The Fire Walk Script, 1st First Stop: 1911 Memorial Plaza
The story starts like this. It was a sunny, windy and hot April 23, in 1910 in Lake Charles. On the lake, cypress and pine logs floated in corrals waiting for the log wranglers to skid them on land for processing in one of the several sawmills that still operated. Although the height of the timber industry had been some years earlier, lumber was still a big employer in Calcasieu. Indeed, Calcasieu had produced much of the lumber, millwork and shingles that rebuilt Galveston ten years earlier after a great storm devastated that coastal city.
This lakeshore town was also busy with the hustle and bustle of rail. For the last 25 or so years, ever since Lake Charles linked up to New Orleans, Shreveport, Houston and the rest of the United States by rail, traveling to Southwest Louisiana had been much improved. By 1910, three major rail companies operated passenger and freight service out of the city. Prior to the coming of the train, travelers wrote of 8 and 12 day trips just to get to New Orleans. Now by rail it was just a breezy five hours, with as many as twelve trains a day making runs to just New Orleans.
Steamboats and ferries connected Lake Charles with Westlake and Bagdad, Lockport and Deesport. Regular steamer service brought in Cameron beef and citrus to Lake Charles for processing and shipment by rail. Rice as well was shipped by rail as Lake Charles was the epicenter of the American rice industry which priced American rice, for a time, from its Lake Charles hub.
But even with all this, Lake Charles was generally a quiet southern town of about 15,000. The Calcasieu River was a slow, winding stream to the Gulf and the lake was still freshwater edged with cypresses. Electricity, ice service, and piped in water were new and popular services of Gulf States Utilities and the telegraph and telephone were well established and well used. The new St. Patrick's sanitarium had opened south of town a few years earlier. The public city schools were operating with a wooden Central Schools just blocks away at Kirkman Street.
Both the City and Parish had recently remodeled and enlarged their modest seats of government. For the Parish, a brick-and-wood courthouse had been erected in 1902 just to the east of the earlier courthouse and connected to it. The courthouse served the immense parish of Imperial Calcasieu. The City had constructed its first City Hall in 1903. Before that, City council met at homes, hotels, and even on the second floor of the city's modest fire station at Iris and Cole streets.
It had been a long time, over 70 years, that Lake Charles jumped ahead of other communities in Imperial Calcasieu. Early town fathers determined that for the fledgling hamlet to progress, it must boldly act to capture the seat of parish government.
Samuel Kirby (the region's first lawyer) and Jacob Ryan (an early sheriff and Father of Lake Charles) determined that no out-of-the-way hamlet named Marion would be the parish seat of the newly established Calcasieu Parish. One of the very first things they did in 1851 was to commandeer the modest courthouse and relocate it on Charley's Lake. Ten years later, Charley's Lake incorporated as Charleston, and a little later as Lake Charles. It could be viewed that the relocated courthouse established Lake Charles as a place to be reckoned with.
But by 1910, that was the ancient past of 60 years earlier. Lake Charles served as the modest center of commerce for the immense Imperial Calcasieu Parish. Even though the ambitious real estate frenzy created by J B Watkins brought thousands to Southwest Louisiana, and Lake Charles was the center for that frenzy, most of the new settlers dispersed on the wide Calcasieu Prairie lands where they grew rice and cattle, and built small farm-centered towns like Iowa, Kinder, and Vinton. The Watkins vision of Southwest Louisiana was essentially that of a rural paradise, not an urban one. Towns were built to serve the country and not as economic generators themselves.
Lake Charles was relatively compact in size. Downtown was pretty much defined by the lake and Pithon Coulee on the west and south, Hodges Street on the east and Railroad Avenue on the north. In this tight corridor were some 350 businesses including several hotels and boarding houses, cafes, vaudeville houses and theatres, railroad terminals, fabrication shops, warehouses, department stores, professional and medical offices, private homes and apartments. Even City Hall shared a busy downtown block with the fire station, a livery stable, and an assortment of businesses and homes along Ryan Street.
Most of those buildings on Ryan Street as well as most of the remainder of the town were built of cypress and pine harvested right here in Southwest Louisiana. Wooden sidewalks lined the streets. Wooden shingles made up roofs. Wooden shutters, windows and doors were also manufactured right here in Lake Charles. At its height, over 28 mills produced lumber, millwork, railroad ties, windows and shingles, and had for over 75 years. From the early Germans who settled in Goosport, through the Civil War and the era of the Michigan Men in the 1870's and '80's, lumber had been king, and wood was used everywhere. There were a few modern brick buildings like Gordon and Van Phul's Drug Store, the Calcasieu State Bank, the Majestic Hotel, and the Carnegie Library, but they were few indeed.
To give you the image of what this spot looked like in 1910: The Courthouse was located on its own Courthouse Square made up of Ryan, South Court Street (now part of the Courthouse grounds), Front Street, and North Court Street (now West Kirby). The Courthouse was made up of two parts, an earlier 1890 courthouse and a 1902 addition which doubled the size and faced Kirby Street. You can check out the double cornerstones right there. The working lakefront was one block away, and was covered by warehouses, docks, rail spurs, and piers.
On this block where we are standing, was the Walden Hotel and business College, the home and office of Leon Sugar, the 1903 City Hall (facing Kirby Street) and Central Fire Station along with its stales (facing Cole, now Bilbo Street).
Directly north were the Catholic Church, school, rectory, convent, and a very densely built block of businesses including restaurants, shops, professional offices, and homes. On the northwest, in what is now a vacant parking lot were Gunn's Bookstore, the old Williams Opera House and the Opera House Saloon, and The Lake House Hotel which would have been behind the vine covered office building at the corner.
Please follow our guide to the next stop.