Written by Gene Barron
From the 1840s until the advent of the railroads in Union Parish, steamboats were the main method of transporting goods and travel into and from Union Parish. Although travel on the Bayous was hazardous and sporadic to say the least, these boats were the best mode of shipping cotton, stave bolts and other raw materials produced in Union Parish to markets outside the parish. They also served as a mode of transportation for passengers.
The sternwheelers that plied the Bayous of D’Arbonne and Big Corney were considerably smaller than those of the Mississippi, Red River and Ouachita Rivers. Most were about 24 feet wide and about 100 feet long and able to transport 400 or so bale of cotton at a time. The life of these steamboats was on average only a few years. The hazards of the Bayous took their toll and the danger of fires from sparks from the smoke stacks was great.
Travel on the Bayous was only possible during high water usually in the winter and early spring. Goods were stored in warehouses at landings along D’Arbonne and Big Corney until the boats were able to transport them to Monroe. There, they were moved onto larger steamboats and taken to New Orleans.
The most noted landings in Union Parish were Mosely’s Bluff Landing, Holland’s Bluff Landing, Farmerville Landing, Stein’s Bluff Landing, Shiloh and Harris Landings and Cobb’s Landing. Mosely’s Bluff, located several miles below Farmerville on the west bank of Bayou D’Arbonne, Holland’s Bluff Landing was located just above the Ouachita Parish line on the east bank of Bayou D’Arbonne. Farmerville Landing, located just west of Edgewood Plantation at the mouth of Big Corney Bayou on the east bank. Stein’s Bluff was located a mile or so above Farmerville Landing on the east bank of Big Corney Bayou. Shiloh and Harris Landings were located just north of Shiloh on opposite banks of Big Corney Bayou, Shiloh Landing on the west bank and Harris Landing on the east bank. Cobb’s Landing was located about 4 miles up Big Corney Bayou from Shiloh landing, on the east bank.
During the late 1880s the Corp of Engineers with the aid of snagboats systematically cleared the channels of logs and snags. Also slips were cut into the banks at most landings to allow room for the steamboat to turn around. As the corps meticulously recorded a daily log of their operations, they also recorded where the wrecks of steamers occurred in years passed which were numerous.
The most notable steamboats that served Union Parish were the Rosa B, The Mattie, The Helen Vaughn and The Belle of D’Arbonne. The Rosa B was built in 1895 by Cicero Bearden. After Bearden’s premature death in 1896, Captain Oscar Baughman acquired the boat and operated it until February 16, 1901 when the little steamer burned while docked at the Farmerville Landing. Passengers and crew sleeping on board managed to escape.
The Mattie was owned and operated by Marion Willis Wilson who lived in Farmerville. The Mattie operated mainly between Monroe and Moseley Bluff and on Bartholomew Bayou transporting freight, such as staves, and occasionally passengers. Mattie was a relatively small steam boat. Wilson continued to operate the steamboat until about 1911. Standing on top of the Mattie is Captain Willis Wilson. The lady on the left of the forward deck is Maranda Calk Hicks and her husband, Wesley, is the second person from the left. The fourth person from the left is Robert Terral. Pete and Fannie Taylor Skains are standing on the shore at the right.
The Helen Vaughn was a major transporter of goods from Cobb’s landing to Monroe and points in between during her existence in the 1880s. The Helen Vaughn was built by Captain H. W. Vaughn. She was later owned and operated by Harry Meek Williams. In 1894 she made eleven trips between Cobb’s landing and Monroe. At 25 feet she was wider than most boats that served landings on the D’Arbonne and Corney Bayous. The bayous are strewn with the wreckage of steamboats and shipping goods on the boats put the goods in peril but there was little alternative to getting the good to market in the days before the railroad. In March 1895 the Helen Vaughn caught fire, supposedly from sparks from her smoke stack, and burned at Whites Ferry near the mouth of D’Arbonne along with 450 bales of cotton on board from Shiloh Landing and Stein’s Bluff.
The Belle of D’Arbonne, one of the finest river boats traveling the Union Parish Bayous, operated regularly between Farmerville and Monroe in 1894 when it carried regular advertisements in the Gazette. In 1895 she was enlarged and repaired. At the time this photo was taken, she was commanded by Captain H. W. Williams and is shown in the photo but is is unclear which man he is.
When rail service came to Union Parish and offered a more efficient, faster, and certainly safer mode of transporting goods and passengers the steamboat era began to wane. By 1920 the steamboats on the Bayous of Union Parish were virtually a thing of the past.
Gene Barron is a native of Spearsville, Union Parish, Louisiana. He has a genealogy database of 182,000 names, who are all connected to his family.
Gene has also written two historical books on Union Parish. I highly recommend both.