Railroad and the U. S. Mail
By William Thibodeaux, History columnist
In Acadiana before the arrival of the iron rails, the U. S. Mail was delivered to New Town (New Iberia) by steamboat which had received the mail from the railroad at Brashear City (Morgan City). The mail was then delivered to towns along the stagecoach route. New Iberia is much older than Lafayette; it dates back to 1779 when its founder, Bernardo de Galvez, came up Bayou Teche and settled around Spanish Lake. The Spanish settlers called the town Nueva Iberia in honor of the Iberian Peninsula. The French called it Nouvelle Iberia, and after the Louisiana Purchase, the American settlers called it New Town. Lafayette or Vermilionville, as it was named back then, was founded in 1821 by French-speaking Acadians.
New Iberia and Vermilionville were both anxiously awaiting the arrival of the railroad ever since it had been proposed in 1851 when former governor of Louisiana, Alexandre Mouton, had been the President of the Southern Railroad Convention which was held in New Orleans on May 7, 1851. Mouton was the son of Jean (John) Mouton, who had donated property in Vermilionville for the construction of St. John’s Cathedral and the courthouse. Alexandre Mouton was the father of the great Confederate General Alfred Mouton, who was killed at the Battle of Mansfield during the War Between the States. Alexandre Mouton was from Vermilionville, he had 18 children and he was one of the leading proponents for a railroad.
Imagine, before trains in America (1830) a person could travel no faster than Julius Caesar had 1,900 years earlier.… Railroad construction in Louisiana began in the 1850s but due to The War Between the States, the rails had only reached Brashear City. Back then the pioneers who planned and built the railroads in Louisiana were men of vision and they had extraordinary courage. A lot of people said it was impossible, it couldn’t be done. Under the leadership of Civil Engineer G. W. R. Bayley and Chief Engineer Gibbes, the work began. Major Albert G. Blanchard, chief of survey, and Augustus S. Phelps, second in command, were assigned the task of finding a path for the construction of a railroad from Algiers to Berwick’s Bay. Blanchard took the most difficult part—Algiers to Thibodaux. Phelps had the remainder. Work on the railroad had been slow and difficult. Work gangs were decimated by the hundreds due to yellow fever or other diseases. The swamps were infested with snakes, alligators, and mosquitos. The roadbed was built on what was referred to as trembling prairies—a crust-like sediment five to ten feet thick that floated on water. A four-foot high embankment was built for the roadbed. Often times the roadbed had to be built on cribwork. Other times the roadbed was built on hand-driven poles or pilings, and then the cribs were filled in with dirt and shell. At times, track construction felt like an insurmountable task, especially during floods as it had in 1858, 1859, 1865, and 1867 with overflow lasting sometimes as long as six months. According to Merle E. Reed “New Orleans and The Railroad—1830 thru 1860” the cost for constructing the above mentioned railroad was $3,218,804.
On May 25, 1869, during Reconstruction, Charles Morgan purchase the rail line at public auction and named it Morgan’s Louisiana and Texas Railroad. Four years later, (1876) Brashear City was changed to Morgan City after the steamship and railroad tycoon who had spent huge sums of money dredging the channel from the mouth of the Atchafalaya River to the Gulf of Mexico. Coincidentally, Morgan had also excavated a channel through Buffalo Bayou in Texas permitting his ships to approach within three miles of Houston. According to “A Century of Progress in Louisiana: 1852-1952” Charles Morgan was “a man of incredible energy and indomitable will.” And, to think Morgan had accomplished all of this while he was in his late 70s and early 80s. During that era everyone had railroad fever. They were all excited about the arrival of the long awaited railroad. The citizens of Southwest Louisiana were especially enthusiastic after an article appeared in 1878 informing them it was now “an absolute certainty” that the rail line between Houston and New Orleans would finally be completed. Construction west of Berwick’s Bay began during the summer of 1878, the year in which the last of the yellow fever epidemic occurred. The railroad from Morgan City had finally reached Vermilionville in the spring of 1880.
The only portion of the rail line that remained incomplete was the 104 mile gap between Vermilionville and Orange, Texas. But that was about to change. It was reported that the railroad would be built in an east-west direction from Orange, Texas, to Vermilionville. Some had said the railroad would traverse diagonally from Lake Charles through the marsh and prairies to New Iberia. Although Alexandre Mouton was an elderly man, he still had sway. Years earlier Mouton had said the railroad would go through his hometown of Vermilionville. The price to bridge that gap between Orange and Vermilionville would cost between $9 and $10 million, which included rolling stock and equipment. A newspaper article said the funds had been appropriated and deposited. A survey party with Civil Engineer Major G. W. Polk had arrived with equipment and tents, and he would be making preliminary surveys. It also mentioned that as soon as the survey report was in and accepted, the work would commence simultaneously between Vermilionville and Orange, Texas, employing several thousand men. The gap was completed on January 12, 1883.
In 1884 Vermilionville was officially changed to Lafayette in honor of General Marquis de Lafayette, a French military hero who fought and aided the American Army during the American Revolutionary War. A year later, a postal map showed that the U.S. Mail was delivered daily to New Iberia. It was then sent by wagon six miles west to Grand Marais (Delcambre) six times a week. The mail wagon continued westward to Abbeville, and three times each week the mail wagon went south to the community of Ramsey. The hamlet of Greig (Henry) received their mail from Grand Marais once a week. Indian Bayou received their mail twice weekly from Rayne, which was along the railroad’s mainline and had been designated a mail drop-off station.
At that time railroads had surpassed riverboat transportation as the main source of trafficking goods and people. Cities across America competed by offering “inducements” to influence the railroads to locate in their communities. Towns either grew or declined in size depending on their success or failure to attract rail lines. Railroads in the late 1880s and 90s were very accommodating. There were a number of passenger trains that ran daily in each direction. And besides passenger railcars (also called coach cars) there were baggage cars, chair cars, sleeper cars, dining cars, smoking cars, express cars, and even a mail car. The mail car sorted the U. S. Mail, which subsequently dropped off the mail at designated stations along the railroad. The per-sorted mail was then sent to outlying areas in horse-drawn wagons. By the 1920s, American railroads had reached their heyday. America’s long romance with steam trains began to decline. And by the late 1940s, a more efficient diesel-electric motive power began to rule the rail industry. The lonesome sound of the old steam locomotive whistle is no longer heard in the countryside—only distant memories remain.