Bayou Plaquemine was an important link for the southeast communities of Louisiana and Texas, and was mentioned in Iberville’s journals, as he toured the newly claimed territory for France. The Bayou was a distributary of the Mississippi River, allowing for boat navigation through the Atchafalaya Basin on to Texas. The area surrounding Bayou Plaquemine was settled in the 1700s due to its access corridor. An early example of the use of Bayou Plaquemine is a story about traveling to Opelousas from New Orleans. “One went up the Mississippi from New Orleans to where Plaquemine is today, thence by way of Bayou Plaquemine to the Atchafalaya, then into Bayou Courtableau and up the Courtableau to Washington (Crisler, 107).
Planning for the lock at Plaquemine began as early as 1882, with various parties lobbying for a lock at Bayou Lafourche, while others lobbied for the eventual location at Bayou Plaquemine (Reuss, 89-90). In order to make Bayou Plaquemine the viable alternative, obstructions were removed further downstream from Bayou Sorrel, Grand River, Pigeon Bayou, and Grand and Flat lakes (Reuss, 89).
The Bayou Plaquemine Lock was designed by Colonel George Washington Goethals, engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who also designed and constructed the Panama Canal Lock. The lock was constructed over a fourteen-year period, spanning from 1895 to its completion in 1909. At that time, the lock was the highest fresh water lift of any lock in the world at 51 feet, which was an engineering feat because of its unique gravity water flow system. Historically, the lock served as the northern-most terminus of the Intracoastal canal, allowing cargo to be transported between the Mississippi River to the Atchafalaya Basin and then on to Texas.
The Plaquemine Lock House is significant architecturally because of its Dutch influence. It is often called the “Dutch Castle on the Hill.” The building was constructed with white glazed ceramic tiles for its reflective qualities to make it easier for river traffic to locate. At the time there were no light houses along the Mississippi River.
The increased boat traffic during and after World War II put a strain on the locks and there was demand for a larger lock. Ultimately a new lock was constructed in Port Allen in 1961 and the Plaquemine Lock was decommissioned after 52 years of operation. Thirteen years after the locks’ closing, the Army Corps of Engineers built a levee across the mouth of Bayou Plaquemine, permanently closing its access to the Mississippi River.
Once the bayou was closed off from the Mississippi, the bayou began to degrade. The fish population declined due to stagnation, lower water levels, and increased bacteria due to low flow capacity. Bayou Plaquemine more recently began receiving fresh water again from the Mississippi River thanks to the Fresh Water Pump Project in 2006. The Army Corps of Engineers, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and the City of Plaquemine worked together to pump fresh water back into the Bayou as well as to re-establish the fish population.
The Plaquemine Lock and 14-acre area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places after Gary James Hebert fought to keep it from being destroyed.