Heart of Louisiana: Old Washington

A painting depicts Washington in its heyday as a busy steamboat port (from TownofWashingtonLa.org)
A painting depicts Washington in its heyday as a busy steamboat port (from TownofWashingtonLa.org)

The town of Washington is nowhere near the Mississippi River.  But it claims to have been the busiest steamboat port between New Orleans and St. Louis.   Those large paddle wheelers would arrive on Bayou Courtableau.

"It came through Bayou Plaquemine, Upper Grand River, up the Atchafalaya River, up to Bayou Courtableau to Washington," says local tourism director Raynold Soileau.

Cotton and other crops from nearby plantations were delivered to Washington on flatboats, stored in warehouses, and then packed on steamboats for shipment to New Orleans.  One of those original warehouses, built to hold cotton in the 1820's, still stands at the edge of the bayou.

The first steamboats started visiting Washington right around the 1820's, and they created a boom that lasted for the next 80 years. But that changed when the last steamboat, the Warren, left Washington in May of 1900.

"Well that's when the railroads came through and that kind of killed the steamboat business back then," says Soileau.

He says many of the 19th century homes and businesses from that era still stand today.  In fact, the entire town has been declared a national historic district, and that has led to comparisons between Washington, Louisiana and the colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

"Many people were attracted over there and then they said that we are sort of similar to them," says Soileau.  "The one thing is though that we have our main buildings over here, the old buildings are still there and they're preserved."

Today, the steamboat warehouse is a restaurant.  You can see one of the town's first hotels, built in 1825.

"It was called the Eagle Hotel, the Garland Hotel," recalls Soileau.  "Eventually they called it the Honeymoon Hotel because people from New Orleans came down to Washington on their honeymoons."

Another pre-Civil War business, the Schmidt Hotel, is a couple of blocks away.  The town has two churches, built within a few years of the Civil War.  The Hinckley house dates from the late 1700 and there are several larger plantation homes that reflect the different styles of a diverse group of early settlers.  80 percent of the buildings in Washington, its old homes and businesses, are historically significant.

"We were lucky also during the Civil War," says Soileau, " our buildings were not burned down.  People moved into them and they kept them up. And that's why we have them today."

And Washington's old schoolhouse is a mall for antiques and other household collectibles.  The two-story building is full of old home furnishings and the school gym is more like a flea market, open Friday through Sunday.   It all seems to fit perfectly in this town which has done a remarkable job of preserving its past.

Several of the historic homes in Washington now operate as bed and breakfasts.

For more information, go online to http://townofwashingtonla.org/antiques.html.