….history along a little used highway
If you are in New Orleans, and have a car, a tank of gas, and a couple of hours to kill, or if you are simply on your way to visit someone just the other side of the Pearl River, or if you want to take the dogs to the Mississippi beaches to let them splash excitedly, delighted to be in a different element…..the first thing to do is ignore Interstate 10.
Begin on St. Claude at Bywater, about which much can be said regarding historic preservation, but we are going to leave that story for others to tell. Cross the Industrial Canal at the locks, going slowly if you can. This will give you a chance to notice how utterly narrow they are. Maybe if you are lucky, the bridge may go up and give an opportunity to see how close, measured in inches sometimes, the vessels come to the side walls of the lock.
Holy Cross and Lower Ninth
As you come down the bridge, you enter an area known now by two names: the Holy Cross area and the Lower 9th Ward. Once again, a visit to either is for another time. It is my intention to help you be conscious of what you are passing. You may notice a small service station on the left side; it has a mark of Katrina’s height on the wall, about eight feet up.
If you want to feel at home for the moment, pronounce “lower ninth ward” as “loah nynt wahd.”
A few blocks later, one of the cross streets is a little wider than the others. That is Caffin Ave., and without leaving St. Claude, you can look to the left and just inside of the corner is an edifice of some distinction, by both its size and its color. It is the home of Fats Domino, and the place, as I understand, where he weathered Katrina.
Soon you will cross into historic St. Bernard Parish. You can tell when you see the enormous complex called Jackson Barracks. It has its own history with beautiful southern style mansions housing the higher-rank officers. (Many years ago, I dated the daughter of Col. Jack Holiday. Ann was beautiful and sweet and intelligent; my three-year hitch in the army, including two years in Europe, separated us.)
Robert E. Lee once visited Jackson Barracks.
Continue on the same street, but after the barracks it becomes St. Bernard Hwy. You have just crossed the parish line. The first deviation will occur when you come, in a few blocks, to a signal light at Friscoville Ave, where you should turn right, that is, toward the fiver. Along this street, it is hard not to notice that some buildings look like residential houses but with a difference. That is because they were once gambling houses, during the heyday of St. Bernard, when gambling was wide open. Senator Kefauver investigated there about the time when a TV had just arrived in our house and we were able to hear the sheriff say that his wealth came from his cattle, which as I recall, numbered fewer than what one expects in a herd; he also did not trust banks, keeping his money in a can, or something.
As you proceed up Friscoville, note that many of the houses sit fairly high on raised foundations. It might be contemplated how much effect the dynamiting of the river levee in St. Bernard had on the people who lived during the 1927 flood, when New Orleans bankers, city officials and other “leaders” sacrificed St. Bernard to save New Orleans. They all signed their names to a document of reparation, but did not keep the promises.
Even people born years later have trouble believing that the floods of Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina were not purposeful.
Besides the above background of the parish, there was another reason for leaving the highway. When you come to the river road, you can see downriver a little way an active sugar refinery. It is the American Sugar Refinery, called simply “the refinery” by St. Bernard folks, and said to be the largest sugar refinery in North America.
Note the beautifully restored plantation home just beyond the formal garden. It functions as the office now, but was once the home of the planter.
This is in stark contrast to the Le Beau house, just a few feet away. In point of fact, it was because I have just the other day got my first really good look at the Le Beau house without having to peer through fence boards from a long distance away, that I thought it might be a good idea to suggest a tour of the area. To see it now, just reverse direction down Friscoville to the first right, and soon you will see this magnificent house that has been allowed to go to ruin for years. The fence is now gone, and the view is spectacular, but depressing. Nonetheless, it is a “must-see.” It is now in the estate of a wealthy, deceased couple. Hopefully, their heirs will restore it before it crumbles, dishonored, in the dust.
It is easy to find one’s way back to St. Bernard Hwy. Keep in mind that you continue to do downriver, more or less east, south-east. You have left the town of Arabi, and are now in Chalmette. Without my directing you to do so, you have already observed the sky-high smokestack left over by Kaiser Aluminum. It is so high that in the day it was built, it was thought that it was high enough to be its own total pollution control.
