Heart of Louisiana: Historic Town of Washington
(WVUE) - 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.
Large paddlewheelers would arrive on Bayou Courtableau.
"It came through Bayou Plaquemine, upper Grand River, up the Atchafalaya River, up to Bayou Courtableau to Washington," said 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 still stands at the edge of the bayou.
This cotton warehouse was built in the 1820s. That's around the time the first steamboats started visiting Washington. That 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," Soileau said.
Soileau is the local tourist director. He said 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 to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
"Many people were attracted over there, and then they said that we are sort of similar to them," Soileau said. "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, even they called it the Honeymoon Hotel because people from New Orleans came down to Washington on their honeymoons," Soileau said.
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 Hinkley House dates from the late 1700s, and there are several larger plantation homes that reflect the different styles of a diverse group of early settlers. Eighty percent of the buildings in Washington - old homes and businesses - are historically significant.
"We were lucky also during the Civil War," Soileau said. "Our buildings were not burned down. People moved into them and they kept them up. And that's why we have them today."
Washington's old school house 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.
It all seems to fit perfectly in this town that has done a remarkable job of preserving its past.
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