On January 5th, 2008 I took my second major cycling trip up the Mississippi River, this time on the West Bank. This journey was thrown together quickly, no maps, no weeks of planning, no grandiose justifications for putting my body through a little torture, just an inclination to ride up the river again for a contrastive perspective.
This time around, the weather was completely different. On my last ride up the river, the heat index was well above 100, but this time around the forecast called for a morning chill that would slowly warm to mild. Another big difference between cycling in August and January is the amount of daylight for a given day. In our hemisphere, the difference between a mid-August day and an early January day is about 2 hours. On this ride I would have about 10 hours of sufficient light, probably not enough to reach Baton Rouge from New Orleans.
There was no need to over-think these facts. I simply wanted to ride my bicycle.
I started before dawn at my home in the Marigny (a neighborhood just east of the French Quarter). First things first, I had to cross the Mississippi River to get over to the West Bank. The only safe option for river crossing via bicycle is the ferry, and the closest ferry to my home is the Canal St. Ferry. I met a gentleman while waiting for the ferry. He had already crossed the river once earlier in the morning to go to his construction job, but he had picked up a nail with his tire in doing so. For some reason that was never quite clear, he was walking his bike back to the West Bank to fix the flat and go back to work. He told me about how he likes to grab a beer on his lunch break and consume the beverage down here by the ferry dock. “No one gives you any trouble down here,” he said.
After crossing the river, I headed northish up the paved river levee. One of the first major sites is Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, a series of warehouses and offices where Mardi Gras is basically born every year. Most of the major floats, sculpted props, and figures of New Orleans’ premiere festival come from this location.
I arrived at the Avondale Union Pacific train yard and was instantly confused. You would think that it is easy to simply follow a river, but roads veer, cross-streets confuse, and then train yards throw everything out of order. I just kept riding and hoped for the best. In the end I think I just lucked out.
All my life, crossing from the New Orleans metro area to St. Charles Parish en route to my home in Lafourche Parish, I have referred to this bridge as the Luling Bridge, but it is officially named the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge. The following Wikipedia article sums up the bridge’s history well:
The Luling Bridge (also known as the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge) is a cable-stayed bridge over the Mississippi River in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. It is named for United States Congressman Hale Boggs. The bridge was dedicated by Governor David C. Treen and Bishop Stanley Ott of Baton Rouge, then opened to traffic on October 8, 1983 connecting Louisiana Highway 18 on the West Bank and Louisiana Highway 48 on the East Bank. Ten years later, the Luling Bridge was incorporated into the newly completed Interstate 310.
The Luling Bridge was the first major cable-stayed bridge in the United States, although it was not the first (that designation belongs to the Cable Bridge in Washington). The bridge has an uncommon design which uses very few cables. Additionally, the bridge deck is closer to a box girder in design than a suspended deck. The bridge has a bronze color intended to blend with the muddy waters of the Mississippi River.
The Luling Bridge was also the first large weathering steel bridge in the United States, intended to protect the bridge from corrosion in the wet and humid conditions of coastal Louisiana. Unfortunately, while the outside of the bridge has performed excellently, the inside has shown significant rust due to a design flaw which allows insufficient airflow within structural columns.
Historical marker reads:
HOME PLACE. Built in 1790s, this French Colonial raised cottage is of West Indies bousillage construction. Owners included Labranche, Fortier, Gaillaird. Keller family ownership since 1885. National Historic Landmark.
The Holy Rosary Cemetery. Wow, what an absolute travesty! Yes, it is ultimately very cool to be buried right alongside the Mississippi, but to be interred on property COMPLETELY SURROUNDED by noisy industrial plants, leaking their toxic gloom into the air, well I would hardly call that resting in peace.
I’m not the only one who thinks that this is heinous. A friend of mine told me a story about this cemetery in which family members at a burial hastened the ritual because those in attendance were visibly bothered by the circumstances. What a shame, for a person’s last day to be remembered like that, rushed prayer, some quick flowers, and SLAM! Everybody jumps in their cars and speeds back down the river to the after-party. To me, this is just another strong argument for cremation.
