EconSouth (Third Quarter 2004)


Morgan City, Louisiana:
Cajun Catch and Black Gold

Morgan City’s leaders hope that its distinctive and colorful heritage—a mix of Cajun, Creole, and European influences—helps propel the town’s revitalization. Past reliance on shrimping and petroleum has led to boom-and-bust cycles.

The unofficial capital of the Cajun coastline of Louisiana, Morgan City is a small town with big industry and flat growth. With a population of less than 13,000, the community’s future is tied to two liquids: oil and water. From the town’s black gold rush—launched in 1947 when an offshore rig owned by a company named Kerr-McGee struck oil—to the shrimp fleets that haul in thousands of pounds of shrimp annually, the largest city in St. Mary Parish is thoroughly Cajun.

Located southwest of New Orleans at the confluence of the Atchafalaya River and the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway, the town was given its Cajun flavor by French and Acadian settlers. Originally called Tigre Island because U.S. surveyors spotted some large cats as they scouted the area, the town was renamed Brashear in 1860. Charles Morgan, a rail and steamship magnate, saw the area’s potential and dredged the Atchafalaya Bay Ship Channel so that oceangoing vessels could navigate to port. Grateful for the new port, the community changed its name in 1876 to Morgan City.

Oil, jobs ebb and flow
Since the founding of its offshore oil industry, Morgan City’s fortunes have been closely tied to petroleum, and recently this industry has not been faring well in the area. According to Anthony Greco of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s business school, the local oil business is not growing these days. Greco noted that the J. Ray McDermott offshore fabrication facility announced 600 layoffs last April.

Morgan City, La.  
Population: 12,703
(St. Mary Parish: 53,500)
Households: 5,627
Median Household Income: $28,072
Parish: St. Mary
Source: U.S. Census Bureau (2000)

The potential for additional job loss in the oil business looms, but the city is trying to compensate with the development of new businesses such as Conrad Industries, a marine vessel construction company, which chose Morgan City over a Texas location last year. This facility will create 200 new jobs, according to a Louisiana Economic Development study. Additionally, Argus Health Products will open a cosmeceutical research and manufacturing facility that will employ 50 people.

Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico is also a major contributor to Morgan City’s economy. The shrimping industry is limited to two seasons, Greco noted, and the 600-plus shrimp boats have dwindled to fewer than 150 since the 1990s mainly as a result of increases in shrimp imports. But numerous shrimp fleets and independently owned trawlers still deliver catches to local packing plants. A new shrimp packing plant due to open across the river from Morgan City within the next year promises to help restore the shrimp boat fleets, noted Frank Fink, director of economic development for St. Mary Parish. The packers add value to the shrimp harvest. Since they pack only local shrimp, the new plant will spur fishing in the area. Shipyards and a thriving oyster industry also contribute to the local economy, as do tourists who visit for boating and fishing.

The unique marriage of oil and shrimp
In the vicinity of rivers, bayous, and cypress swamps, Morgan City sits just south of Bayou Teche and the vast sugarcane fields that spread out to its north and east. The city today is a cultural melting pot of Cajun, Creole, and European influences. Its downtown Main Street, a registered historic district, reflects its 19th century heritage. The streets erupt with festivities every Labor Day weekend when nearly 150,000 people—more than 10 times the town’s population—attend one of the oldest and most unusual harvest festivals in the country: the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.

The festival began in 1936 to celebrate the deepwater shrimpers. Celebrating Morgan City’s economic lifeblood—shrimping and petroleum (the latter added to the festival’s scope in 1967)—the annual festival features Cajun food (including fried alligator), music, and the blessing of the fleets. The event is a shot in the arm to the local economy and, according to Time magazine, is “one of the best, most moving and most fun festivals the country has to offer.”

Too many eggs in one basket
The city puts so much effort into its festival to offset the economic suffering it experienced in the 1980s, when the oil industry bottomed out. Vowing to reinvigorate its shrimping industry and reduce its dependence on petroleum employment, the city tried to dig its way out. Morgan City’s natural beauty disguises a decidedly less rosy economic snapshot of the region. The city and the surrounding area lost population over the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Census, and the median income from 2000 to 2003 hovered well below the national average. Unemployment has remained near the 8 percent mark, while the rate statewide dropped from 6.1 percent to 5.9 percent in the first half of 2004.

A river runs through it
In every direction, water remains central to the city’s economic life. Morgan City’s port has been an avenue for both domestic and international trade since 1957. The port receives international cargo bound for markets throughout the United States. Via the Intercoastal Waterway and the inland rivers of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, 37 states are accessible from the port, and Morgan City is the only medium-draft harbor between New Orleans and Houston. The 400-foot-wide channel is maintained to a depth of 20 feet by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the port docking facility has a rail spur of the U.S. and Union Pacific railway as well.

Call me Mr. Charlie
Morgan City is also home to an unusual museum—the International Petroleum Museum and Exposition, a nonprofit facility with a mission to save, preserve, and interpret artifacts and information about the offshore petroleum industry. Its focal point is Mr. Charlie, the first transportable, submersible oil drilling rig and the springboard for offshore rig technology. Accommodating a crew of 58, the rig was used from 1953 to 1986. Mr. Charlie is now the only offshore rig in the world that the general public can walk aboard.

Looking toward tomorrow

The future of Morgan City remains tied to the petroleum industry despite efforts to reduce its dependence on oil. As the local economy shrinks, so does the population—St. Mary Parish lost 2 percent of its population from 2000 to 2003, and, as of the 2000 U.S. Census, more than 20 percent of its residents live below the poverty line. As Morgan City celebrates its storied past, it looks optimistically toward an unclear future.

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