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by Carola Lillie Hartley

At a family gathering recently Tommy Lafleur showed up with two albums of old photos he rescued years ago in Opelousas. The albums belonged to Ophelia Pitre Lafleur, the wife of his great uncle Leo Lafleur. As I looked over the photos, I realized they were mostly of Washington and its surrounding area. I also appreciated how special they were, and worked on scanning the hundreds of photos. In December of 2020, Tommy Lafleur and I released the book, Through A Lens – Early 20th Century Washington, LA Photo Albums of Ophelia Pitre Lafleur (Tommy Lafleur Collection).

While scanning the photos I came across a number showing men working in a rice field. As I continued to examine them, I understood they were photos of the rice fields associated with the Union Irrigation Co. project that was a big deal in St. Landry Parish over a century ago. The project became known as the Schell Canal of St. Landry Parish.

I first became interested in the Schell Canal project over forty years ago when Mae and Nat Klaus of Washington gave me several old postcards. Among those postcards were a few showing the Schell Canal. Over the years I have researched this project and collected many other postcards and photos of the canal. Whenever I discovered new photos about the canal, I was always excited to share them with others and tell the canal story.

The Canal Story: In the early part of the 20th century when Ophelia Pitre Lafleur and her family were taking the photos that are now part of her albums, something really big and important was going on in St. Landry Parish near Washington. It was called the “biggest project St. Landry Parish ever engaged in.”

The story began in 1900 when J. Franklin Schell, a Pennsylvania Lawyer, came to south Louisiana looking for real estate. For days he traveled around the St. Landry Parish area, with his chauffeur, a team driver names Moses Green. On these trips he was seen digging holes in the ground and filling them with water. He also sat for hours on the banks of the Bayou Courtableau, throwing pebbles into the water and watching them sink. Local people saw this stranger and thought he was nuts.

Soon Schell began talking to local folks about the idea he had for a new industry in the area. He shared his idea for a canal project with Opelousas Real Estate Developer J.G. Lawler and a small group of other area people. In no time that news spread throughout the region. Immediately Judge Wilbur Fisk Blackman of Rapides Parish came to Opelousas to meet with Schell and offered him financial support if he would agree to build the canal at Phillips Bluff on the Calcasieu River. That was a great opportunity, but it was not part of Schell’s plans. His plans involved the fresh waters of the Courtableau, at that time indirectly nourished by the Mississippi River. He turned down the Judge’s offer.

Schell had his idea all figured out. His proposal was to install a large pumping plant on the banks of Bayou Carron, located about ¾ miles southwest of Washington. His plan called for the dredging of Bayou Carron from the pumps to Bayou Courtableau. He would next dig a large irrigation canal from the pumps through Southwest Louisiana, with large and small lateral canals feeding out from it to irrigate the region for rice planting.

Since Schell was not economically able to purchase all the land necessary to make his idea work, he recruited investors to finance the project. J. G. Lawler and T. J. Caldwell, Opelousas businessmen, were the first to put their money into the canal project.

As Schell’s plan gained support, a Mr. Gore from New York subscribed $1,000. A meeting was called for all the investors in the new Union Rice and Irrigation Company at the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans. The first Board of Directors was elected at that gathering of investors as follows: Leon Wolff, George E. Sears, Dr R. C. Webb, J. G. Lawler and Dr. Jno. A. Haas, all St. Landry Parish citizens. Others on the board were political friends of Schell including Hon. Bird Cassel and Ex-sheriff Meyers from Pennsylvania.

Schell’s project developed quickly, with many more local and others investing in the canal. It was doing so well that the Board of Directors very quickly voted themselves a salary of $3.500 to $5,000 per year.

Schell’s project called for a canal system that would irrigate about 25,000 acres of land the first year. It would have 65 miles of main and lateral canals, and was expected to grow yearly westward to eastern Texas and south to Lafayette and Crowley. It was to be controlled by a pump, driven by two 1,000 horse powered compound steam engines, located near Washington at the highest point above sea level. The pump was supposed to lift about 150,000 gallons of water per minute 65 feet to the top where it would flow, without re-lift, to all points north, west and south. It was projected to be a revolution in the rice industry.

But as the project developed there seemed to be nothing but problems. In 1903 the Union Rice and Irrigation Company failed because of all this, and also because the rice crop was worthless for two years. All the money invested by local citizens and others was lost.

Franklin Schell went back to Pennsylvania after the attempt to build a canal failed. But he did not give up on his idea. The Schell Canal of St. Landry Parish was still alive as far as Schell was concerned. And he was determined to get it built and make it work.

If you don’t succeed, try and try again: Following the failure of the first attempt to build a canal near Washington in St. Landry Parish, Franklin Schell refused to give up on his project. He went back to Pennsylvania and started a public relations campaign for his project. In 1905-06 he returned to Opelousas, bringing nearly one thousand commitments from investors with him. He reorganized and started a new company he named The Union Irrigation Company. Because he did not have much local South Louisiana support for this second attempt at the canal project, most of his investors were friends and other people from Pennsylvania. Those investors included bankers, merchants, farmers, newspaper men, politicians, lawyers and doctors.