Near to its base, but not exactly where, are believed to be buried the bodies of 600 red-coated British invaders who in 1815 were massacred at the Battle of New Orleans, which occurred a little further down river.
People are sometimes surprised at how close to New Orleans the battle was fought. One may contemplate that had the British won, people like me, born and raised in the 9th ward, may have grown up speaking English.
It was in fact, a decisive battle. Even though the truce had been signed before but not known until later, I believe the British would have reneged because they were so intent on taking New Orleans, thereby controlling the Mississippi River. After all, the soldiers were motivated by rape and booty, and the officers had their wives on board the ships at Ship Island, waiting to enjoy Creole cooking in New Orleans. After all, what did a truce mean after they came all this way and worked so hard to get here?
There is much history to tell about the Battle of New Orleans, too much to cover here. Once a sugar cane field, one may observe the open fields that are now regularly mowed. It was an open field in January 1815 too, as the cane had already been harvested in the fall, and so the invaders marching in formation had no protection from the fire rendered by the Creoles, the blacks, the Choctaws, the Tennessee and Kentucky long riflemen, and Lafitte’s pirates – not even a bush or a slender tree.
It is worthwhile, however, to drive up the roadway to the monument and maybe go into the Rene Beauregard house, which is now the office and museum of the National Park Rangers. When I was a kid at Holy Cross high school, we would sometimes come down here in Vic’s ’32 Chevrolet which we called Beowulf. The house was a wreck then, open to us and the elements. We never did any damage, as even as kids, we respected it. But we would explore. We would go to the upstairs rooms by boosting one another up where once had been a stairway. And we would gather pecans beneath the giant pecan tree. They were always there in season, as no one else would go there, it seemed.
Here is proof that restoration can be done even after serious deterioration.
On current visits I contemplate the short distance from the gate to the river. Just at the entrance is what remains of the edge of a swamp, which was at the time of the battle a natural boundary to the action just like the river itself. It was either the genius of Jackson or the stupidity of the British commanders that chose this place.
The Court House
Continuing down St. Bernard Hwy, the parish court house is a stand-out on the left. It is noteworthy for its lovely court room which has some fine wood sculptures inside. I stopped there once to try to find a wood sculpture of Solomon which had been done many years before by noted artist Enrique Alferez. Luckily, I bumped into the district attorney, an old acquaintance from high school and the son of the sheriff mentioned above. The DA is proud of St. Bernard and its history and culture, and gave me a personal tour of the court house. He was not able to show me “Solomon,” however, because it had been in the office of a judge who retired years before. Solomon and the judge had left together.
One mile from the battlefield is the fenced ruin of the de la Ronde plantation house, also called Versailles. Notable about the site is the consideration that this is where British General Pakenham died. What an ignominious place to die, in the home of a Louisiana militia colonel, for a man who had fought Napoleon in the Peninsula war and was the brother-in-law of Wellington.
On the river side of the highway, just opposite the ruin, are the Pakenham oaks, four rows of ancient oaks that once offered shade to the de la Ronde family and to the slaves. It is said that the inside of the acorns of those oaks is bright red, as they contain the blood of Pakenham.
We would explore that area too when Beowulf would take us there. Back then, there was still a wooden turnstile at the river end of the rows of oaks. A real relic, it is regrettably not there anymore.
At the signal light just past the ruin is Paris Road. You should proceed by taking a right up this road. It is called by locals “Parish Road,” but “Paris” is correct. That is because at one time it was the road from Versailles to Fontainebleau, another plantation of which not even a ruin remains. But it is nice to think about, because it is an historic path on which there were settlers who must have used nearby Lake Borgne as their waterway.
