The small number of members of the Lake Charles Port Board who through the years have put their self interests above the port’s interests would do well to study the port’s history. It is a proud history of dedicated men and women who have served the port with distinction.
E.R. Kaufman, one of the first board members, traced the port’s history at a testimonial dinner for U.S. Rep. Rene L. DeRouen on Nov. 1, 1937, at the Charleston Hotel. Others on that initial port board were W.P. Weber, Guy Beatty, Frank Roberts and Rudolph Krause.
DeRouen was instrumental in getting $9.3 million from Congress to construct a new direct-to-the-Gulf, 35-mile long Calcasieu Ship Channel for the Port of Lake Charles. DeRouen was dean of the Louisiana congressional delegation and ranking member of the U.S. House Rivers and Harbors Committee.
Kaufman, at the testimonial dinner, said a direct route to the Gulf was first discussed in 1900. However, federal funding at that time went to a channel job in Texas. However, Lake Charles citizens formed a navigation district in 1915.
Shortly after the end of World War I, Beatty, as president of the Association of Commerce, advocated for a direct channel. However, it was considered too costly and the next best route came through the Sabine River and the Intracoastal Canal.
Ships at the time had to either wait and hope for a high tide at Calcasieu Pass or come by way of the Sabine River, a 75-mile trip. Getting bigger vessels through that route proved to be difficult.
In 1922, the port board stepped up to the plate again and got the Calcasieu Police Jury to call a $2.75 million, 30-year bond issue election. Those funds and $750,000 from Congress were used to widen and deepen the Intracoastal Canal from the Sabine River south of Orange, Texas, to the Calcasieu River south of Lake Charles.
The bond issue was approved with a vote of 1,713 to 889. The widening and deepening of the Intracoastal Canal started in 1922 under supervision of Fred Shutts, engineer for the project.
In 1927, Leon Locke, whom Kaufman said might rightfully be called the father of the Intracoastal Canal, got the Police Jury to try and get reimbursement from the federal government, but the move was unsuccessful.
Kaufman said, “In the last three or four years another committee under W.P. Weber, with I.V. Maurer, vice chairman, and Elmer E. Shutts, submitted data to the United States army engineers and convinced them of the necessity of the direct route.
The American Press on July 17, 1937, said, “After two years of effort, a direct ship channel from Lake Charles to the Gulf appears a reality…”
The newspaper added, “No group worked harder than W.P. Weber, chairman of the Calcasieu River and Pass Deep Water Channel Committee, and I.V. Maurer, vice chairman, and their committee members. No group carried on the program more diligently than Congressman Rene L. DeRouen and Senator John H. Overton in the House and Senate.
“Lake Charles is justly proud of this great new achievement, and Lake Charles is justly proud of the men who made it possible.”
The five-year project began in 1938, but facing the prospect of going into World War II, the work was completed in 2½ years. The direct channel opened in 1941, and it marked the beginning of the gigantic petro-chemical industry that is the backbone of this area’s economy. It also became a valuable route for the war effort.
The unprecedented economic development currently under way in Southwest Louisiana is a tribute to Port Director Bill Rase and the members of the Lake Charles Port Board. Many other organizations like the Chamber/Southwest Louisiana and the Economic Development Alliance have also played a role. The area’s legislative delegation did its part as well.
Three of the port board members involved in that development have been replaced by recent appointments made by Gov. John Bel Edwards, and a controversy has already erupted. The new board’s first two moves involved replacing Elcie Guillory, acting president, and the naming of a chairman of a committee that will recommend the next port director to the full board for consideration.
A lawsuit has been filed alleging that the port violated the state’s open meetings law. The election wasn’t on the agenda and a vote to put it on there didn’t get the unanimous vote required. A court hearing to resolve the issue has been set for Sept. 19.
Some of this area’s most distinguished citizens have served on the Lake Charles Port Board since 1915. The citizens of Southwest Louisiana have been beneficiaries of their diligence, their integrity and their pursuit of goals that enhance our economic development.
We can only hope this latest incident by new board members isn’t a sign of more questionable developments to come.