Early Travels to St. Francisville, LA, Led to Some Lurid Descriptions
by Anne Butler
The four-laning of US Highway 61 and the new Mississippi River Bridge make it easy to reach St. Francisville these days, but in the 19th century, travels to this picturesque little Mississippi River village were fraught with perils and gave rise to some spectacularly gruesome newspaper dispatches.
In February, as the West Feliciana Historical Society museum, on Ferdinand St. in St. Francisville, hosts the travelling Smithsonian Institute exhibit called Journey Stories, the focus is on who we are and how we got here. St. Francisville and its now-vanished sister city Bayou Sara beneath the bluffs have got some fascinating tales to tell in this regard.
There were rough early roadways through the wilderness along which the initial settlement patterns could be traced, the pioneers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries braving attacks by Indians and bandits and wild animals as they descended the Natchez Trace into what was then Spanish territory to carve the early indigo and cotton plantations from the Feliciana wilderness. Even the main street of St. Francisville in the 1800s was the scene of cattle drives and heavy-laden wagons en route to the riverport at Bayou Sara below the hill. Muddy quagmires during wet weather and deeply rutted the rest of the time, these roadways led to some unfortunate accidents, buggies bouncing and overturning, with runaway horses compounding the problems. One of the earliest burials at historic Grace Episcopal Church, on the road leading through St. Francisville to the river, was that of baby Edward Baldwin, just five months old, whose cause of death in 1840 was listed as ‘flung from buggy,’ a not-uncommon occurrence.
And then there were the steamboat explosions and sinkings and wrecks like the February 1859 catastrophe of the steamboat Princess which nearly decimated the Feliciana bar. Having boarded passengers at the Bayou Sara landing, the fast packet was headed to New Orleans for the opening of the state Supreme Court and was packed with over 200 prominent passengers. Delayed by fog upriver, the boat was running behind schedule and its crew stoked the blazing fires and tried to make up for lost time. When the Princess exploded at Conrad’s Point just below Baton Rouge, over 70 passengers were mortally wounded. One was Lorenzo D. Brewer, St. Francisville attorney and owner of the historic townhouse called Virginia; transferred to the Natchez for a desperate return trip home, he died before reaching the Bayou Sara landing.
Passengers boarded these riverboats with not a little fear and trepidation despite the fact that many of the steamboats were floating palaces offering luxurious cabins and sumptuous meals. The newspapers of the day were rarely governed by the dictates of good taste and proper political correctness, and journalists had a field day coming up with ever-more scintillating stories of trials and tragedies in order to sell papers. One of the more flamboyant accounts appeared in a September 1843 extra edition of the Louisiana Chronicle, headlined “Bayou Sara, LA Steamer Clipper No. 1 Explosion, September 1843.”
Although only 14 persons were killed, ten others missing and feared dead, and nine wounded, the article calls this “one of the most terrible catastrophies which has ever happened on the Mississippi.” As the Clipper No. 1 was backing from her moorings at the Bayou Sara landing, she blew up “with an explosion that shook earth, air and heaven, as though the walls of the world were crumbling to pieces about our ears. All the boilers bursting simultaneously---machinery, vast fragments of the boilers, huge beams of timber, furniture and human beings in every degree of mutilation, were alike shot up perpendicularly many hundred fathoms in the air.”
“On reaching the greatest height” (and as the writer reached equally great heights of lurid description), “the various bodies diverged like the jets of a fountain in all directions, falling to the earth and upon roofs of houses, in some instances as much as 250 yards from the scene of destruction. The hapless victims were scalded, crushed, torn, mangled and scattered in every possible direction, many into the river, some in the streets, some on the other side of the Bayou nearly 300 yards---some torn asunder by coming in contact with pickets and posts, and others shot like cannon balls through the solid walls of houses at a great distance from the boat.”
Local physicians and residents rushed to the scene to help. “Our citizens generally, every man and mother’s son, appeared only anxious as to how they might render most service to the poor sufferers—white and black, without distinction.” Said the newspaper reporter, “The scene was such as we hope never to look upon again,” but steamboat explosions occurred with such distressing regularity that it was a wonder journeys were ever undertaken in those days, and it is a real tribute to the courage and determination of the early residents of St. Francisville that they had ever arrived or moved about at all.
The Journey Stories exhibit examines migration patterns across the country, augmented by a number of local lectures and special programs. On Saturday, Feb. 11, a walking tour highlights significant contributions of St. Francisville’s early Jewish immigrants, and at 3:30 at Audubon State Historic Site, a one-woman play entitled “Rachel O’Connor’s World” presents the life of one determined Feliciana plantation owner.
On Sunday, February 12, a 2 p.m. reception at the museum officially kicks off the Journey Stories exhibit. The exhibit stays up until March 19, and every weekend is filled with special activities and programs, all free and open to the public. On Saturday, Feb. 18, the museum presents Student Oral History Projects. On Saturday, February 25, Friends of the Library hosts its Celebration of Writers and Readers at Hemingbough, while Margo Soule speaks on Louisiana’s Native Americans at 2 p.m. in Audubon Market Hall. On Sunday, February 26, the featured program is Dr. Irene S. DiMaio Gerstacker’s Louisiana: Fiction and Travel Sketches from Antebellum Times through Reconstruction, at 2 p.m. in Audubon Market Hall. Saturday, March 3, a Gospel Music Fest in Parker Park from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. highlights the soulful songs of the early black churches. Tribute will also be paid to the country’s earliest standard gauge rail line that connected cotton plantations of the St. Francisville/Woodville area with the riverport at Bayou Sara, in a 2 p.m. program in the West Feliciana Courthouse.
The following Sunday, March 11, Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne extols the virtues of the Bayou State in his entertaining presentation “Why Louisiana Ain’t Mississippi,” in the old courtroom at 2 p.m. The weekend of March 16 through 18th St. Francisville hosts the annual Audubon Pilgrimage, sponsored for four decades by the West Feliciana Historical Society to commemorate the 1821 stay of John James Audubon. Friday, March 16, will also mark the release of a new book, MAIN STREETS OF LOUISIANA published by UL Press, covering the wonderful historic Main Street downtowns across the state, especially timely as Louisiana celebrates its 200th birthday; St. Francisville is one of 33 Main Street communities featured, and a book release reception will be held in Town Hall, with author and photographer in attendance.
The river port of Bayou Sara is gone now, washed away by floodwaters, but St. Francisville atop the hill remains a year-round tourist destination featuring a number of splendidly restored plantation homes open for tours daily: The Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, offering periodic fascinating living-history demonstrations so visitors can experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from Chinese and Mexican cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities) or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.