River Road Plantations
To get a first-hand look at Louisiana’s romantic antebellum past, visitors only need to take a drive down River Road.
By Craig Guillot
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 that stretched as far as the eye could see, while nobles and the elite from as far away as Europe brought in materials and furnishings by steamboat. Vessels of all shapes and sizes carried passengers and commerce to docks along the banks.
A multicultural population developed along the river. Creole – a multi-racial people descended from French and Spanish settlers and African Americans – had their own plantations. Unlike other parts of the South during that period, large populations of free people of color also existed in the area, and their influences in food, music and culture helped shape the Louisiana of today. Louisiana is a land where history lies just beneath the surface and just within reach of a traveler on a daytrip.
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 lactually 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. Behind the main house, slaves lived and worked. After the Civil War, the Rost Home Colony was established, helping freed people locate jobs and teaching them how to read and write. Destrehan features daily historic demonstrations by costumed actors that show visitors exactly what life was like during the 1800s.
Just upriver, San Francisco Plantation is the most distinctive and only authentically restored plantation on River Road. Noted for its lavish and intricate interior painting, it is said to have one of the finest antique collections in the country. The home here was built in 1865 and inspired novelist Frances Parkinson Keyes to write a novel about it called, Steamboat Gothic.
For most of the 19th century, and even into the early 1900s, paddle wheel steamboats controlled most of the trade on the river. Farming communities still line the Mississippi, and along River Road, visitors can climb the levee and see massive freighters from around the world, traveling the same trade route that has been used for well over a century.
Cross the bridge near Gramercy and head north to Oak Alley Plantation, named for the quarter-mile entrance canopy of 300-year-old oak trees. Oak Alley was the home of a famous slave gardener named Antoine who in 1846 developed a variety of pecans that could be cracked with your bare hands.Pecans are still grown in the area today and visitors can even get a taste of pecan pralines at the plantation. A 40-minute tour, given by costumed guides, chronicles the history of the elaborate mansion which was built in 1837 by Jacques Telesphore Roman of Grenoble, France.
Sugarcane was the lifeblood of plantations. Downriver from Oak Alley, Laura Plantation once spanned 12,000 acres of sugarcane. By the 1850s, the sugar farming complex at this plantation was run on the labor of 195 workers, including 175 slaves. Harvesting sugar cane by hand was hard and dangerous work. Visitors to Laura can still find kettles, tools and other remnants of the sugar cane industry— and the crop is still grown, along the river, all the way to Baton Rouge.
Head back south along River Road, past the bridge to Edgard, and you’ll find Evergreen Plantation. In 1792, Pierre Clidamone Becnel, a grandson of some of the first German immigrants to the West Bank of the Mississippi River, built a small cottage here. The mansion was erected shortly thereafter, and today it is one of only eight major Greek Revival-style plantation homes on River Road.
Evergreen features two pigeonnaires (towers used by the French for housing pigeons), a kitchen, a guesthouse and two garconnaires (bunkhouses for young boys). Evergreen also features a double row of 22 slave cabins. While these small buildings were used for housing slaves and were abundant in the region during the time period, few remain in such condition today. African slaves provided the labor to sustain the plantations that thrived along the river, both before and after emancipation, and their traditional lifestyles contributed to the rich and varied culture of Louisiana.