Rice, Railroads and Irrigation Canals in Vermilion
By William Thibodeaux, History columnist
In 1899 Samuel S. Hunter of Shreveport began an adventurous undertaking of digging a rice irrigation canal, which was named after him. Records indicate that his proposal was an enormous success. He dug a canal 200 feet wide by six feet deep with levees on either side for a distance of about twenty miles.
The pumps were powered by six steam turbines located on the west side of the Vermilion River at Milton, Louisiana. From there the canal ran due west for about seven miles to “Butte Rouge,” the plantation of John Abshire Jr., and then it continued southwest to the plantation of Alcide Landry, then six miles to “Wester Ogle,” the planation of David Todd. An August 1899 Abbeville Meridional article said Charles Boren had recently moved to Abbeville and was a surveyor for the Hunter Canal project.
Boren mentioned in the article that the surveys were completed and the rights-of-ways had been obtained “as far as the last named plantation.”
Despite the hundreds of men and mule teams vigorously pushing the construction of the irrigation canal, advertisements continued requesting men and mule teams. According to an article in the Abbeville Meridional of July 22, 1899, workmen on the canal were expecting a ten railcar shipment of mules and scrapers to assist in the project.
The Hunter Canal at the time was reported to be one of the largest irrigation plants in the world.
It was said the canals would have the capacity of irrigating “100,000 acres of rice land.” The pumping operation was expected to extend further south some six miles and also northwest several miles to the “Duson Station” along the Southern Pacific railroad. Mr. O. E. Gammel, part owner and manager of the Hunter Canal, told a reporter that only a year previous to his interview, most of the land at that time that had been cultivated and thriving bountifully had previously been barren.
Records show that the rice harvest of 1900 was by far one of the best years for rice production. The creation of the irrigation canal had greatly increased the price of adjoining lands. In most cases it more than quadrupled in value. Gammel told the reporter that every effort would be made to extend one of the rice irrigation laterals several miles into the second ward of Lafayette Parish.
While the canals were being built Overton Cade, a former Louisiana legislator visited the Hunter Canal region with great interest shortly before Christmas of 1900. He had visions of a Hunter Canal railroad that would traverse the rich agricultural sections of parts of Iberia, Vermilion, and Lafayette Parishes “with terminal facilities on the Teche.”
Rice, sugarcane, salt, and other products had long wagon hauls over bad roads to get to market, especially during the wet season. Cade figured a railroad extending westward from the railroad right-of-way of the Segura Sugar Refinery located in the fifth ward of Iberia Parish would make an excellent route for the proposed rail line.
The rice irrigation canals were sometimes plagued with problems. The local citizenry complained that many of the “irrigation bridge crossings” were so steep, it was nearly impossible to pull heavy loads over them. Some were said to be “skyscraper bridges and a menace to life and limb.” Police Juries had to establish the “mode and manner” of which the bridges over irrigation canals should be constructed.
Ads in the local papers cautioned individuals to check with managers before renting property and to be aware of the canal’s system of operation, which mentioned that the irrigation canal companies “reserved the right to refuse water to any and all lands.”
There was always the likelihood of damage by crevasses or washouts, or by someone damaging the levees either by accident or by illegally taking water, which required “water boys” to traverse the levees on horseback inspecting them. Lawsuits were sometimes brought against individuals for non-payment after receiving water to make a rice crop. The court proceedings were usually followed with great interest. The cost for obtaining water for rice irrigation was usually one-fifth the harvest.
Sometimes there were mishaps that occurred at the rice irrigation plants as in the Abbeville Meridional article of June 21, 1902. According to the story sometime around midnight on the 20th, a terrible explosion occurred when Bob Meaux, an engineer at R. H. Mills canal pumping plant, held a lit lantern while opening the cover of an oil tank to check the level. Fortunately, he and a little child he was holding at the time weren’t hurt. The tank was torn to bits and the nearby coulee was flooded with oil.
The Hunter Canal Company had other pumping stations besides the one at Milton. There was the original pumping plant at Milton, one in Abbeville near the railroad tracks; another one named McKeever, one at Esterwood and yet another at Primeaux Canal in Riceville. There was also a “relift” pump, which lifted water for irrigation canals that were at a higher elevation.
By the 1920s there were many irrigation canal companies throughout southwest Louisiana, which greatly benefited the rice farmers. During periods of droughts when water levels were low on the Vermilion and danger of salt water intrusion was imminent, the Hunter Canal would shut the water intake. Meanwhile, an ample supply of fresh water from Bayou Teche was diverted down the Vermilion by way of Ruth Canal near Parks, which flushed the salt water back towards the gulf.
The Hunter Canal pumping plant structure in Milton is still standing today, although it is perhaps only one-third of what was once a thriving industry.
By the 1970s when diesel and electric water wells were more feasible and cost effective for rice farmers, the irrigation canal companies began closing. Eventually the canals were filled in with dirt bringing an end to a long and prosperous era.