- Historic Sites
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
Estimates of the dead went as high as fifteen hundred on Grand Isle and Chénière Caminada alone, and every structure in the vicinity was heavily damaged or completely destroyed. All of Barataria was awash in wreckage, the settlements on the bayous inundated, and for days the now-smiling skies were filled with buzzards. Some of the survivors, terrified by the experience, or grief-stricken, left for safer places. For a time there were Baratarian communities in-exile at such places as Gretna and Westwego outside New Orleans and at Cut Off on Bayou Lafourche. Some exiles or their children eventually returned to begin again; the resort owners never did. The big hotels had been decapitated by the storm and their outbuildings strewn about like small crates. The Grand Isle, the Ocean Club, Krantz’s stood in desolate disrepair, millions of board feet of lumber warping and rotting while the tramway settled into the sandy soil. But the Baratarians, a people with root systems as tough and knotty as their oaks, rebuilt and resumed their ways.
All this is in the minds of the natives, though for the visitor there are few ways to divine its continuing presence. Here and there in the region there is an old-time shrimp-dancing platform, and there are several nineteenth-century churches in protected places. On the islands there is even less of the past.
On Grand Isle there is the bell that tolled disaster in 1893. Now it hangs in its sturdy housing at Our Lady of the Isle Church, and like almost everything else here it has a tradition that tells of survival. Cast in the nineteenth century out of pirate silver and the family plate of the pastor at Chénière Caminada, it was taken to Westwego by exiles from the hurricane. But when another parish obtained permission to use it, the bell was stolen and remained lost for years. When it surfaced again, it was at Grand Isle, and it is said it will never ring for others than Baratarians.
There have been other big blows since 1893—1946, 1956, 1965—so there is nothing left of the ruined resorts or even of the old cottages of the natives. A boy I talked with and who offered me a ride in his pirogue told me he once had found a wheel of a tram car, and others can point out where the tracks used to lie. But that is all.
If you want evidence of the pirates, you will be disappointed, too. The last structure connected with them, the cottage of Nez Coupé, was torn down years ago, and no one seems to lament this loss, not even Natali Chighizola, his great grandson. “Uncle Nat” has it all in his head, and if he has time out from fishing, he will tell some of it to you, perhaps even bring out two heirloom cutlasses to show. He might take you to the little cemetery where, among the quaint whitewashed tombs and the oaks that twist away from the gulf “like fleeing women with streaming garments and windblown hair,” as Hearn described them, he will point out the grave of his grandfather and tell you: “Old Nez Coupé’s in there with him. Hurricane Betsy exposed his carcass so they had to rebury him.” And Uncle Nat can arrange for you to be taken across the pass to Grand Terre, though he warns, “There’s nothing over there anymore.”
In a way he is right. There is little in the way of monuments except Fort Livingston, now even more ragged after all the buffetings. There is nothing left of Lafitte’s small fort behind it, not a scrap. On the other hand, if you are, like the Baratarians themselves, sensitive to other forms the past may take, you will find Grand Terre very much alive. Walking its length of oyster grass, salt grass, and black mangrove, surrounded by the cries of terns or unsettled blackbirds in the bushes, you pass brackish ponds and a few scattered implements from the days of the plantations. A herd of horses, spooked by your thrashing through the bush, bursts out of grazing and gallops down the beach. The sense of isolation and exposure is powerful, and you can feel Lafitte’s purpose here and that of Pepe Llulla who had fought so many duels that he wished to keep company only with his scars.
From the gulfward tip of Grand Terre you look back at Grand Isle and out onto the gulf and behold the steely fruits of legitimate enterprise: towers and cranes like oak groves, for at the moment this is oil country. Oil companies have been here in force since the 1930’s, and of the twenty-five thousand wells in Louisiana, a great many are in this region. And now, too, will soon come a “superport.” Located fifty miles into the gulf, its pipes will pass close to the islands and then travel up Bayou Lafourche to a point near Galliano where the crude oil off-loaded at sea will be stored in underground salt domes. The highly saline water displaced from the domes will be pumped back into the gulf. No one is certain yet what effect this will have on the fishing industry, but if it should cause a rise in the salinity of Barataria Bay, the effect on oyster seedbeds would be disastrous. Already the life cycle of the oyster has been adversely affected by dredging and drilling operations. One species of shrimp has declined drastically in recent years, and oil-related changes in salinity are suspected here, too.