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Dave Trips: Plaquemine Locks State Historic Site

See How One of Louisiana's Earliest Waterways Helped our State
Posted at 4:30 AM, Nov 20, 2020

Driving east toward the sun I stopped along the mighty Mississippi. The water was high and moving fast. Even today, the Mississippi River is a major transportation route, over a half a billion tons go up and down the lower part of the river. The City of Plaquemine is only about 15 miles south of the I-10 bridge at Baton Rouge, but by water, you can double that mileage because of twists and bends in the river. It's where Bayou Plaquemine joined the river before the modern levee system was built. early European settlers used Bayou Plaquemine to reach the Atchafalaya Basin and it's network of waterways to settle southwest Louisiana. Eventually it became a major transportation route.

Flooding was frequent in Plaquemine, and levees continued to climb higher. So a lock was needed because navigation was critical for Bayou Plaquemine. So the design of the Plaquemine Lock was born. It took 14 years to complete the lock, and the man who designed it, Colonel George Washington Goethals, eventually became the chief engineer of the Panama Canal project! Using a gravity flow system, the Plaquemine lock had a freshwater lift of 51 feet, the highest in the world at the time. It created a cut through from the Mississippi to the inner, more remote areas of Louisiana. Later, a more modern hydraulic system controlled the gates, and it eventually became the northern terminus of the Intracoastal Waterway.

It continued operating through World War II and the United States economic boom of the 1950s. The lock finally closing for good when a larger set of locks were built upstream at Port Allen. In the 70s the levee system completely cut Bayou Plaquemine from the Mississippi. The lack of water flow caused the bayou's water quality to suffer. In 2006 a new pumping system was installed to increase flow to Bayou Plaquemine to improve water quality and encourage recreational use.

Today it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Atchafalaya Water Heritage Trail. It's now run by Iberville Parish, and the city of Plaquemine and is open Tuesday thru Friday. Waterfront Park is great for a walk and You can visit the lock house, now used as a visitors center and museum. Take in the displays and interactive exhibits and see how life once was along Old Man River.