To the east of Paris Road are marinas, a hint of the closeness of the Lake Borgne. Just ahead is a bridge, under which flows the most historic of bayous in the parish. In British history it is either not mentioned or considered notorious, for it is here that the thousands of troops were ferried by small row-boats from Pea Island to the mainland, to enter Bayou Bienvenu, and from there to build primitive roads of mud and logs across the marshes. It was dirty, back-breaking, cold work done in a miserable rainy fall, but it was necessary in order to drag cannons and other supplies to do battle. It is almost enough to generate sympathy for the invaders – but not quite.
One must marvel, when crossing this little bayou, about the ability of the navy and its admirals to come across the Atlantic, through the Caribbean and past the Gulf to this little waterway.
Once more to show the changes in my lifetime, I should mention that in our earlier exploration there was a pontoon bridge over the bayou.
Mr Go, an Infamous Waterway
Just beyond the little bayou is a big channel, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, called “Mr Go.” I take no pleasure in introducing anyone to this planned catastrophe of the Corps of Engineers. I am happy to report only that the damned thing is now dammed.
Old Highway 90
Just after crossing the bridge, you will come to Hwy. 90. I say “old” because people don’t usually think of it anymore as it has been essentially replaced by I-10. But it is old 90 where the history is, where it is a pleasure to drive leisurely and see things. Go right, that is, east. It is also called Chef Menteur Highway.
A glance to the right might disclose a building in the distance that doesn’t appear very tall, but it is. It stands alone and is so massive that it is hard to get a perspective on its size. It is the Michoud plant, where since the creation of NASA Michoud has been assembling the external fuel tanks that have powered space rockets. When the first man set foot on the moon, he had been sent there with the assistance of a Michoud-built Saturn 1C booster.
There is earlier history of the site, too. It was originally a grant of 35,000 acres deeded by the King of France in 1763. For many years the Michoud family grew sugar cane on the plantation.
Proceed east on 90, and in a little while you pass a Vietnam village. I am told that sometimes there are long lines of customers at one bakery, where wonderful bread is made. I have personally observed some of the Vietnamese ladies planting rice is an open watery field on the right hand side of the highway.
From this point and for miles, you will travel more or less parallel to Bayou Sauvage. The name obviously means “savage,” but I am told that it can also be translated to mean simply “wild.” This, I prefer, especially when the word is used to describe the original Americans who peopled this place before the white settlers.
The bayou used to be connected to other waterways so that it could be navigated all the way from New Orleans to Chef Menteur. In fact, when Jackson was guessing from which direction the British would come he was guided by Lafitte to reconnoiter the Chef as a possible point of entry. At that time and for eons before there was a confluence of Bayou Sauvage with Bayou Gentilly and the latter with Bayou St. John. (That part of Gentilly still visible is a duck pond in front of Dillard University; for Bayou St. John, its remnant is the pond in City Park which runs alongside City Park Ave.)
A traveler may be happy to know that Bayou Sauvage has three places from which one can view the bayou and the marshes.
The first, on the left, is called the Ridge Trail, and it may be helpful to be advised that it has a rest rooms. Along the ridge there is a walking trail that runs alongside a canal on one side, and a pond on the other. If you walk far enough, in the distance across the pond, you might see an elevation in the marshes which is known to be the site of prehistoric Indian settlements. They are Big Oak Island and Little Oak Island, and consist of millions of clam shells, much like the ones which paved New Orleans streets during my lifetime. Thousands of artifacts were found there is a dig conducted by UNO archaeologists.
The next is on the right, a good place to launch a canoe, if you happen to have one.
Lastly, again on the left, there is a wayside park with a pier and an observation deck right over Bayou Sauvage. I don’t think I have ever been there when I did not spot at least one alligator. Also sauvage in these swamps and marshes are pigs, big ones, with tusks, and sometimes little baby ones. They have descended from the ones brought over to this continent by the Spanish explorers. A friend who used to live just off the highway has told me that he has seen many families of these wild pigs when travelling at night; they run right down the road.
If you have any doubt about the veracity of this writer, perhaps I should not tell you how this next point of interest got its name. As I recall, the lands here were owned by a French gentleman who did not keep faith with the local Indians (probably Choctaws). Whatever his real name, they gave him a new one: Chef Menteur, meaning “chief liar.”
