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The 1886 St. Landry Parish Courthouse Fire Part 2 – The Fight to Rebuild the Courthouse

CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY
Publisher and Contributing Writer

Featured Photograph: A drawing of the St. Landry Parish Courthouse from the 1850s.

In the early hours of Monday morning, March 22, 1886, the courthouse bell woke the Opelousas community, warning there was a fire in town. The fire companies responded and many of the town’s citizens rush to the scene of the blaze — the St. Landry Parish Courthouse was on fire.  After hours of fighting the flames, the fire was distinguished but the courthouse was almost destroyed, and many of the documents lost. However the rest of the downtown was saved except for a stable and some other minor damages to property. When officials examined the ruins of the fire, it was determined that blaze was purposely set. But they did not know who committed that crime. An investigation into the fire was started.

Immediately following the fire, on Wednesday, March 24, 1886, the St. Landry Parish Police Jury called a special session to make decisions regarding the courthouse. The old building was just about destroyed by the fire, so it was decided a new courthouse building had to be constructed.  A location for the new building was also determined at this session. The town of Washington had made a gallant effort to get the new Courthouse built there, but the Police Jury voted down the proposition.  It was decided the new building would be constructed in the same location where the old courthouse stood.  A committee, whose members included Albert Guidry, Edward Dubuisson, T. C. Chacheré, G. W. Hudspeth, C. C. Duson, J. O. Chacheré, T. S. Fontenot, Frank Wharton and Joseph Frozard, was appointed to draw up the plans and specifications and to advertise for bids. The committee scheduled a meeting for Monday, March 31st to begin the process.  At this meeting the Police Jury also authorized its president, Albert Guidry, to contract with F.  F. Perrodin to use the Perrodin’s Hall as a temporary courthouse.[1]

Even after the vote by the police jury to keep the courthouse in Opelousas, many in other parts of the parish were not sure the courthouse should remain in the town.  There was another move to get the courthouse built in Washington. During the next week, at a special meeting held by the Opelousas Board of Police on Tuesday, March 30th, it was decided that the town of Opelousas would contribute one half of the funds necessary to construct the new courthouse, and the St. Landry Parish Police Jury would pay the balance. In order to do this, the town decided to levy a tax of two and a half per cent on the taxable property of the town.  This decision was made so that the citizens of Opelousas could say to their “country friends” (those who wanted to move the parish government out of Opelousas): “The rebuilding of the Court House at Opelousas will not cost you one cent.  Our contribution will make it possible for the Police Jury, by an economical administration of its regular revenues, to rebuild the Court House without levying a special tax for the purpose, and you will have no more taxes to pay this year, next year, or in succeeding years than you paid last year, the year before and in preceding years; and the Court House will be built where it belongs and where most of you would prefer to have it.”[2] 

At that meeting the people of Opelousas vowed to win the fight for the courthouse.  The Opelousas Courier reported their resolve as follows: “Our people are now thoroughly aroused on the subject and propose to leave no stone unturned to retain the seat of parochial government.  We possess all the elements of success in this fight, which has been forced upon us, and we have fully and deliberately resolved to make the best use we can of every one of them – in other words WE ARE GOING TO WIN!  Our Washington friends, may as well realize this fact first as last, and spare themselves any further trouble and expense about the matter.”[3] 

A Temporary Courthouse

In the meantime, a contract was drawn up and signed by the police jury and F.F. Perrodin so that a temporary courthouse could be set up in Perrodin’s Hall, located at the corner of Main and Grolee streets.  In the next issue of the Opelousas Courier, dated April 3, 1886, Mr. Perrodin and Michel Halphen, the managers of Perrodin’s Hall, announced that although the hall was being used for a Court House, it could still be rented for balls, entertainment, etc.  Interested parties were directed to apply to the hall managers.[4]

Perrodin;s Hall on the corner of Grolee and Main streets was used as the temporary St. Landry Parish Courthouse while the new courthouse building was constructed in 1886. (Carola Lillie Hartley Collection.)

The Fight Continued

The fight between Washington and Opelousas over the location of the Court House, and the government of the parish, continued for several weeks.  A mass meeting of people from the entire parish was held in Rayne, LA on Saturday, April 3rd to discuss a division of the parish and moving the parish site to Washington. A large committee, composed of nineteen businessmen, lawyers and citizens of Opelousas attended the meeting. The discussion was long and intense at this meeting.  However, Opelousas was able to win the debate with Sheriff Duson giving the audience a “sound and practical speech” on the subject. Following that meeting the people of Rayne and many in other areas of the parish sided with Opelousas.[5] 

Although the battle for the courthouse and control of the parish continued in the Opelousas and Washington newspapers, by April 24th, the excitement over the location of the courthouse had died down.  Eventually Opelousas won the fight and the location of the courthouse remained in the center of the town, where it had been since the creation of St. Landry Parish in 1805, with the first courthouse constructed in 1806.[6] [7] 

