A bird’s eye view of Lafayette shows the Vermilion River winding north-east with Johnston Street mimicking the same trajectory as the river.
Without knowing, one might assume the local university and downtown is picturesquely situated along that river. One may even imagine, we have a little Venice here with pirogues instead of gondolas to navigate through downtown, or maybe even a riverwalk similar to San Antonio.
But in Lafayette, that isn’t where we decided to put our downtown. And there’s an interesting reason behind that.
The Preservation Alliance of Lafayette hosted a history walk this month providing attendees with a thorough history of downtown. As I read the information, the story of how downtown ended up in its location jumped out as one of the most fascinating in Lafayette’s history. I condensed that story here with help of the Preservation Alliance as May is National Historic Preservation Month.
Last week, I wrote about Jean Mouton — who in the 1820’s won an election to get the Lafayette Parish Courthouse on his property (present-day downtown). His clever strategy beat the other suggested location near the Pinhook Bridge.
So how did downtown grow 2.5 miles from the nearest commercial waterway?
Lafayette succeeded, in part, because of the nature of its unique urban center.
SEE YOU DOWNTOWN!: Why the heck isn’t downtown on the river?
Burgeoning middle class
Mouton’s settlement — even without the advantages of convenient water transportation and with only slightly more convenient access to the Spanish Trail — managed to outstrip the growth and development of more advantageous river towns of Washington and New Iberia. This was in part to its growing middle class.
As the courthouse building was constructed, Americans immigrated to the settlement from the eastern seaboard and southeastern states in search of inexpensive fertile land. It was, in some cases, a resting point on their journey to Texas.
Families such as the Baileys, the Mudds and the Campbells brought with them skills and technology that encouraged urban growth.
In 1835, the settlement began to outgrow the small wooden courthouse donated by Jean Mouton. It’s located in the same spot the courthouse stands today. The Lafayette Police Jury constructed a new, single-story brick building with slate floors in its place. The price tag was a whopping $6,000.
The next year, the state Legislature established the corporate limits of the town of Vermilionville and a town council of five members. By 1840, the town became large enough to warrant a branch office of the Union Bank of Louisiana. It was located on the corner of Saint John and Vermilion streets.
That same year, a group of concerned citizens founded the Vermilionville Academy on the corner of Jefferson and Vermilion streets. The school operated until 1872, at which time it was sold and the proceeds were used to support free public schools in the parish.
Lafayette Parish had developed a unique profusion of small plantations, which helped to make things favorable for the development of an urban middle class by the 1830’s. The growth of New Orleans also contributed to the growth of the middle class in Lafayette.
Demand for merchants and skilled artisans
Between 1840 and 1850, due to the influx of overflow of immigrants from Germany, France and Ireland, New Orleans doubled in size and was second only to New York as a port of entry into the U.S.
Seventy-five percent of those immigrants moved on from New Orleans westward toward Texas looking for land. Many of them settled in Attakapas county. Since Acadian planters had already taken the very fertile land in Acadiana, the new immigrants either settled on less productive land north of the town center, or became merchants, artisans and manufacturers in town.
Unlike on large plantations, it was less economically feasible for each separate, small plantation to employ skilled laborers fulltime, such as blacksmiths, wheelwrights or carpenters. Therefore, the need for these trades grew and increased the demand for merchants and skilled artisans and craftsmen.
Many immigrants found Lafayette to be a warm and friendly place and found it easy to establish mercantile outlets. Vermilionville had an atmosphere that spoke of opportunity for material advancement, as there was an increasing need for products services and skills.
SEE YOU DOWNTOWN! : How did Downtown Alive! take shape?
Surviving Civil War
Because the area was populated with small plantations and increased urban middle class population, Union forces during the Civil War were far less destructive in Lafayette Parish than in neighboring areas of much larger plantations.
Comparatively speaking, rebuilding after the Civil War in Lafayette Parish occurred more quickly and with far less effort. Between 1850 and 1880, Vermilionville grew from a population of 173 to 866 people. In 1859, Lafayette built its third parish courthouse for $8,900, which served the parish until 1929.
Vermilionville enjoyed a prosperous economy between 1835 and 1850, but growth slowed during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1853, and the Civil War and Reconstruction period between 1861 and 1870.
Industry and development
The Industrial Revolution spurred economic growth in most parts of the civilized world in the late 1800s, and the arrival of the steam locomotive to Vermilionville in 1880, propelled the town from a small frontier village to a fast-growing center of commerce and distribution.
In 1884, Vermilionville changed its name to Lafayette, Louisiana. Six years later, the population would grow to 2,106 people; twice the figure of the prior decade, according to U.S. Census figures.
The William Brandt House then was considered “the edge of town.” In 1856, it was incorporated into Vermilionville as the first added development, Mills Addition. It quickly became a thriving upscale suburb of downtown, as was the Garfield Street area between Jefferson and Johnston streets, called Mansion Row. Everything else in the parish was rural, agricultural land.
Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute (SLII) was founded in 1900, and spurred Lafayette’s population growth again. People moved from rural agricultural occupations to urban businesses connected with SLII — the railroad, distribution services and selling products and services to Lafayette’s growing population.
There was a wave of construction that occurred after 1900, as evidence of Lafayette’s fast growth. Over the next decade, 17 new subdivisions developed around downtown.
By 1930, another 17 new subdivisions had developed. With the Industrial Revolution came the automobile, the steam locomotive and a boom of economic growth throughout Europe and the United States. Lafayette was no exception.
In October of 1929, the stock market crash marked the beginning of The Great Depression.
Maurice Heymann, a successful Lafayette businessman, extended credit to many families so they could buy food at his downtown store. Throughout the next two decades, as the economy struggled and recovered through The Great Depression, downtown expanded and increased in density toward University Avenue and Johnston Street.
Presently, downtown is still home to our many civic buildings, the library, seven churches, schools, parks, as well as many restaurants, live music venues and retail shops — a vibrant marketplace housed in a rich history. Find out more about downtown’s history and buildings at www.downtownlafayette.org.
Kate Durio always can be found downtown where she lives, works and loves celebrating Acadiana Culture (which she thinks is the best in the world). She also can be found producing Downtown Alive!, ArtWalk, Movies in the Parc and many community improvement shenanigans while sending snail mail and going to the public library.