July 8, 2018
Had you been sitting on the bank of Bayou Bartholomew several miles below Bastrop on the afternoon of December 13, 1857, you would have heard her piercing scream long before she came into view. Heavily laden with cotton bales, the steamboat W.W. Farmer eased cautiously along with the current. Water levels were rising but still low. The first boat of the season had been able to enter the mouth of the bayou from the Ouachita River only nine days before. The Silver Moon, Lucy Robinson, and Young America were also trading up and down the sinuous stream so narrow that two boats could barely pass. Navigation was treacherous. In two months the Red Chief would lose a smokestack here on an overhanging limb. In two years the Princess would lose a boiler and liberate the souls of nearly two hundred passengers. Lookouts on the Farmer watched for sparks from the stacks and quickly doused any that settled on the incendiary cotton bales.
Coming upstream a couple of days earlier, Farmer’s steam whistle had announced stops at the numerous plantations and other landings. Mail, freight and Christmas orders, mostly via New Orleans, were off-loaded. Wealthier customers received crates of iced oysters fresher than those in today’s local markets, and fine cloths from Europe. Apples and oranges were also treasures in this emerging pioneer world. Yeoman farmers picked up staples such as flour and coffee, and necessities like plow harnesses and tobacco.
This scene was being repeated in smaller streams across northeast Louisiana. Steamboats worked Boeuf River to Point Jefferson, the Tensas River as far as Waverly, and Bayou D’Arbonne above Farmerville. Flood control and navigation projects on these waters were decades in the future. Commerce and life in general revolved around the cyclic, nourishing floodwaters.
The concept of manifest destiny as it applies to nearsighted efforts to control natural processes eventually overwhelmed most of the smaller waterways. Dredging and straightening converted much of the Boeuf and Tensas Rivers into man made plumbing systems. Bayou D’Arbonne was dammed. Some good came of these projects but rarely at the levels predicted. Prophesied benefits to commerce seldom materialized, and one hundred year floods ignore the calendar with increasing frequency. Aquatic wildlife populations took a beating. Several taxa of fish disappeared when critical stream flows, water quality, and bottom substrates were altered.
There are still semblances of wild bayous in the area. The captains of the W.W.Farmer and other such vessels would recognize Bayou D’Arbonne below the dam, Tensas River within the national wildlife refuge, and the first few miles of Bayou Bartholomew. There is no good reason not to keep them so.
(Adapted from Bayou-Diversity – Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country, LSU Press)