by Taylor Lasseigne / August 18th, 2007 /
This is a story about a cycling trip that follows every curve of the Mississippi River’s east bank, from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, LA. On this self-propelled two-wheel adventure, the clock started at 5:40 AM when my feet left the ground and found the pedals of my Trek bicycle. The idea for the trip however, was realized much earlier.
A few years ago, I found myself living in Philadelphia and feeling guilty about all of the things I had taken for granted in Louisiana. Realizing what I had, now that it was gone, I began to formulate grand excursions with New Orleans as the home base. My Holy Grail, the trip that I loved to sit and daydream about, was a cycling trip from New Orleans to Biloxi, MS, ending in a night of camping on the beach. Another trip put me cycling from New Orleans to Baton Rouge on River Road along the Mississippi River. Another trip on my back-burner had me paddling and camping through the swamps of Southeastern Louisiana. Over time, these festering plans began to germinate and were truly fertilized, as I was exposed to hiking, climbing, cycling, and paddling for the very first time in and around Philadelphia.
We fast-forward a few years to when Hurricane Katrina comes ashore, uninvited, to rearrange most of the Gulf South. She moved cars, trees, homes, businesses, bridges, and roads – including mammoth chunks of the road from New Orleans to Biloxi, obliterating any chance of me biking that route any time in the near future. With this crushing blow came that “don’t know what you have until it’s gone” feeling again.
After two months away from the city, we came back, shimmied our rancid fridge to the curb, and started to make a go at it – not that we even had floodwater in the house we were renting, but by simply deciding to remain in New Orleans, we were basically agreeing to climb uphill for an indefinite amount of time.
The trip to Biloxi was a wash – out of the question for at least a few years. My eyes were opened to the fragility of nature, and I began to plot my next move with haste, in hopes that I could complete the voyage before Mother Nature struck again. I would bike from New Orleans to Baton Rouge along the river levee, taking in all of the sites along the way.
Let us fast-forward a few more years. For my 28th birthday, my wife rallied a bunch of my friends to pitch in on a bike for me. I got a Trek Hybrid, a real traveling cyclists bike capable of long road trips and strong enough to tolerate the pot marked streets of New Orleans – top of the line parts made in the USA.
Now I had the right bike for the job, but when was I going to take this trip? I started to crunch the numbers, began plotting points on maps, and I slowly began to realize the weight of this gut-check. The trip was about 130 miles, which I figured by plotting the distance in my Google Earth software approximately eight times. Each mapping of the route in Google Earth took approximately three hours, so the distance I came up with, 130 miles, is the average yielded by approximately 24 hours of tedious, late-night clicking and dragging – lots and lots of clicking and dragging. I now had to calculate potential trip duration. Here’s what I knew: (1) I would want to stop frequently for hydrating, eating, and photography (2) Daylight was limited (3) I can average about 14 mph whilst carrying a load of supplies, with the wind at my back. A little more math told me that if I biked 130 miles non-stop at about 13 mph, then the trip would take about 10 hours. Well, I knew I wasn’t going to go without stopping, so I added 2 hours of time for eating, resting, and another hour for taking in the scenery. This alteration left me facing a 13 to 14 hour day on a bicycle in the unreasonable, remorseless August heat of Southern Louisiana. One might ask, “Why take this trip in the summer?” Well, I knew that I would need at least 12 hours for the trip but probably more like 14, so I had to take advantage of our hemisphere’s longest days. A scheduled vacation to the Pacific Northwest and a summer job as a tugboat deckhand in the beginning of the summer ruled out those relatively cooler months. If I didn’t seize my chance in mid August, then my schedule would soon be consumed by my teaching gig, which started on August 20th. The trip would take a backseat to my first real full time teaching job and possibly fade away into adventure purgatory.
The forecast for August 18th was suitable for a long ride – wind mostly to my back and some cloud cover. Unfortunately, the forecast also predicted a very intense heat advisory for the hottest part of the day. I liked my chances, so I packed up, printed and laminated maps, and got as much sleep as a man can on the eve of such an exciting endeavor.