Wikipedia article states:
This plant has one Combustion Engineering two-loop pressurized water reactor. The plant produces 1,218 megawatts of electricity since the sites last refuel in May 2008. It has a dry ambient pressure containment building. Waterford is operated by Entergy Nuclear and is owned by Entergy Louisiana, Inc.
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Historical marker reads:
ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST CATHOLIC CHURCH – 1770 – From which civil parish was named. First church on second German Coast when Louisiana was colony of Spain. Served west and east banks of river until 1864. Old cemetery contains grave of wife of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and John Slidell family tomb.
Evergreen Plantation. Constructed in approximately 1832, this sugar plantation near Wallace, LA operated until about 1930 and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1992. The outstanding things about this plantation are (1) 29 of the 37 buildings are Antebellum making it one of the most intact plantations in the south (2) 22 intact slave quarters exist on the north side of the grounds.
As far as I could tell, this water tower is the sole inhabitant of Wallace. No, I know that’s not true, but all I saw of town was this water source. Side-note, I pulled off the road on the left there to adjust my brakes or something, and when I attempted to re-enter the highway, my tires caught the lip of the tar and threw me off the bike. It was ridiculous – no one around, no apparent danger, fine one minute, then in an instant my shin suddenly looks like roast beef. I mopped up with an extra shirt and trudged on.
I made the mistake of skipping breakfast before this ride, which is a testament to how poorly the excursion was strategized. By the time I reached Laura, I was ready to trade my bike in for a meat pie, so taking a picture of Laura was the least of my worries. I pulled up to the tour office, and luckily ran into a gentleman that I had met once before, tanking up his tour bus near my school in New Orleans. I say luckily because, once again “planning”, I had forgotten my bike lock key, therefore I couldn’t go into any buildings or leave my bike anywhere out of view. My tour bus driving acquaintance listened to my sad story, went into the Laura office, called a local restaurant, and made arrangements for me to store my bike in a secure back room while I ate. How amazing is that?! I gladly backtracked a half mile to the B & C Seafood Market & Cajun Restaurant where they were waiting for me.
B & C Seafood Market & Cajun Restaurant in Vacherie, LA was very receptive to my ridiculous situation. I pushed my bike in through the seafood market and stored it in a secure back room. B&C offers quite a menu: home-smoked andouille sausage, shrimp, soft-shell crab, crawfish, jambalaya, gumbo, seafood platters, oysters, Lac Des Allemands catfish, hush puppies, alligator or turtle sauce piquant, red beans & rice, homemade bread pudding with whiskey sauce, and tarte a la’ bouille (cajun custard pie).
More images from B&C:
St. Joseph Plantation is about a quarter mile north of and completely overshadowed by Oak Alley Plantation. There were no placards or markers out front, but the official website states:
This 1000 acre plantation is the birthplace of H. H. Richardson, one of America’s most important architects of the 19th century. The maison principale was acquired by a French doctor, who was hired to care for the plantation masters, their families, and slaves. The “Louis XIV of Louisiana”, Valcour Aime, gave this plantation to his daughter Josephine as a wedding gift, fully furnished and with a full staff of slaves.
The historical marker reads:
Built (1837-1839) by Jacques T. Roman, this fine example of Greek Revival architecture is famous for its alley of 28 evenly spaced live oak trees, believed to be at least 100 years older than “Big House”. A National Historic Landmark.
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Then came the unexpected segment of the trip, the part that launched my interest in my own personal culture. I figured that this side of the river would be similar to the other for better or worse: live oaks, the foul stench of industrial exhaust, modest folks, stately antebellum homes, neglected highways, and amazing food. I did not however, expect to find such a strong anchor to my Cajun heritage. Since taking this trip, I have launched into genealogy research and started to look closely at preserving the history of my lineage.
The plaque reads:
Dedicated to the descendants of the first Acadian settlers of St. James Parish, who visited this site August 8, 1999 on occasion of the Congress Mondial Acadien – Louisiane 1999.
As I pulled into downtown Donaldsonville, LA the sun began its decent into the western horizon. Realizing that I wouldn’t have the daylight to reach Baton Rouge, I called my wife and requested an earlier pick up – Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, LA. I found the following Wikipedia write-up both informative and funny (regarding New Orleans):
Donaldsonville is named after landowner William Donaldson. In 1806 Donaldson commissioned architect and planner Barthelemy Lafon to plan a new town. This served briefly as the Louisiana capital (1830 – 1831) after New Orleans was deemed “too noisy”.
