Effect of the Railroad and Congressional help
The growing rail presence began to affect the importance of steamboats throughout the region. In the spirit of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” some steamboat captains and steamboat lines partnered with railways to offer lower prices — thereby undercutting the competition. The practice led to the eventual demise of steamboats. However, for a period in the 1870s and 1880s, smaller steamboats left the busier rivers and ports and came to the less served regions — especially the Vermilion.
“Boats unable to compete with the corporate juggernaut withdrew from the market or attempted to exploit niche markets in communities along minor waterways that were not yet services by the railroad. In the 1870s and 1880s, the lower Vermilion River accordingly saw a dramatic but short-lived increase in steamboat traffic…” (Steamboats Along Louisiana’s Bayous, 2004, Louisiana State University Press, Carl Brasseaux and Keith Fontenot).
By the 1870s, the railroad and the steamboat lines, working together, were able to undercut unaffiliated steamboats’ prices.
With so much energy focused on recovery from the Civil War and the additional activity along the Vermilion, the region clambered for improvements along the Vermilion, which were slow to materialize. In 1879, Congressional legislation commissioned an engineering survey through the Army Corps of Engineers.
“The Vermilion River, which had been the sugar region’s ‘weak sister’ in terms of shipping activity and tonnage throughout the nineteenth century, traditionally did not warrant — or receive — much interest from the corps. In a report dated January 31, 1880, Assistant Engineer W.H. Hoffman advised Major C.W. Howell, commander of the corps operations in lower Louisiana, that at Pinhook Bridge in present-day Lafayette, the head of navigation on the stream was ‘wide and deep enough for small steamboats.’ The portion of the stream extending four miles below the Pinhook crossing, however was ‘so filled by snags, logs, and trees blown in . . . as to be impassable.’ The few boats plying the Vermilion were consequently obliged to deposit their cargo at Four Mile Point. Goods were then transferred to ‘flatboats, which were poled up to the bridge.’” (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers, 1880).
Intrepid steam captains brave enough to ascend the stream were few and far between. Overhanging trees and dangerous shoals almost completely obstructed passage above Abbeville, making the trip to Four-Mile Point nearly impossible.
Throughout the early 1880s, Congressional help was on the way.
In June 1880, Congress appropriated $5,000 to fund the removal of navigational hazards between Abbeville and Pinhook Bridge. In February 1881, the Corps of Engineers let a contract for $4,750 to clear “22 miles of river.” In March 1881, Congress appropriated $4,900 to underwrite the cost of closing the Vermilion’s “ eastern entrance, at its mouth, by a low-water dam, and applying the balance that may remain to clearing the banks of overhanging trees, and the bed of the river of all trees, logs, and snags that may be found in it. By June 1883, inspectors reported that the river had been cleared for a distance of 47.5 miles “from the railroad bridge (at Vermilionville) down-stream to its mouth.” (Steamboats on Louisiana’s Bayous)
Completing the Vermilion River improvement project marked the end of the federal government’s postwar effort to restore navigability to the region.
Because the railroads didn’t reach New Iberia and Abbeville until later, the late-blooming steamboat traffic along the lower Vermilion thrived for years after it had virtually disappeared in other places. But the railroad eventually reached those communities too, and steamboat traffic disappeared.