They must have meant it, for it surely has stuck.
As you proceed east, you will pass a Textron plant. They make war machines, and I personally try to go a little faster as I pass. You can see through a chain-link fence some of the battered ones used by that handful of kids that have been volunteering for the rest of the country. This is not a pleasant leg of my journey.
Past Textron, and just before the Chef bridge comes into view, pull off on a dirt road on the right. Here you can walk along the moat of stately Fort Macomb, not kept up for too long but still able to stand in spite of all the hurricanes and the man-made wash of the nearby marina. It is truly a moat, as that was still the way they built forts in 1818. From that vantage point, one can view a substantial part of the walls, the gun turrets, and the voids where bricks used to be.
On the other side of the highway, you might notice the mouth of Bayou Sauvage.
This bridge crosses over the Chef pass, one of two inlets to Lake Pontchartrain. An enormous amount of water goes in and out between that lake and Lake Borgne, on the right side, to the south, every time the tide changes. As a result, this pass is extremely deep, measuring, I believe, over 100 feet in depth. Note the swirls in the current as you pass.
When I cross the bridge, I sometimes remember that before the 1947 hurricane (they were not named in those days) there was the hulk of a large ship, made of metal and pointed at both ends. It was always a mystery how it got there and how old it was. It disappeared in the storm, perhaps still lying at the bottom of Chef Menteur pass. Maybe this is something for marine archaeology one day. However, maybe I should say that my brother remembers it as being at the Rigolets.
Camps with Funny Names
After crossing the bridge, there are nine miles of twisting and turning high ground in the center of an island. Lake Pontchartrain is to the north, Lake St. Catherine, to the south. Some of the oldest maps of the area clearly show a road there. It is naturally high ground, although a borrow pit is sometimes in evidence, used to help elevate Highway 90. Today, only a few fishing camps have been built since Katrina, but before, they dotted almost the entire nine miles. Most of them had picturesque signs with funny names. They do help to make the nine miles pass.
At the end of the island is Fort Pike, recently reopened after repairs and more recently closed again by the state budget. It is still worth a visit to pull off and see what can be seen from the parking lot. Built at the same time as Fort Macomb, it is larger and more of a presence to a viewer. Important to me is the fact that I have found that thousands of the bricks were made in my area of Mississippi, Hancock County.
The mortar for the construction of the brick walls was made from clam shells burned and crushed from the deposits on which the fort rests. It was – and still is –a huge prehistoric Indian midden; the shells, of the rangia type, are much in evidence. Many Native Americans, for very many years, must have eaten theses clams until their bellies were full. Unfortunately, they provided little nutrition.
Like Fort Macomb, Pike was built after the War of 1812, when the vulnerability of these strategic inlets was recognized. Fort Pike figures prominently in Civil War history, as well, as it housed Union troops who governed the passage of marine traffic in and out of Lake Pontchartrain.
Like the Chef, this pass, called the Rigolets, is extremely deep because of the ebb and flow of millions of gallons of water every day. Its name comes from a French word for “gutter.” Like the names of the fishing camps, this “gutter” had to be so christened by someone with a sense of humor.
A beautiful new bridge has been built over the Rigolets since the storm. It is high and because there is so little traffic on 90 it may be possible to go a little more slowly to get a good view. To the south, in the distance, you may see the railroad trestle that goes to Pearl River Island. I prefer to call it “Pea Island,” because that is what Iberville called it when exploring for the mouth of the Mississippi River. He too might have had a sense of humor, as the reason for the name was that one of his intrepid sailors forgot a sack of peas there.
More than 100 years later, the British maps still used the Pea Island name. It was the transfer point at which the invaders were brought in from transports in the open Gulf, to be ferried to Bayou Bienvenu. It is nothing but a seven-mile long marsh island with a railroad track, and when the British deposited their crack troops there in that cold, rainy fall of 1814 it couldn’t have been much different except for the bridge and the railroad track. If I have shown any sympathy for the British soldiers, I might be forgiven. But I unabashedly feel for the black soldiers they had picked up in the Caribbean when they stopped to get the rowboats that had been ordered in advance. Those islanders had never experienced a cold day in their lives until being put out on Pea Island. Unable to make a fire, many of them died right there, amidst the damp, cold marsh grasses.