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There is a collection of landmarks at the foot of Williams Blvd. at the river. The most prominent monument commemorates the first world championship heavyweight prize fight held in the United States. The plaque reads:
In the predawn hours on May 10, 1870, a crowd of about 1,000 people left the New Orleans Jackson Street Railroad Station for Kennerville. There, in a makeshift ring, in the back of William Butler Kenner’s old sugar house about 100 yards from the Mississippi River, Jed Mage of Beeston, Norwich, England beat Tom Allen of Birmingham, England in 10 rounds. The prize for the bare-knuckles event was $2,500, winner take all.
Another marker, although not as prominent as the fighters, denotes La Salle’s Landing in 1682. The marker reads:
In 1682, the French explorer, Robert Cavalier De La Salle landed in an Indian village later to be know as the city of Kenner. Proclaiming ownership in the name of Louis XIV, King of France, he erected a cypress cross to commemorate the historic event.
Below is the first photo actually taken on August 18th, 2008. Historical marker reads:
Destrahan Manor House. Constructed 1787-1790 for Robert de Longny. Inherited by Jean Noel d’Estrehan 1800. Bought from heirs of Pierre A. Roost in 1914 by Mexican Petroleum Co. Donated 1972 to River Road Historical Society by American Oil Co.
Historical marker reads:
Graugnard House. Built at the turn of the century as a retirement home for Leon Graugnard, a French immigrant from Basses-Alpes, France. Graugnard, married to Eva Bacas, was a respected and accomplished businessman and was known as one of the most successful sugar planters in Louisiana. The house is the surviving structure of Terre Haute Plantation owned by Graugnard and his heirs. Emile Graugnard, Eva Graugnard Guidry, and Marie P. Graugnard.
The San Francisco Plantation House is a National Historic Landmark in St. John the Baptist Parish, located about three miles west of Reserve, LA. I was unable to locate a marker with any information, but was able to dig up some statistics from a National Park Service website:
The opulent San Francisco Plantation House is a galleried house in the Creole manner that has been pictured in American, British, and Swedish periodicals as one of the major sites of the New Orleans area. Constructed between 1849-50, the San Francisco Plantation House is one of the most ornate of Louisiana’s plantation houses. San Francisco, with its potpourri of architectural designs, its immense and ornate roof construction, and the paintings decorating the ceilings and door panels in the house’s parlors, exemplifies the “steamboat Gothic” style. The exterior of the home resembles a layer cake, with a simple ground floor where brick columns support the gallery across the front and halfway back the sides. A double stairway leads from this gallery to the second floor gallery where fluted wood columns with cast-iron Corinthian capitals support an overhanging deck. The main living area is on the second floor instead of the ground level. The attic is a Victorian construction that gives the house a unique look with the hip roof pierced by tall dormers with diamond-paned, Tudor-arched windows.
San Francisco’s floor plan is unique as well, but the interior’s primary significance lies in the fine murals attributed to Dominique Canova. The cost of San Francisco Plantation House, along with the paintings and other interior decorations, may have given rise to the house’s name. One legend holds that the French phrase “son saint-frusquin,” or “the shirt off his back,” was a description of what the construction of the house cost its first owner, Edmond Marmillion. This became mistranslated into San Francisco. Another legend holds that the name celebrated the port of entry to northern California, then undergoing the gold rush of 1849. A further legend states that the name changed from Sans St. Frusquin to San Francisco when Achille D. Bougere purchased the plantation house in 1879. San Francisco was originally preserved by the efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Clark Thompson. The house is now owned by the San Francisco Plantation Foundation and has been restored to its former glory.
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Further down the river, I came upon a cluster of very old buildings. A marker reads:
LUTCHER. Established in 1891 by H.J. Lutcher, co-owner of Lutcher & Moore Cypress Lumber Co. The town, incorporated in 1912, grew around the sawmill built on the plantation of Pierre Chenet, developer of world-famous Perique tobacco.
Standing between these old buildings is an original sugarcane grinder. The placard reads:
SUGARCANE GRINDER. Donated by Al Robert, Burnside, LA. Restored by Dee Jenkins, member of St. James Historical Society, with help from many dedicated people. Especially Bill Clopton, owner of “On the Spot Welding” Lutcher, LA.
