That coastal route is a "natural," its original designers simply connected existing bodies of water to form a channel from border to border in Louisiana, and eventually from Texas to Florida.
J. H. Lawler, from whom the "Law" in the name of the St. Landry community of Lawtell is derived, had the same idea. But he wanted his canal a little farther to the north.
Lawler and members of the Littell family (the other half of the town name: Law-tell) laid out the first subdivision and plat for the town sometime before 1916, but that was one of his later ideas.
He was one of the directors of an irrigation canal company that began planning in 1902 to build a canal 250 feet wide and 75 miles long from Washington, through St. Landry and Acadia parishes to Bayou Nezpique, and then into Calcasieu Parish. They planned then to build a railroad line alongside the canal to haul out the rice crop that would be grown on more than 500,000 acres that would be irrigated by the canal waters.
Those ambitious plans had grown even bigger by 1903. The canal would be dug deep enough to allow barge and steamboat traffic. It would be linked to Bayou Courtableau at Washington (which linked via a network of waterways to the Mississippi River), and so provide a water route from Calcasieu Parish to the Mississippi River -- in essence, an inland Intracoastal Waterway that would be better protected from storms and storm tides.
Lawler's idea wasn't new. It was just bigger than most.
Irrigation canals had begun to span the Louisiana rice belt in 1894, when C. L. Shaw and A. D. McFarland began a system of canals near Jennings. At first they used pumps to lift water from bayous into the canals which irrigated huge tracts of land. Some of the later canals would be fed by deep irrigation wells..
The Abbott brothers of Crowley quickly adapted the canal system on their farms and by 1898 about 150 miles of canals, with a total irrigation capacity of 55,000 acres, were in existence in Acadia Parish alone..
Not only did the canals provided water needed for rice irrigation but the canal companies became financiers for the rice industry, furnishing land, seed, and water to farmers in return for part of the crop.
It was a highly profitable business and big ideas were not unheard of. J.P. Gueydan's Vermilion Development Company, the largest rice-irrigating operation in the world in 1900, irrigated 22,000 acres of rice land, much of it on a share basis.
But Lawler's grand scheme was just too grand. Although he was apparently one of the first to couple the idea of using irrigation canals also for navigation, his dreams were far bigger than his bankroll.
His idea also came at a time when aggressive railroads were playing havoc with the steamboats that would use the canal. Lawler's dream died on the vine when no backers stepped forward with the needed money.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.