The B&L Canal Co. • GIW

The Barataria and Lafourche Company Canal and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway

Before European colonization, Louisiana natural landscape consisted of dense woodland and vast areas of swamps and marshes making overland travel extremely difficult. There were no roads or trails and the early explorers and settlers in what is now Louisiana had to rely on the the natural waterways as a means of transportation. Water transportation was so vital to Louisiana that almost all its major cites are located on the natural rivers and bayous. La Salle first explored the Mississippi river from its head waters to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico and claimed the river and its drainage basin for King Louis XIV, beginning a period of French colonization.

All of Louisiana’s sugarcane producing area from Lafayette on the West to New Orleans on the East to Baton Rouge on the North to the Gulf of Mexico is part of the Mississippi River Delta. The delta soil is rich alluvial river. Deposits are brought by the river from the topsoil of the central United States form the Appalachian Mountains to the Rocky Mountains and from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, an area which covers 40% of the United States.

The Mississippi delta
The Mississippi delta

Due to the influx of nutrient-rich soil from the Mississippi River, the delta is a prime area for farming sugarcane, cotton and indigo, crops that were introduced into Louisiana farmlands during the pre-Civil War era. The Mississippi River Delta resembles a hand with the fingers representing the numerous rivers and Bayous (distributaries) branching off from the Main channel in a mostly South direction and flowing south to the Gulf of Mexico. See the map above.

The first to arrive in the delta bayou country were the French, who arrived in La Nouvelle-Orléans, by ship in the 1700’s and then took small boats farther up the Mississippi River to the junction of the delta distributes and then migrated south and west using the natural bayous (distributaries). At that time the Delta distributaries were full of logs, sand bars and mud flats and were only navigable by small boats using paddles or push poles.

The United States purchased Louisiana in 1803 and English speaking people from the East Coast of the United States begin settling Louisiana's Bayou Country.

In 1820 Bartholomew Barrow sold his farm in North Carolina except for one acre of the family graveyard and moved to Feliciana Parishes of Louisiana where he purchased 1,025 arpents of land from his brother William III of Highland for $20,000.00, the place which would become Afton Villa.

In 1828 Robert Ruffin Barrow came to Terrebonne Parish with $1,800 and a horse named Tom Bennett given to him by his farther Bartholomew Barrow of Afton Villa. He was such a good businessman that in thirty years he became the richest man in Louisiana and one of the largest planters in the South, owning plantations in several Louisiana Parishes and Texas. In Terrebonne Parish he owned Residence, Myrtle Grove, Roberta Grove Honduras, Crescent Farm, Caillou Grove, and Point farm; Locust Grove in Assumption; Oak Grove in La Fourche; D.Ville in Ascension.

Robert Ruffin Barrow
Robert Ruffin Barrow

As RR Barrow’s agricultural empire grew he became increasingly aware of the need for a viable canal system to bring the raw sugarcane by steamboat to his sugar mills and to transport the refined sugar to New Orleans for export. During the 1820’s and 1830’s sugarcane farms and plantations flourished in the South East Louisiana and it became necessary to be able to transport their products to New Orleans. Water transportation was the only viable solution. The problem was that all the rivers and bayous run North and South from their head waters to the Gulf of Mexico and an East West waterway is necessary to transport goods from the Tech Attakapas Region (Lafayette, New Iberia, Franklin, Morgan City) and the Terrebonne-Lafourche region (Houma, Tibodeaux, Montegut, Raceland) to New Orleans. See the map.

Canals had to be dug in an East-West direction to connect the Mississippi river at New Orleans to the bayous and rivers running North South in the delta. The rich alluvial soil and warm climate was ideal for growing sugarcane and beginning in the early 1800’s sugarcane became the principal cash crop in the delta. The Teche (Attakapas country), Lafayette, New Iberia, Franklin, Jeanerette were some of the main sugarcane growing regions of Louisiana.
There were many different people and companies that dug canals linking various Lakes and Bayous through out the late 1700’s and early 1800’s but they built without any coordination that would provide a strategic link for all the bayous and rivers between New Orleans and Bayou Teche (Attakapas country). Most were not engineered properly and were navigable only on certain river stages at a certain time of the year, some subsidized by state and Local governments, but none provided a dependable link for steamboat transportation between New Orleans and the Attakapas Region.

In 1829 Dr. Walter Brashear and Judge Charles Derbigny formed the Barataria and Lafourche Canal Company (B&L) to try to link the Attakapas Region to the Mississippi River near New Orleans. All the previous attempts were a more northerly route from around Donaldsonville north to the Atchafalaya River and then down to Bayou Teche which were long and difficult to maintain. Brasher and Derbigny proposed the new B&L route to be a more southerly near sea level route that would be shorter and easier to maintain. The new route would go west from the Mississippi River near New Orleans and use some existing lakes and bayous, also the marsh land in the southern route was easier to dredge. The new route would go west form Mississippi River at New Orleans through Lake Salvador and Bayou Lafourche at Lockport (name for the B&l Locks), Lake Field, Lake Long, connect with Bayou Terrebonne at Bourg through the company canal still used today, up Bayou Terrebonne to Houma, through a canal form Bayou Terrebonne to Bayou Black where Canal St. in Houma is today, through Bayou Black to Bayou Boeuf and Margan City, across the Atchafalaya River at Morgan City to Bayou Teche and through Bayou Teche as far as Breaux Bridge.

