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True cost of transforming a swamp into a lake
The story below was told during the May 9, 2022 social bike ride. The ride is free and open to the public. If you would like to join, just show up! We meet every Monday at 6 p.m. at the Electric Depot, 1503 Government Street.
Summer is drawing need and with it will come the beginning of phase 1 of the redevelopment of the LSU Lakes. To honor this moment, which has taken so long to accomplish, I dredged up a little historical context for this very expensive endeavor.
Today we think of all of the water in that area as part of LSU, but the first lake added to the area is actually part of City Park. The area was developed to be a golf course and recreational area in 1923. The city government paid $242,788.82 and the lake was strategically placed at the lowest portion of the land.
When the new lake was added, it attracted some nearby visitors from the neighboring old Perkins Swamp. When the fish that were added to the lake started going missing, the alligators caught the blame.
“George Garig, commissioner of parks and streets, took the side of the alligators, stoutly defending them against what he believed the unjust charge of his fellow councilman L. J. Ricaud, finance commissioner, who just as strongly argued that the absence of fish could be laid to the alligators.”
To prove his point, Garig caught and killed a gator, cut it open and “to his astonishment found its stomach full of fish.
That’s less than a hundred years ago, folks. We didn’t know alligators ate fish. When we found out, we decided it best to just kill all the alligators.
“From now on, however, the life of the alligator in the lake will be in danger as all those found will be summarily shot.”
The next part of the story is directly tied to the stock market crash in 1929. With it came the beginning of the Great Depression, and Baton Rouge had the worst unemployment in the state.
Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1933, which is the same year four donors gave LSU the swamp area that was housing all of the alligators seeking asylum. They donated the land with the stipulation that “the university was obligated to turn the swamps into lakes and parks for public use, and to keep them so forever.”
This project would soon become the job creator Baton Rouge needed to pull its way fully out of the depression. Roughly 900 men were employed to complete the backbreaking, arduous labor of clearing the 273-acre expanse.
“So many trees were cut down that a for-profit sawmill was built next to the swamp. Cypress logs suitable for lumber were sorted and stacked around the banks of the lakes, which were beginning to take shape. The job of clearing the swamp generated an estimated one million board feet of lumber,” states an article written by Mukul Verma for the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
A sort of love letter to the swamp was published in The Advocate shortly after they began clearing the land. The headline reads, “Old Swamp Sings Its Swan Song as Workers Invade Its Privacy to Make Addition to City Lake.”
“While the majority of people may breathe a sigh of relief, that old swamp, a breeding place for mosquitoes, is finally being made into a beautiful lake, there are many others, better acquainted with it, who feel a bit of sentiment attached to it. These will feel a tinge of remorse as the last bit of underbrush torn away, even if this area is to be made into a beautiful lake.”
The article described the swamp as a popular crawfish spot that had a road “barely wide enough for two autos.”
“Many who daily used the swamp road on their way to school, are dismayed at the scene of desolation which now greets them as they near the place where the many trees in their watery haunt stood guardian day in and day out throughout the years.”
Over the next several years the project would shift between four agencies and tapped federal funds provided by FDR’s return-to-work programs. Once the work was complete, there was nothing but praise.
“Though it was born of travail, the new lake boasts a beauty that has no kin with plebeian need. Shimmering beauty covers the 273-acre tract on a sunshiny October day. Leafy trees mark niches of beauty along the five-mile driveway. Impressive homes have sprung up along its banks. Sailboats may be glimpsed there on a windy day. And, now and then along the banks, a fisherman with a full catch is silhouetted against the sun.”
The honeymoon phase ended several years later when the invasive plants became a problem. And that’s the same problem facing the lakes today. Fixing the problem comes with a $20 million price tag, which has been secured. The reason for the high price goes back to the removal of the cypress trees. When the crews left the stumps behind, they inadvertently made it more difficult to dredge the bottom.
Above: On the left is the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from 1947. It shows the boundaries of the city and ends at the “new University Lake.” On the right is a snapshot of the University Lake after it was completed. This picture is part of the Hill Memorial Library collection.
The last major attempt to dredge was in 1980. In 2008, the Army Corps issued a recommendation to dredge again. Although some of the sediment has been removed through pumping, a true excavation of the lakes is required for it to become healthy. Then, they’ll have to maintain it.
So, what does $20 million buy you these days? Governor John Bel Edwards and Mayor Sharron Weston Broome held a press conference April 25, 2022 to announce those details.
In the first phase that will include the necessary dredging. The goal is to increase storm water capacity so the lakes will serve as a flood prevention measure.
Next, the original City Park lake and the University lakes will be connected and a new May Street bridge will be constructed.
And finally, they’re going to work on the roads and paths around the lakes, which have become a major attraction for the city. In fact, it’s even been offered up as a key recruitment tool for the university, and is the setting for events like the annual Louisiana Marathon.
Fighting against nature is not an easy, or cheap, task. What we gained came at an extreme price and it’s one we will continue to have to pay for as long as we continue to fight against the inevitable.