In the 1920s, Lake Charles and the surrounding areas were feeling the painful effects of a struggling lumber industry, a rice depression, post-World War One economic problems, namely two recessions, rebuilding from the Great Fire of 1910 and a Category 3 Hurricane in 1918.
Fast forward to 2021 and consider our current plight: COVID-19, international economic loss, two hurricanes and a winter storm to boot. The similarities are frighteningly similar.
Yet, something happened almost one hundred years ago that changed the course of this region's history for the better. Our business and government forefathers had an outrageous thought.
They concluded that the area needed a deep-water port and ship channel. Why? Citizens and leaders back then thought a port would put the area on the map and create long term economic opportunities
Concocting such an idea really was thinking out of the box. What you may not know is how dire the economic situation was for the Lake Area in the first quarter of the 20th Century. A paper archived at McNeese State University and entitled, "Port of Lake Charles: A Vision For the Future" states, "By the 1920s however, Lake Charles was dying. The staggering depression took its toll on this small struggling community. Lake Charles was in financial crisis. By 1925 it was feared the city would not survive. Saw mills had virtually depleted the vast forests of virgin pine, and lumber mills had closed."
In 1916, the Lake Charles’ Association of Commerce (Chamber of Commerce) started advocating for a deep water port based on a study of the Port of New Orleans. The agency brought together local government and civic groups to build support for a marine facility.
Eventually, the nurturing paid off. Another paper in the university archives "The Industrial Development of Lake Charles, Louisiana 1920-1950” states that "In order to retain their industrial strength, the people decided to obtain Federal aid to improve their natural waterway. The people wanted a seaport."
Business leaders and elected officials generated a plan for a port that was submitted to the federal government. The response was not what they anticipated.
According to the “Industrial Development of Lake Charles” paper, the United States Army Engineers declined the request and stated, "It' can't be done. It won't work."
Residents decided to take another course of action.
"The citizens of Lake Charles determined to build themselves a seaport, even without Federal appropriations. Thus in the year 1921, the people of Lake Charles made the momentous decision to build a ship channel and port facilities with their own money," according to the “Industrial Development of Lake Charles” paper.
Parish voters approved a special bond issue in 1922. A lawsuit was filed by the Union Sulphur Company contesting the election. The parish district court ruled in favor of the Union Sulphur Company but the decision was overturned by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
What happened next?
"The city took on the responsibility for the first Lake Charles seaport bond issue of $1,700,000. Then they raised the amount to $4,450,000 and finally to $7,750,000. They dredged a channel, bought property, built wharves and wharf sheds. The seaport was linked with railways serving Lake Charles, and became the only American seaport built and put into operation without one cent of Federal aid. The people of Lake Charles put up their money and built their port on the theory that the primary function of a seaport is to develop industrially the immediate area it serves."
In 1924 the state legislature created the Lake Charles Harbor and Terminal District which officially opened in 1926.
Our city is built on strong shoulders – using our own resources -- and big dreams. As we rebuild, remember the hard fought wins and consider what our outrageous and out of the box legacy will be.
A new Interstate 10/Calcasieu River Bridge with lots of local support and all the financial help the federal government and state can provide is a thought.