Coming down from the Rigolets bridge, you may find that the next few miles seem rather ordinary. They were not so, however, when a man named Bartram came to some high ground here to recover from a near loss of eyesight.
Beginning in 1773, the famous naturalist William Bartram began his four-year travels through the southern colonies. He recorded his travels in a journal and made beautiful drawings of the flora he found, while also studying native fauna and local Indians. On his way here from Mobile in 1776, he contracted a disease which, according to his own words, caused “excessive pain in my head, attended with a high fever; this disorder soon settled in my eyes….” He hitched a ride on a trading boat, owned by a “French gentleman,” probably Jean Claude Favre, the first European settler to operate a plantation on the Pearl River. When he was showing no signs of recovery, it was suggested that he visit an Englishman named Rumsey, who was known to have many medicines. There, he was cured, and after staying several weeks resumed his travels.
The place where Rumsey lived was known then as Pearl Island. Today, we think that it was Prevost Island, the high ground that you pass through for the next few miles. It may look like a wilderness now, but Bartram saw it through his naturalist’s eyes, now recovered, as “venerable groves and sublime forests, consisting of the Live Oaks and Magnolia grandiflora, Laurus Borbonia, Olea Americana, Fagus sylvatica, , Laur, Sassafras, Quercus hemispherica, Tilia, Liquidambar styraciflua, Morus, Gleditsia, Callicarpa, Halesia, &c.”
The site of the onetime landmark called the White Kitchen is recognized at the junction with Hwy. 190. An old sign still commemorates the spot. A favorite restaurant which offered a respite to travelers in the days before the interstate, it was a welcome presence until it burned years ago. It was my father’s habit to stop for coffee and “one of those good biscuits” on almost every trip. On one such, he happened to observe something peculiar and because he tipped off the FBI, a counterfeiting gang was apprehended in Biloxi a day later.
Across the highway, on the left side, is a little park with a pier overlooking a lovely marsh. In the tree line far away there was a bald eagle’s nest that was visible until Katrina. I would be glad to hear that it is back.
West Pearl River
The next bridge on Hwy. 90 is just ahead. Just before passing it, you may notice the swamp tour headquarters on the left. It is situated strategically at the edge of a vast marshland through which there are five branches of the Pearl River, all draining the dense Honey Island swamp. The usual kinds of wildlife inhabit the swamp, but in addition, if you feel particularly credulous at the moment, you may be excited to know that monsters like the yeti have also been spotted there.
The first of the branches is called West Pearl. There will be three smaller branches before coming to the main Pearl, called simply Pearl River.
Today this river is important because it demarcates Louisiana and Mississippi, but in earlier days it has, in two periods, served as an international boundary. Moreover, it boasts a rich history of the days when logs were rafted and dressed lumber was shipped by the millions of board feet all over the world. There were also cotton plantations and tar and pitch industries. Towns that once thrived have been removed by the coming of the space age, NASA’s Stennis facility being just upriver.
The Pearl received its name because pearls were found in large clam shells by the Indians, who at one point gave a bag of them to Bienville. Included in the mission given by the French king to the early explorers was an order to search for pearls as a possible source of wealth.
Just past the bridge is the 18th century town called Pearlington, or at least what Katrina left of it.
There is much history and prehistory to tell about the Pearl. Like New Orleans, or as was stated at the beginning about Bywater, it is too much to cover here. There are, however, several articles on this website which may be of interest.
Junction, Hwy 604
As Yogi Berra said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it.
Returning to the beginning of this writing, you might recollect that I never promised to get you back. All the while, I had in mind that you might at this point transfer to another article called “A Slow Drift down Pearl River,” under the History – Hancock County section of this blog.
Of course, if you are ready to rest instead, Bay St. Louis, with its beaches, restaurants and shops, is only twenty minutes ahead.