for shipment south.  Sugar cane, cotton, livestock, and other raw materials produced on Louisiana farms and plantations, destined for markets in New Orleans, kept the wharf on Bayou Courtableu a very busy place. As the town grew, hotels, stores and taverns served passengers, and steamboat captains built comfortable homes for their families.

By 1860 there were ninety-one steam packets operating between New Orleans and Washington. In 1877, the total value of commerce in Washington was seven million dollars.

Then the railroad was built in 1883, and the town’s importance and size gradually diminished.

The last steamboat left Washington in 1900, and there is little today to suggest this tiny town was once a center for trade and commerce.

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