Without the Plaquemine Lock, Plaquemine may not exist today — at least not as we know it.
Designed by George W. Goethals, who went on to become chief engineer of the Panama Canal, the 51-foot freshwater lift was the highest of any lock in the world when it opened in 1925. As the place where the Intracoastal Canal system met the Mississippi River, more than 3,900 boats passed through the lock in 1930.
“This is what built Plaquemine,” said Ellie Hebert, chair of a committee to restore the lock site. “The maritime industry built this city. Before, it was just a small town.”
But as barges grew longer, the sharp turns in Bayou Plaquemine proved problematic. The lock was closed in 1961 and operations moved to the Port of Greater Baton Rouge in Port Allen.
Still, the site’s engineering and historical importance landed it on the National Register of Historic Places. It remained open as a tourist destination, showing visitors how commerce flowed along the nation’s waterways.
Over time, however, the site hasn’t been kept up as well as some local residents would like. Now a community group called Friends of the Lock has embarked on a project that it hopes will rejuvenate tourism and interest in Plaquemine’s maritime history.
“To allow this place to be deteriorated would be a travesty,” Hebert said.
The site was turned over to the state in 1978 and $2.5 million was allocated to create the Plaquemine Lock Historic Site, which reopened in 1982.
But budget problems over the years put the lock’s future in flux. In 2011, the state signed an agreement with the city of Plaquemine — the state would handle maintenance and insurance, the parish would pay for tour guides, and the city would fund grounds maintenance and utilities.
Friends of the Lock say the arrangement hasn’t led to sufficient maintenance, and now extensive restoration is necessary.
“We went to the legislators, and we said, ‘something’s gotta change,’” Hebert said.
Rep. Chad Brown, D-Plaquemine, and Sen. Caleb Kleinpeter, R-Port Allen, helped set aside $500,000 for lock restoration during the spring legislative session, which was allocated to Friends of the Lock. The parish added $100,000, and the organization is hoping the city will add another $75,000.
Overall, the group hopes to raise $1 million. The state has verbally promised $60,000 a year for maintenance.
“We need to get that in writing,” said Dan Mooney, historian and Friends of the Lock treasurer.
Fortunately, the group’s research has found the lock is still structurally sound. When it was constructed, engineers had to deal with shifting earth that caused the lock walls to spread. But a recent engineering assessment found the walls and lock house haven’t moved in 40 years.
Friends of the Lock has had electrical reports, plumbing reports, and water testing done on the property, all of which it will use when the work goes out to bid in March.
“It’s gonna be a process. It’s an old building,” Mooney said.
The current displays in the lock museum were last updated in the 1970s. Friends of the Lock is working with Washington, D.C.-based Howard & Revis Design, whose clients include numerous Smithsonian museums and national parks, on new interactive exhibits.
The Dutch-style lock house will get a full renovation, while historic elements like the spiral staircase and round windows will remain untouched.
“This is an architectural gem. You’re not going to find anything like it in the U.S.,” Hebert said.
Friends of the Lock hopes the project can be completed by the end of the year. In the meantime, the lock site is closed to visitors.