In the late 1800s, Mark Twain noted on his adventures down the mighty Mississippi that there were so many plantations and dwellings along the river that it looked like a spacious street. Towering homes lay nestled in large patches of moss-draped oak trees. Slaves worked the sugarcane fields, while planters from as far away as Europe brought materials and furnishings in by steamboat.
Still today you can catch a glimpse of what Twain once saw on the riverfront by embarking on a tour of Louisiana's plantation homes and museums.
Just 20 miles outside of New Orleans, Destrehan Plantation dates to 1787 and is the oldest documented plantation in the lower Mississippi Valley. Once stretching over 6,000 acres to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, Destrehan was actually a small community that supported several households.
It's still easy to imagine Destrehan as it was more than 200 years ago. Members of the Destrehan family tended to administrative affairs and held lavish dinners in the main house. Steamboats arrived from New Orleans with furnishings and visitors, while caretakers tended to the manicured gardens. Destrehan offers daily historic demonstrations by costumed guides who offer visitors a glimpse into what life was like during the 1800s.
Just upriver is San Francisco Plantation, the most distinctive of the restored plantations on River Road. Noted for its lavish and intricate interior painting, the home was built in mid-1800s and inspired novelist Frances Parkinson Keyes to write a novel about it, Steamboat Gothic. It is a National Historic Landmark and the grounds still feature historic outbuildings, such as an 1840s slave cabin and a school house dating back to 1830s.
Cross the bridge near Gramercy and head west to Oak Alley Plantation, named for the quarter-mile entrance canopy of 300-year-old oak trees. A 40-minute tour given by costumed guides chronicles the history of the elaborate mansion that was built in 1837. Next door to Oak Alley is St. Joseph Plantation, one of the most complete plantation homes on River Road. Tour the blacksmith shop and peek into the on-site schoolhouse, and be sure to stop by the visitor's center to pick up handmade gifts, many of them made by descendants of those who once lived at St. Joseph.
Upriver from Oak Alley you'll find Houmas House Plantation. This is a stately Greek Revival home which, at its peak in the 1860s, was the largest sugar producer in the United States. Today Houmas House is best known for its gardens, impeccably decorated interior, tours given by costumed guides and a world-class restaurants.
Downriver from Oak Alley, Laura Plantation once produced a signature Louisiana crop, sugarcane. The award-winning tour at Laura Plantation transports visitors in to the Creole world of Laura Locoul (4th generation of the Laura Plantation family), exploring the complex relationships of four generations of one family, both free and enslaved. A new permanent exhibit dedicated to the enslaved population specific to Laura Plantation opened in February 2017.
In 1792, Pierre C. Becnel, a grandson of some of the first German immigrants in the area, built a small cottage near Edgard that would one day be known as Evergreen Plantation. It is one of only eight major Greek Revival plantation homes on River Road, and contains one of the most complete intact collections of slave cabins in the nation.
Next door to Evergreen Plantation is The Whitney Plantation. Opened in December 2014, The Whitney offers visitors a unique view of plantation life as it was lived by those who worked there — enslaved Africans. Take a guided tour to see three memorials dedicated to telling the story of slavery in Louisiana, as well as an original slave cabin and church. The Whitney is one of the oldest and best-preserved plantations on River Road.
A shift from sugarcane, cotton is the focus at the Frogmore Plantation and Gins in east-central Louisiana. The plantation began in the early 1800s and still today produces cotton for the garment industry. Frogmore has more than a fair share of stories, having been the site of a Union encampment during the Civil War, and is one of the best-preserved cotton plantations in the Mississippi River Delta.