Historic boat placed on endangered list

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 3, 2002


DES ALLEMANDS – One of four cypress lugger boats sits now behind a fence, out of sight at the end of a Des Allemands road. It also sits on the Ten Most Endangered List of historic sites by the Louisiana Preservation Alliance.

The “Champion,” built in 1925, is the boat in question. Until recently, it sat in front of Danny Somme’s Lucky 7 Lounge on U.S. Highway 90 in Des Allemands, and has since been donated to St. Charles Parish.

“I was afraid a truck was going to run into it one day,” owner Mike Matherne, 49, of Des Allemands, said.

The boats once enabled the Matherne family to fish from the swamps near Des Allemands, are a link with a past industry which once sustained this pioneering family.

The “Champion” being listed by the Alliance has certain benefits, according to Marilyn Richoux of the St. Charles Historical Foundation.

“It does draw interest from passionate preservationists across the country who may want to donate to the preservation efforts,” she said.

And this is the second year in a row St. Charles Parish has had a listing. Last year, Home Place Plantation house in Hahnville was cited as one of the most endangered historical sites.

Pierre Dufrene, who built the “Champion,” began it all more than a hundred years ago, when he constructed the “Helen” from cypress lumber hauled out from trees felled in the early lumber days during the 19th Century. The “Helen” was built as a working boat for Anthony Matherne, and is now one of the oldest surviving boats in Louisiana. Mike acquired it 20 years ago upon his uncle’s death.

Nowadays, the “Helen” rests in his yard, the hull in the “cargo” area rotted out but the unique rounded bottom and stern still intact, rounded to be able to slide around submerged cypress knees which would wreck conventional boats.

A slender, almost elegant boat, the “Helen” includes a cabin with no sleeping room inside but a roofed area on top where fishermen would lay out their mattresses and place mosquito netting around themselves. They were powered by one-cylinder engines. Luggers got their name because of their resemblance to sailing luggers which once plied the inland waters of Louisiana in early settlers’ days. These boats, although never equipped for sail, nevertheless look like they would handle it easily.

Years ago, such boats lined the shoreline of Bayou Gauche and two more of the Dufrene boats are there now – the “Denver,” also built by Pierre’s son, Joseph “Yap” Dufrene in 1949, the last all-wooden tugboat in Louisiana.

Yet another Dufrene boat remains – the “Santa Fe,” now restored and being used by Mike and his wife, Cindy, as a pleasure boat. It is berthed at Bayou Gauche, and once rested alongside the “Denver.”

In June 1998, Matherne suggested to then-Parish President Chris Tregre that a boat-building museum be established to highlight this lost art, urged on by members of the St. Charles Historical Foundation.

The museum could eventually house antique skiffs, dugout pirogues and duck decoys which have survived the ravages of time, along with Indian artifacts recovered from the ancient villages of Lake Salvador, Matherne said.