Swain Street in downtown New Iberia is one of the shortest in the city. It runs from West Main to Fulton Street, less than 350 feet, sloping down to the banks of Bayou Teche. Swain Street is currently home to a financial adviser’s office and a residence. It is also a convenient parking spot for business and events in and around Bouligny Plaza, but its uphill walk can be daunting, especially on a Monday morning. Here’s the story of the street, its beginnings and the man it was named after.
According to local historian Shane Bernard, Swain Street was originally named for John Davis (J.D.) Swaim, who owned a steamboat shipping company with warehousing nearby along the banks of the Teche. And you did read that right, the gentleman’s name was Swaim, yet the street has been called Swain since the early twentieth century. Sanborn’s 1885 Fire Insurance Map of New Iberia reported the correct name, but by the 1905 map, the street had been dubbed Swain through some mistaken interpretation, and thus it stays today.
John Davis Swaim was born in Ohio on March 4, 1810, and by the mid-1800s lived in south Louisiana with his wife, Frances Ann Griffin. The Swaims had two sons, Oliver and Marion. The family was not immune to the misspelling of their name; indeed, the U. S. Census of 1850 listed them as the Swains of St. Martin Parish, and the mistake was repeated for the 1870 census. The 1880 count correctly identified the family as the Swaims of 6th ward, New Iberia.
Swain Street was a central location for business in New Iberia in its early street life, two blocks from the courthouse and jail. In 1885, the street was lined with warehouses, stables and dry goods stores; additionally, there was a seltzer and soda factory on its northwest corner with Fulton.
Swaim’s warehousing and transport company was a successful venture, with steamboats making trips from New Iberia to New Orleans and back carrying cargo including sugar, molasses, flour, pork whiskey and other goods. One can find ads for his firm in newspapers of the day, including the Farmer’s Banner of Franklin (1853, 1870) and the Louisiana Cotton Boll of Vermilionville (1873). Swaim died in New Iberia in 1888.
In addition to the New Iberia street, Swaim also had a New Orleans Steamboat as a namesake. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, the J.D. Swaim (also known as the J.D. Swain — another victim of the Swaim/Swain confusion) was built in Jeffersonville, Ind. in 1859. She was taken into Confederate service and sunk sometime in 1862 at the mouth of McCall’s River, south of Picayune, Miss. Union forces raised her in April 1864 and used her as Union transport.
Swain Street, downtown New Iberia — not the longest drive, but a rich story with a little mistaken identity thrown in. There you have it, the long and short of it.