In Convent, LA I came upon a site that took me by surprise – the Manresa House of Retreats. A marker across from the gate reads:
MANRESA HOUSE OF RETREATS. Since 1931 the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) have operated a retreat house here for the spiritual development of the laity. The grounds and several of the buildings were the site and home of the Jefferson College founded for the education of the youth of St. James Parish.
The main building dates from 1842; the President’s House and Gate Houses from 1836.
After Jefferson College failed in 1848, Louis Dufau of New Orleans operated the Louisiana College here: this college failed in 1856. In 1859, Valcour Aime purchased the site and erected a chapel in memory of his children. From 1862 – 1864, the Federal Troops occupied the buildings during the Civil War.
In 1864, Mr. Aime donated the properties to The Society of Mary (Marists) who established St. Mary’s Jefferson College, which operated until 1927, when it was closed.
The Jesuits purchased the properties in 1931 and since that time have conducted retreats based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Each year over 5,000 laypersons, religious and priests make retreats here
For the Greater Glory of God
I was caught off guard by it simply being there. I didn’t know there was a huge Catholic retreat space along the Mississippi. Also, believe it or not, I think the deep-seeded divinity of the grounds healed my woes. No kidding, when I arrived at those gates, I was a mess: head throbbing from extensive heat exposure, lower back screaming from the jolts of River Road, eyes stinging from the constant drip of sunscreen sweat, skin crimson from relentless summer sun, and hands cramped like rigor mortis from prolonged intense clutching of handlebars. With only about one third of the journey (45 miles) behind me, I was already beginning to question my ability to complete the trip. Could my body take this kind of heat and exertion for several more hours? I thought about all the times I was stricken with heat stroke as a kid, bed ridden, useless, and once or twice even dragged by my parents to mystics called “traiteurs” or Cajun faith healers. A typical visit to a traiteur included prayer, laying of hands, waving of arms, and some sort of concoction. I barely remember these visits, but one thing I do recall was that I never thought it was foolish. Prayers and potions are easy to dismiss as hocus-pocus, but if you could have seen the traiteur’s earnest demeanor, you would have believed too. I was fever-free the next day.
Then, I paused there in the shade, staring down the column of oaks, and poured cool water down my neck, arms, and ankles. I sat down for a few minutes under an oak and let the breeze and the dowsing do its thing. After a while, I was good as new! No cramps, no heat exhaustion, no stinging, only a newfound motivation to get back on the bike. So what healed me? Were these grounds blessed by over 150 years of devout occupants: first the Marists in 1864 then the Jesuits in 1931 to present? Did I simply need to catch my breath and cool down? Either way, I was no longer daydreaming about scaling the gate, sneaking into the Manresa House, and commandeering a bed for the night. I was once again focused on traveling up the river to Baton Rouge.
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A little further down the road, still in in Convent, I came across St. Michael’s Church and Lourdes Grotto. A marker near the church reads:
SETTLED IN 1722 – 1739 AS BARON
NOW PARISH SEAT ST. JAMES PARISH
ST. MICHAEL’S CHURCH 1809
SITE OF ST. MICHAEL’S CONVENT
ORDER OF THE SACRED HEART 1825 – 1932
SITE OF JEFFERSON COLLEGE 1831 – 1931
This is the best shot I could manage of the Poché Plantation. The nearby historical marker states:
Judge Poché Plantation House. Felix Pierre Poché, Civil War diarist, Democratic Party leader, prominent jurist and one of the founders of American Bar Association, built this Victorian Renaissance Revival style plantation house with unusual front dormer c. 1870.
St. Mary’s Chapel. The historical marker states:
St. Mary’s Chapel. Built in 1875 by the Marist Fathers. Reestablished from original St. Marie du Fleuve located on White Hall Plantation. Statues transferred from rectory at Ancient Domain Plantation during elaborate blessing ceremony.
The historical marker, not yet updated with that relatively new information states:
Tezcuco Plantation. Built in 1855 by Benjamin F. Tureaud, kinsman of Bringier family. Constructed of home-made red brick and Louisiana cypress. Purchased in 1888 by Dr. Julian T. Bringier. Retained by relatives until the 1940s.