Although Donaldsonville is a small town, it has many historic sites. Its museum, the River Road African American Museum, has been included on the state’s African American Heritage Trail. It also has parks, shopping centers, and Civil War grounds.
The official newspaper of the city is the Donaldsonville Chief, which has been published since 1871.
Below are the headwaters of Bayou Lafourche, once connected to the Mississippi River as an outlet to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1903-04 the outlet was blocked here on this spot, cutting off the people of Lafourche Parish from all river traffic. Before the dam, riverboats actually paddled down the bayou and visited towns. Imagine a floating mall. More importantly, before the stoppage, higher levels of fresh water flowed down the bayou, cleansing the marshes and providing the people of Lafourche with constant supply of fresh water. Today, a portion of the Mississippi is pumped into Lafourche here in Donaldsonville, but the flow isn’t enough to fight back the salt water intrusion. Efforts are underway to increase the volume of fresh water allowed into the bayou. I grew up on this bayou, fished in it, swam in it, but I had never been to the source. One thing that still puzzles me – what in the world is that fellow fishing for down by that pumping station? (just to the right of the small metal building in photo)
Final destination: Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, LA. The town was named after this plantation, which claims to be the largest Antebellum specimen in the South. Some quick stats: the building was finished in 1859 for the John Hampton Randolph family, restored in 1981, has 64 rooms, 53,000 square feet, and once housed a bowling alley (now a museum and banquet area). I arrived just as the sun retired for the day.
In researching this Louisiana palace, I found one very captivating story written by a fellow Lafourche Parish native, Brian Doucet. Now the director of WDI Design in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Brian keeps up a “walking blog” titled One Foot Forward. Repeat. On September 19, 2006, as part of his virtual hike along the Mississippi, he wrote an insightful account of how Emily Jane Liddell Randolph saved Nottoway from the destructive Union army. (I love this story):
John Hampden Randolph planned and built Nottoway, but it was his wife Emily Jane who saved it from destruction.
Emily Jane Liddell Randolph was the mother of ten children when the civil war erupted. In 1862 Randolph took his slaves and went to Texas to work a cotton plantation there in order to keep himself solvent. The Randolphs sent their teenage daughters away to safer territory, and Mrs. Randolph remained on the plantation with the younger children, two visiting lady friends, and a few of her slaves. One of her daughters, Cornelia, kept a diary. It is from this diary as well as from preserved letters and documents that we know of Emily Jane’s courage.
At one point in 1862, when she was 45 years old, she faced down the Union Navy. Gun boats were sailing by the house, and union troops had begun to bivouac on the lawn. Armed only with a dagger which she tucked into her belt, she went out on the front gallery. She was determined not to let the union troops into her house. Many houses along the river had been abandoned. These deserted houses if not burned, were destroyed by looting and vandalism. As she stood on the front gallery a group of Confederate soldiers opened fire on the Union troops.
The gun boats on the river returned the fire. Though they were not aiming at the house, much of the fire hit it or landed on the grounds. When the firing became heavy, Emily Jane gathered her children, friends, and slaves and took them all to the ground floor where the walls were four feet thick. When the barrage was over, she alone had the courage to mount the stairs and assess the damage. It was in that same year that Emily Jane gave birth to her eleventh and last child, Julia Marceline. Although the Union army encamped several times on the lawn in the course of the war, they never entered the house except to search for weapons.
After locking up my bike to a small tree, I hiked a short distance over the river levee, and spotted this cross which I surmised marks a grave. I walked down to the cross but saw no markings on it at all. My post-ride research on the matter has been to no avail. Who is buried across the levee from Nottoway Plantation? Now, with the sun all but set, the mosquitos had begun their incessant onslaught. I crossed back over the levee, ducked into the plantation office, and awaited the arrival of my ride. While I had not reached Baton Rouge on the west bank, Nottoway marked exactly 100 miles on this trip – my second “century” as a cyclist and an overall delightful ride.