From the days of the “Post on the Rapides” to the early 1920’s, transportation along the Red River played an important part in the growth of Central Louisiana and Alexandria. The river was the super highway of that time period. There were three modes of transportation widely available at the time: by horse, by boat or by foot. Those who wanted the most amount of comfort chose the boat. Trains slowly became a primary mode of travel in the mid- to late-1800’s. Ralph Smith Smith’s Red River Railroad was a prime example. It was the first commercial railroad west of the Mississippi. We will cover that in a later column.
This month, we are going to focus on boat transportation. Early on, canoes and flat bottom “shallow draft” boats prevailed. They traveled up and down the Red River in the 1700’s to early 1800’s. The flat bottom boats were propelled by poles and man power. The Red River highway came to an end at Alexandria. Those who traveled North upriver would encounter two sets of rapids. These rapids served as a stopping off point for the early explorers. Several old maps that I have studied show a portage on the Pineville side going around the rapids. A year or so ago, I went up in an airplane with a pilot friend of mine and searched for remnants of that portage. We could find no signs of it. The upper and lower rapids are gone, covered by the raising of the water level with locks and dams. The lower rapids were located behind present day Rapides Regional Medical Center. The upper rapids were located near Bulow lake and the railroad bridge across Red River.
With the advent of the steam engine, shallow draft boats were fitted with engines that powered paddle wheels in the middle sides of the boat and at the stern, or back. That’s where the terms “paddle wheeler” or “stern wheeler” came about. There was even a steamboat named after the city of Alexandria. This boat was built about 1858 and started life as the “Saint Mary”, but the name was changed to Alexandria about1860. It ended its duty when it burned to the water line in the Amite River around 1868. A number of boats changed their name after being captured by the Union or Confederacy.
Just before the Civil War, the steamboat reached its peak. They were the major distributors of goods up and down the Red and Mississippi. Everything from bacon to lace and lumber made its way to up and down the rivers of Louisiana. It was the fastest and cheapest transportation for that time. Another boat named for this area was the Red River steamer. It was a rear paddle wheeler that was active in the late 1800’s up until about 1910. A scale model of the Red River steamer is on display at the Louisiana History Museum.
In my research on the steam boats, I discovered a bill of laden from the Packet boat “Rapides”, dated 1861 for an order of corn at $4.00. I have been unable to locate any details on this boat. I did find a number of ships that docked at Alexandria during the 1860 to 1870 time period. Some of the names were: the Texas, the Roebuck, the Vigo, the Eleanor, the Andy Fulton, B. L. Hodge and Saratoga. The main docks were located in the Jackson Street to Washington Street area.
One major company that operated ships on the Red River was the Red River Packet Company. Its New Orleans office was run by G.L. Kouns & Bros., and the Shreveport office was run by John Kouns & Bros. This Company was composed of the steamers New Era, Pioneer Era, Fannie Gilbert, Carrie Poole, Gossamer, Judge Fletcher and the Navigator. All of these ships traveled from New Orleans to Shreveport on a regular schedule. I have included the advertisement of the Red River Packet Company, the Side wheeler Alexandria and the Red River packet boat.
Transportation on the Red River was useful up to the 1920’s. Steadily thereafter, steam trains became the fastest and safest mode of commercial transportation.
For more information and pictures, visit www.louisianahistorymuseum.com or stop by the Louisiana History Museum at 503 Washington Street in downtown Alexandria. I can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.