With astonishing tenacity, the people of the rich river-mouth region of the Mississippi have remained what and where they are through two and a half centuries
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
In a country where land speculation is as much a part of our heritage as freedom of speech, few places once exploited are allowed to lie fallow after the original schemes have failed: there are always subsequent speculators with new money who will take up with new hopes the leavings of busted enterprise. So on Grand Isle, the disused sugar plantations were transmogrified in the 1880’s into elegant watering holes for wealthy Creoles fleeing the heat and disease of summertime New Orleans. Benjamin Margot and Joseph Hale Harvey bought the old Barataria Plantation, whose broad cane fields already had succumbed to sand. While the islanders watched or hired themselves out to it, this newest phase took shape in the Grand Isle Hotel. John F. Krantz bought another plantation that had stretched from bay to gulf, converted the old residences to dining rooms and reception halls, the slave quarters into summer cottages. To solve the problem of transporting his guests from the main buildings to the beaches across the island, Krantz purchased some outmoded tram cars and rails of the New Orleans public transit system and shipped them to the island. Three times daily the mule-drawn tram would leave the hotel for the beach, the mules plodding the tracks through fields of cucumber or brilliant camomile, past small groves of orange or lemon trees whose leaves glinted like metal plates.
Kate Chopin has left us a gorgeous, impressionistic record of this decorous interlude in her novel The Awakening (1899). She describes the tram trip to the beach, the dry Victorian ritual of “bathing” with its bathhouses, parasols, gauze veils, and gloves; the departure of the husbands on Monday mornings to return to the world of commerce, leaving the island to wives, nursemaids, and children until those same husbands would return the following Saturday. Sundays, these observant Catholics would take a lugger across the westward pass to Chénière Caminada, where, in a “quaint little Gothic church…gleaming all brown and yellow paint in the sun’s glare,” they would hear mass alongside the browned, salty natives. Chopin, like Hearn, writes here of a stillness that was not only of Sundays but something enforced by the insistent “voice of the sea whispering through the reeds that grew in the salt-water pools.... The long line of little gray, weather-beaten houses nestled peacefully among the orange trees” in what seemed an eternal “God’s day on that low, drowsy island....”
Besides the sea, church, and musical evenings in the big high-ceilinged halls, there were other diversions. You could engage an islander to take you across to Grand Terre where it was pleasant to play at treasure hunting, to stroll the grounds of the fortress crumbling into the gulf, or to climb it for a picnic on its grassy battlements and swing your feet out above the surf washing the cannons below. Or, for the hardier, there might be trips farther up the bay to visit the picturesque villages of the native shrimpers. Perhaps you might be lucky enough to witness the preparation of the shrimp for shipping. In “Dancing the Shrimp” dozens of fisherfolk, their feet swathed in burlap, would trample a platform heaped with boiled and sun-dried shrimp while they chanted old songs to accompany the shuffling, muffled feet that wore away hulls and heads.
The era of the grand resorts came to an end in the first days of October, 1893, when a gigantic tropical hurricane whirled out from behind Cuba and gave the most exposed parts of Barataria its first full force. All Sunday, October 1, the wind had risen, but high winds were nothing to Baratarians, and they went on with their Sabbath fêtes. By nightfall, however, the snug cottages had begun to creak and smacks and luggers to break their moorings. The waves bit higher on the beaches with each lunge, and then suddenly a wall of gulf water was forced into the small mouth of Barataria Bay. Within minutes the islands and Chénière Caminada were six to eight feet under, while a gale estimated at one hundred and forty miles per hour ripped off roofs, collapsed pilings, houses, wharves, and armed the air with daggers of splintered wood. Through the night of death the church bell at Chénière Caminada kept up a clangorous dirge until its tower fell.
A survivor who spent this night clinging to the branches of one of the heroic oaks recalled that the “crashing of adjacent buildings, ships, or piling was plainly heard, followed by a melee of screams and groans, then stillness, except for occasional cries that toward daybreak grew fainter. Helpless ones were being swept out into the gulf. When day dawned the ghastly spectacle of dead people disclosed itself. The water was subsiding, and I wandered for a while, like one lost in the land of death, through a wilderness of outstretched bodies, some still clinging or lashed to bits of driftwood.”