Houmas House Plantation, located between Burnside and Darrow on River Road. The historical marker states:
Houmas House Plantation. Houmas Indian land grant sold to Conway and Latil in 1774. Sold to Revolutionary War hero Wade Hampton 1811. Greek Revival mansion built by John Smith Preston in 1840. Restored by Dr. George Crozat in 1940.
Bocage Plantation, just a few miles up the river from Houmas House. The Bocage looked deserted with a “for sale” sign out front. The historical marker states:
Built in 1801 by Marius Pons Bringier as wedding gift for daughter Fanny, who married Christophe Colomb, a French refugee. Remodeled by Architect James Dakin in 1837. Restored by Dr. & Mrs. E.G. Kohlsdorf 1941.
I visited the website listed on the “for sale” sign. The asking price was five and a half million dollars, but according to the listing, it’s well worth the money:
This completely restored antebellum mansion offers elegance and an easy commute to both cities and their airports. 100+ acres, approx. 7,400 sq. ft. with 4 BR and 4 baths. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Built in 1801, remodeled in 1837 by famous architect James Dakin. Steeped in history with ties to Christopher Columbus, early colonization and the Louisiana Purchase. Well documented in many books and used as Hollywood set. The Plantation can be self-sustaining through tourism.
This is the Indian Camp Plantation, also known as the Gillis W. Long Hansen’s Disease Center Museum. These grounds were first used for hunting and fishing by Houmas Indians. The actual plantation was established in the 1850s, and then abandoned in 1894 when it then became a Leprosarium. The historical marker out front reads:
The plantation home, built in the 1850s, became the site of the Louisiana State Leprosarium in 1894. The U.S. Public Health Service acquired it in 1921. It is now known as the National Hansen’s Disease Center.
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Just past the Indian Camp Plantation I came to a stop at the sign above. In planning the trip, I promised myself that I was going to stay along the river, no matter what happened, but this rough shell road did not look promising with cattle guards, no visible end in sight, and the possibility of being stopped and searched. My choices were to either head into Elayn Hunt to brave the cows and unknown length of substandard roadway or to backtrack and detour off the river road as a shortcut around Elayn Hunt. I chose to stay on the river and pass through the correctional facility property, but I would not DARE pick any pecans. The sign reads:
Elayn Hunt Correctional Center Property
NO PECAN PICKING
All Personnel Entering Subject to Identification Inspection and Search
Violators Will Be Prosecuted
St. Gabriel Church marked mile 100 of my journey. Cyclists call this feat a “century”, and this in fact was my first. I took a break to get some food and called a few friends to rave about my accomplishment. Only 30 or so miles to go. The historical marker near the church reads:
St. Gabriel. 1761-1763. Church of the Iberville Coast built by Acadian exiles in 1769. It was located in 1773 on Spanish Manchac on a grant given by that government. German settlers came from Maryland in 1784.
After about 130 miles and over 14 hours of cycling, I reached my final destination just as the sun retreated, the Louisiana State Capitol. At 450 feet tall, with 34 stories, it is the tallest capitol building in the United States. There is a quote near the main entrance, “We have lived long but this is the noblest work of our whole lives… The United States take rank this day among the first powers of the earth,” said by Robert Livingston referencing the 1803 signing of the Louisiana Purchase. The capitol was the vision of Louisiana governor Huey P. Long, who was assassinated in this building. You can stand right where it happened, even put your fingers in the bullet holes of the marble walls. Long’s last words were, “God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.” Well Mr. Long, after a full day of cycling and more ideas for future trips than I know what to do with, I think I know what you mean.
Statistics generated by my Cat Eye VELO 8 bicycle computer:
Time Started: 5:40 AM CST
Place Started: “The Fly” in Audubon Park, New Orleans
Time Ended: 7:45 PM CST
Place Ended: State Capitol Building, Baton Rouge
Total Trip Distance: 130.44 miles
Average MPH (time on bike): 13.3 MPH
Average MPH (biking and rests/photos): 9.23 MPH
Maximum Speed: 22 MPH
Calories Burned: 3123.3
Time Pedaling: 9 hours 47 minutes
Total Time of Trip: 14 hours 5 minutes
Water Towers: 8
Plantation Sites: 10