December, 2012. Plaquemine, Louisiana. The Panama Canal Connection

Posted on December 7, 2012


Bayous large and small thread their way through lower Louisiana, meandering across fields, flowing through towns, widening out in some places to form lakes and swamps, sustaining game and aquatic life along the way.

These bayous were originally important transportation routes – river highways providing the only way people and goods could reach the interior of lower Louisiana.

As a distributary of the Mississippi River, Bayou Plaquemine was used by Europeans in the 1770s as an avenue to southwest and northern Louisiana via the Atchafalaya, Red and other rivers.

Due to its location, a settlement grew up along this bayou near its junction with the Mississippi, and was named Plaquemine. The settlement continued to grow in the antebellum era, as massive plantations were constructed in nearby regions. The lumber industry boomed there from the mid-18th century until around 1930, when the last of virgin bald cypress trees were cut down.

photo (2)Over time, the flow of goods up and down the Plaquemine increased beyond the carrying capacity of canoes and pirogues. Because of the often dissimilar water levels of the Mississippi and the bayou, a lock was needed to accommodate larger boats and barge traffic.

Construction on the Plaquemine Lock was started in 1895. It was designed by Colonel George W. Goethals, the assistant to the chief engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Goethals later gained distinction as chairman and chief engineer for the design and construction of the locks through the Panama Canal.

When completed in 1909, the Plaquemine Lock had the highest fresh water lift of any lock in the world — 51 feet — and a unique engineering design that utilized a gravity flow principle. The gates were later modernized by the installation of hydraulic pumps.

photo (1)

The old lock house now serves as a museum and interpretive center.

The lock served its purpose well until increased river traffic during and after World War II became more than it could handle efficiently.  In 1961, a larger set of locks began operating at Port Allen and the Plaquemine Lock was closed after 52 years of service.


Levee sealing off the Plaquemine from the Mississippi

Thirteen years later, the Corps of Engineers supervised the construction of the present levee across the mouth of Bayou Plaquemine at the Mississippi River, giving the historic old structure greater stability and providing flood protection for the town, while closing off access to the Mississippi River through Bayou Plaquemine.lock6