In the beginning . . .
From the earliest days of written history, from Egyptians to Greeks to biblical times, river piloting has been an elemental line of work. In Louisiana, the ancient career quickly found a home along the Mississippi with some of the first ships entering the mouth of the river.
Before pilot associations and fee commissions, there were unregulated, ruthless pilots monitoring the river in hopes of catching the first sight of an incoming ship. Often aggressive pilots strayed far out to sea in order to beat their competitors. Likewise, many ships had to wait unlimited hours in the dangerous waters, waiting for a pilot to just happen by.
On many occasions, two pilots would reach the ship at the same time and race to be the first to get onboard, each scrambling up opposite sides of the boat. In the end, the toughest and fastest won, not the most knowledgeable and skilled. In New Orleans, shrewd businessman with no inclination toward piloting would hire any sailor, buccaneer or drifter to work the ships and then keep the fees for themselves.
Competition was fierce and obstacles were everywhere. The Mississippi River was and still is one of the most treacherous rivers in the world, with sharp twists, hidden sandbars and sunken wreckage. Pilots also deal with flocculation, a think black much called "sea jelly" which traps ships and only occurs in two places in the world - here and Venezuela.
The ships themselves can cause problems as well. Pilots must board across gangways or up a rope ladder, and crews can carry exotic diseases or harbor hostile attitudes. Foreign languages may hinder crews from understanding pilots' instructions, and older ships may not be outfitted with up-to-date equipment or maintenance.
Additional dangers have been added to the river, such as four locks on the lower Mississippi, eight bridges, overhead cables and, being one of the busiest channels in the world, a substantial amount of ship traffic.
Formation of Pilot Associations
Struggling with the complaints and disorder of open competition, governments turned to regulation and the inevitable licensing of pilots. Licensing changed the face of piloting, turning the haphazard job into a profession, and with all professions, members began to form organizations.
Looking forward to the promise of well-trained pilots, shipping companies encouraged the evolution of pilot associations. To pilots, the groups offered fraternal organizations which provided mutual support and good working conditions, as well as necessary training programs in the form of apprenticeships. Plus, pilots no longer had to supply their own costly equipment, boats and stations.
In the 1870's, extensive regulations were placed on the pilots guiding vessels in and out of the mouth of the river. This eventually caused the first of the pilot organizations in Louisiana to be formed - the Associated Branch Pilots - in 1879.
In 1908, the Louisiana Legislature brought the pilots who led ships from Head of Passes to the Port of New Orleans under full regulation. The 1908 Louisiana Act 54 created the Board of River Port Pilot Commissioners, a three-person board with each member a licensed river pilot appointed by the governor. Their job involved overseeing, investigating and disciplining pilots, as well as supplying a list of applicants to become apprentices.
Pilots already working on the river from the port to Head of Passes were commissioned to serve under the board and authorized to form themselves into an association. They created the Crescent River Port Pilots' Association in the same year.
In 1942, the river port pilots' pilotage area was extended to include the Port of New Orleans between Southport and Mereauxville, giving them exclusive authority within the Port of New Orleans. The 1942 Act also gave full regulation to pilots who guided ships from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, allowing them to organize themselves into the New Orleans and Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association (NOBRA).
The Lake Charles Pilots formed after the construction of the Calcasieu ship channel finished in 1926. The Pilot's history unfolds along with the Port of Lake Charles. The first ship to travel down the Calcasieu Ship Channel had a Lake Charles Pilot aboard by the name of Capt. George D. Jessen. This ship was a fertilizer ship bound for the Kelly Weber fertilizer plant near Lake Charles. Capt. George D. Jessen (1880-1951) piloted the first seagoing ship into Lake Charles (1926) via the original channel route (Intracoastal Canal & the Sabine Pass channel). He also brought the first ship into Lake Charles (1940) that used the present-day route (via Calcasieu Pass).
The Calcasieu Ship Channel grew more important and active as industries for Southwest Louisiana's rich natural resource began to locate near the channel's edge. From the rich timber industry to the need for large quantities of farming supplies - industry's dependence on the newly formed Calcasieu ship channel grew ever important.
While the activity on the ship channel grew exponentially with the growth of industry in and around Lake Charles, the Pilot's Association also grew. For more than 75 years the Lake Charles Pilots have kept the Calcasieu ship channel safe and growing.
In the 1950's when Citgo and Conoco developed their oil refineries in Westlake they both developed births along the channel to import raw materials and export refined goods, such as fuel for vehicles. As the need for more vehicle gasoline has grown so have the refineries and the need for trained ship Pilots.
Today the Lake Charles Pilot's Association numbers 13, with more on the way. Industry growth has mandated the addition of two more pilots before the year’s end including the first African-American candidate. In 2001, the Lake Charles pilot's trained and introduced Louisiana’s first female ship pilot.
Today Louisiana has four associations, three on the Mississippi - the Associated Branch Pilots of the Port of New Orleans, the Crescent River Port Pilots and the New Orleans and Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots (NOBRA) - and one on the Calcasieu River - the Lake Charles Pilots' Association. While pilots must be members of an association to legally steer ships along the Mississippi and Calcasieu Rivers, they still function as separate, individual businessmen.