Not only did Pennsylvania people invest in the project, many came to Louisiana to check on the progress from time to time. They came from many towns including Lancaster, West Chester, Lititiz, New Holland, Somerset, Garret, Boswell, Hooseville, Hooversville, Johnston, New Florence, and Storytown. The first group of ninety-six investors arrived in Opelousas on May 8, 1907, in several first-class Pullman cars, each bearing a sign stating “Special of Union Irrigation Company, Lancaster, PA to Opelousas, LA.”

Their arrival was like a festival celebration. Area citizens accompanied with musical entertainment met them at the train depot. The newspapers were there as well to take pictures and welcome the group to town. They were welcomed everywhere with smiles and handshakes and treated like royalty. They were given barbecues, concerts and access to just about every vehicle in the town. They only had to ask, and their needs or wants were granted.

It took some time to get the actual work on the project to begin. It was first expected to start in October of 1907, but that did not happen. Finally on Thursday, January 16, 1908, in the mist of cold, rain and mud, the big day arrived. Almost 2,000 people gather on the hills near Washington to watch Schell’s seven-year-old daughter Irma dig a spade of dirt for the first work to begin. This was an impressive ceremony from start to finish with students of Mt, Carmel Convent and Grand Prairie High School presenting Schell with flowers, and speeches by politicians, community leaders, religious leaders and others.

Six months later Schell announced two miles of the main canal, 250 feet wide, was ready for use. He promised there would be five miles ready to use for the coming spring, with ten miles of the Opelousas lateral canal ready to deliver water for the first crop of 1909. He told his investors he expected to irrigate from 10,000 to 15,000 acres of rice that year, and eventually 20,000 to 25,000 acres in later years.

However, progress was slow, and the canal was not completed as expected. As 1909 turned into 1910, the work went on, and the group from Pennsylvania continued to make trips to check on the canal. In May of 1910, a Pennsylvania group visited for the 12th time.

In September of 1910 work on part of the canal was stopped, and rumors began circulating about its demise. But that was not so. The work stopped because Mr. Schell had to go to Pennsylvania to be with his wife who was very ill. He made a statement to local newspapers saying the shutdown was only temporary, and the canal project would continue as soon as his wife was better. He promised the Schell Canal would be ready for the next rice crop.

Finally in April of 1911 the pump was ready for operation. When the opening of the supply canal occurred on April 6, 1911, not many people were present, but the rush of water could be heard for two miles. However, the next day was the big day, the one that was highly anticipated by so many for over a decade. 

The headlines of the St. Landry Clarion on Saturday, April 15, 1911, declared in all caps, SPLENDOR MARKS OPENING OF SCHELL CANAL. And it was quiet an opening. On the previous Saturday, April 7, 1911, over 4,000 people came by horse, buggy, train, wagon, automobile and on foot. They came from Opelousas, Washington, Ville Platte, New Orleans, Alexandria, Baton Rouge, Lafayette and, of course, Pennsylvania to witness young Irma Schell push the electric button at 3PM that started the powerful pumps of the Union Irrigation Company, and the waters of the Atchafalaya flowed into the canal. The dream of J. Franklin Schell had finally become a reality.

But, not so fast, the canal story was hardly over. There was much more work to do, and there were problems. The first problem was the pump. It was in operation daily, but still could not steadily run. It took eight months to adjust it to operate properly. A small rice crop was produced in 1911, but not enough to generate the necessary funds for the Union Irrigation Company to show a profit.

In 1912 things got even worse. There was a lot of rain that season and the rice crop could not be completely harvested. Ninety percent of the rice was left to rot in the fields. To make things worse, the Union Irrigation Co.’s lending bank, the Farmers Bank and Trust Co. of Washington, LA went bankrupt. Since the canal was not completely paid for, it was utilized by farmers for other purposes rather than irrigation. The irrigation company went bankrupt, and the Schell Canal project was called a total failure.

Even so, J. Franklin Schell and his canal should be remembered for an idea that was years ahead of its time. The canal project was one of the biggest things to happen in St. Landry Parish immediately after the turn of the 20th century.

Investors lost a lot of wealth betting on Mr. Schell’s Canal including some from St. Landry Parish, who lost a total of about $20,000. But the biggest losers were all those Pennsylvania investors. Their losses totaled over one and a half million dollars, with some losing all their savings. As a result, Mr. Schell could not return to that state. He and his wife lived out the remainder of their lives in their home near Washington. In 1920 he was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives where he served for a few years. J. Franklin Schell died on June 6, 1935. His wife Jessie Lenore Aumock Schell died on February 26, 1940. They are buried next to their daughter Irma (Mrs. Alvin T. Edgerton) in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Washington.

Photos:  1st – J. Franklin Schell, the man from Pennsylvania whose idea it was to build the canal. (Carola Lillie Hartley collection.)

2nd –  Pumping Station of the Schell Canal project near Washington, LA shown soon after it was opened. (Carola Lillie Hartley collection)

3rd – Men working in the rice field of the Union Irrigation Company with J. Franklin Schell pictured to the right in the photo. (Tommy Lafleur collection – the album of Ophelia Pitre Lafleur)

4th – The home of J. Franklin Schell and his family near Washington, LA in the early 1900s. (Tommy Lafleur collection – the album of Ophelia Pitre Lafleur)