Contract Awarded

The contract for building the new Courthouse at Opelousas, was awarded on Tuesday, May 4th, to Hannon & Voss of Baton Rouge, at $20,850.00, as the lowest bidders for the job. According to the contract, work on the building, which was to be fireproof, was to “commence in a few days, and to be finished and delivered on the 1st of October” (an approximate date).[8]  

The resolution presented to the Police Jury read as follows: “Whereupon, B. E. Clark moved that the bid of Hannon & Voss, of Baton Rouge, to rebuild the Courthouse for the sum of $20,850 — $8,000 on completion  of the building, and the balance payable in two equal annual installments, without interest, from January 15, 1887– be accepted, their bid being the lowest offered. Mr. Clark’s resolution was seconded by T. C. Chachere and was adopted, with Louis Young not voting and Auguste Perrodin voting no. It was further resolved that in order to defray the expense of rebuilding the Courthouse there is appropriated out of the internal improvement fund and out of any other fund in the treasury not otherwise appropriated, the sum of $12,850, of which $6,425 is to be paid out of the budget of 1887, and a like sum out of the budget of 1888 — the cash payment to be made by the fund to be raised by the town of Opelousas, which is to be placed at the disposal of the Police Jury when needed. It was farther resolved that Hon. A. Guidry, President of the Jury, be authorized and instructed to enter into a contract with Hannon & Voss, in behalf of this body, according to the plans and specifications adopted for the rebuilding of the Courthouse, subject to the modifications of the original plan stipulated and agreed to by the Jury and said Hannon and Voss. It was further resolved that the committee appointed by this body on the 24th of March 1886, to advertise for plans and specifications, be now appointed a building committee, to supervise the erection of the Courthouse according to contract. Hon. Geo. W. Hudspeth having expressed the desire to be relieved, Joseph Block was substituted in his place, and A. Guidry having also desired to be relieved, Auguste Perrodin was substituted In his place on said committee. Said Committee is now composed as follows, C. C. Duson, James O. Chacheré, Joseph Bloch, Auguste Perrodin, Honorable T. S. Fontenot, Joseph Frozard, T. C. Chacheré, E. Dubuisson and Frank Wharton.” [9]

The new St. Landry Parish Courthouse as it was being constructed in the fall of 1886.

Constructing A New Courthouse

Work on the new courthouse began immediately.  The first job was to demolish the walls of the old building and clean the area so the new building construction could begin.  One of the hands engaged in tearing down the walls of the old courthouse mistook a bottle of coal oil, which had been handed him to loosen the bolts on the anchor plates, for a bottle of whiskey and took a large dose before discovering his error.  But he survived and the work resumed.[10]

The construction work continued through the summer of 1886.[11]  On September 25th, the Opelousas Courier announced, “the new courthouse is beginning to assume fine proportions and will be a handsome edifice when finished.” Finally in the fall of 1886, the new courthouse was completed.  Parish officials moved into the new building and the business of the parish was again conducted, as it had been for over 80 years, since 1806, on the old courthouse square in the heart of Le Vieux Village, the old village.

The new St. Landry Parish Courthouse shown across Court Street from the Eureka Hotel in 1887.

The business of St. Landry Parish continued to be conducted in that building until the end of the 1930s when the 1886 courthouse was demolished to make room for the new building, constructed in 1939.  That building, opened in 1940, now serves as the present courthouse for St. Landry Parish.

But who set the fire?

Although the fight about the location of the new 1886 courthouse was settled, and it was finally rebuilt and back in operation, questions remained about who started the fire that destroyed the courthouse and some of the documents it held. It’s been over 136 years since that fire, and that mystery was never solved. However new information recently received may finally help solve the mystery of “who done it.” The final part of this story continues soon. 


The St. Landry Parish Courthouse that was constructed in 1886, pictured here in the early 1900s.

[1] Opelousas Courier, March 27, 1886, Page 1.

[2] Opelousas Courier, April 10, 1886, Page 1.

[3] Opelousas Courier, April 3, 1886, Page 1.

[4] Opelousas Courier, April 3, 1886, Page 1.

[5] Opelousas Courier, April 10, 1886, Page 1.

[6] Opelousas Courier, April 24, 1886, Page 1.

[7] Although the courthouse location seemed to be resolved, the debate over the creation of a new parish out of parts of  St. Landry Parish continued for some time.  As history tell us, other parishes were eventually created from parts of the old Imperial St. Landry Parish, but Opelousas continued to be the seat of the part of St. Landry Parish that remained.

[8] Opelousas Courier, May 8, 1886.

[9] Opelousas Courier, May 8, 1886.

[10] Donaldsonville Chief, July 10, 1886.

[11] “Work on the Courthouse at Opelousas had Commenced” – Donaldsonville Chief, August 7, 1886.