In 1859, thirty years after it was started the B&L went bankrupt due to mismanagement and questionable financial practices and RR Barrow, the richest man in the state, formed the B&L #2 and bought all assets of the B&L and transferred them to the B&L #2. Mr. Barrow needed steamboats to transport his sugar to New Orleans through a reliable canal system. At the time of the acquisition his intentions was for his own use and the canal tolls were just a minor consideration. Also, connecting with the Attakapas country was not his primary concern.

The Civil War devastated the sugar plantations and RR Barrow's empire was no exception.

In a matter of a few years he went from the richest man in Louisiana to bankrupt and all progress on the the B&L #2 canal system was stopped. RR Barrow died of cholera in 1875. But the story doesn’t end there. He had two children: Robert Ruffin Barrow Jr. (1858-1926) and Volumnia Roberta Barrow. Although RR Barrow Jr. (known as Uncle Ruffie to me) was only 17 years old at the time of his father’s death, he possessed the knowledge of the sugar industry and the good business sense of his father.

Robert Ruffin Barrow Jr.
Robert Ruffin Barrow Jr.

Soon he had the title secured and made productive Myrtle Grove, Roberta Grove, Honduras and Residence Plantation as well as his sugar mill on Myrtle Grove Plantation near the intersection of Bayou Terrebonne and Bayou Petite Caillou at Presque Isle and a saw mill on Bayou Terrebonne at Residence Plantation. He also become interested in finishing and making profitable the canal venture started by his father, the Barataria and Lafourche Canal No 2 (B&L#2).

In the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s the U.S. Government began having interest in improving natural water ways to be used in commerce in South East Louisiana Bayou Country. One of the biggest obstacles in his canal system connecting New Orleans to the Attakapas country was maintaining the natural bayous particular Bayou Black which was clogged with vegetation and tree stumps. Bayou Black was the principal leg in connecting the eastern part of his canal system east of Houma to Bayou Teche near Morgan City. RR Jr. realized that if he could get the U.S Government to clear Bayou Black and Bayou Terrebonne he would only have to maintain the B&L Company Canal form Bayou Terrebonne at Bourg to his locks at the Mississippi River at Westwego.

The Company Canal was the B&L private toll canal and could then control all the marine commerce moving across South East Louisiana from Lafayette to New Orleans. RR Jr.’s plantations in Terrebonne and his sugar mill on Bayou Terrebonne were doing well and he was again a wealthy man. As his wealth grew he bought a home on St. Charles St. in New Orleans and mingled with the high society there which gave him contacts with political figures and influence in government affairs at all levels. He used his wealth to politically influence local and state governments to pressure the U. S. Government to have the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers dredge Bayou Lafourche, Bayou Terrebonne and Bayou Black which was accomplished between 1900 and 1910.

During that time RR Jr. had dredged and improved the Company Canal between Bayou Terrebonne at Bourg and the Mississippi River at Westwego. By 1912 steamboats were transporting goods between Breaux Bridge to New Orleans. RR Jr. had accomplished what no one else had done and for the first time there was a stable navigable water way connecting the Attakapas Country with the Mississippi River at New Orleans. All boats passing through the canal had to pay tolls and there began public pressure for the canals to be made public. The Army Corps of Engineers also saw that the success of the B&L indicated a need for an East-West inland water route across Southern Louisiana to connect the Mississippi River with Texas.

Towns along the Teche

  • St. Landry Parish: Port Barre, Leonville, Arnaudville.
  • St. Martin Parish: Cecilia, Breaux Bridge, Parks, St. Martinville.
  • Iberia Parish: Loreauville, Morbihan, New Iberia, Jeanerette.
  • St. Mary Parish: Charenton, Baldwin, Franklin, Garden City, Centerville, Patterson.
Map of the Barataria Lafourche Canal - From stationery used by R.R. Barrow Jr.
Map of the Barataria Lafourche Canal - From stationery used by R.R. Barrow Jr.

RR Jr. rationalized that sooner or later the government would build a canal that would make the Company Canal obsolete. Realizing this he sold the Company Canal to the U.S Government in 1925, that became part of the Gulf Inreacoastal Waterway (GIW). Over the years the U.S. Corps of Engineers re-routed, straightened and improved the GIW but still parts of the Company Canal are used by local boats and shipyards particular the section between Bayou Terrebonne and the GIW at Bourg and between the GIW and Bayou Lafourche at Lockport. The GIW goes through Residence Plantation and one can stand on its banks almost any time of day or night and see a tugboat and barge; now the GIW connects the chemical and oil refineries in Texas to the central U.S via the Mississippi River.

Residence Plantation has established shipyards and marine related industries on its frontage with the GIW; the Barrow heirs are benefiting from the efforts of RR Barrow Sr. and Jr. 100 years later.

Tugboats on the Company Canal
Tugboats on the Company Canal