"From Baton Rouge to New Orleans, the great sugar plantations
border both sides of the river all the way, . . . Plenty of
dwellings . . . standing so close together, for long distances,
that the broad river lying between two rows, becomes a sort
of spacious street. A most home-like and happy-looking region."
Although other states have their own River Roads, perhaps
none is more evocative or famous than Louisiana's. Here, the
very name inspires a vision of white pillared houses standing
amid lush gardens and trees dripping with Spanish moss. Louisiana's
fabled Great Mississippi River Road consists of a corridor
approximately 70 miles in length located on each side of the
river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The area includes
the river, levees, and adjacent lands and cultural resources.
Among the latter is the state's most famous and recognizable
group of monumental plantation houses, most built by wealthy
sugar planters in the Greek Revival style.
The River Road's reputation of pillared splendor began with
the comments of 19th-century travelers. As early as 1827,
one succinctly described the region as follows: "Everywhere
thickly peopled by sugar planters, whose showy houses, gay
piazzas, trim gardens, and numerous slave-villages, all clean
and neat, gave an exceedingly thriving air to the river scenery."
More than half a century later Mark Twain journeyed down the
river to revisit some of his old haunts. He records: "From
Baton Rouge to New Orleans, the great sugar plantations border
both sides of the river all the way, . . . Plenty of dwellings
. . . standing so close together, for long distances, that
the broad river lying between two rows, becomes a sort of
spacious street. A most home-like and happy-looking region."
grand homes described by these observers were built by immensely
wealthy sugar planters during the 30 years prior to the Civil
War. They epitomize the conspicuous consumption lifestyle
characteristic of the so-called Gold Coast during that period
and were the absolute apex of the Greek Revival style in Louisiana.
They may be briefly characterized as two-story mansions with
broad double galleries and monumental columns or pillars that
rise to the roofline in one continuous shaft.
In some cases,
conventional porticoes are dispensed with and the squarish
mass of the house is surrounded by a two-story colonnade.
Known as the Aperipteral style, the latter treatment is essentially
a subspecies of the American Greek Revival and is an archetype
peculiar to the Deep South.
Although the Greek Revival dominates, visitors to the River
Road can see plantation houses in other styles as well. For
example, a limited number of Creole houses survive. Also featuring
columned galleries, these pre-antebellum homes, if one may
use that term, are a relic of French colonial Louisiana. The
entire River Road was once Creole, but one by one these early
buildings were either modified or replaced. And, while it
never even began to challenge the Greek Revival in popularity,
the Italianate style is also represented among the region's
majestic plantation homes.
Although visitors tend to focus upon the big house, one must
remember that plantations historically hada large number of
buildings. Far from the rural idyllic view we have today,
plantations were factories aimed at producing a cash crop
on a large scale for world export. Each was in effect a self-contained
Joseph Holt Ingram, in his The Southwest by a Yankee,
1835, noted that plantation appurtenances constitute a village
in themselves, for planters always have a separate building
for everything. From a practical standpoint, the sugar house
and the slave quarters, rather than the big house were probably
the most important of these buildings.
For those unfamiliar with the sugar industry, the term milling
refers to the removal of juice from sugar cane stalks and
its conversion into a crystallized product known as raw sugar.
Before the Civil War milling took place in numerous small
mills (known as sugar houses) located on individual plantations.
After the war improvements in sugar technology combined with
shortages of labor and capital to force the closure of many
of these formerly profitable mills.
In their place rose a
system of large central factories which processed cane grown
on distant plantations as well as that produced in their own
fields. Abandoned by their owners and allowed to decay, historic
sugar houses gradually disappeared from the plantation landscape.
Today only a few badly deteriorated ruins survive.
The standard row arrangement of slave quarters, lost throughout
much of the South, can still be seen at
Slave quarters, which sheltered the laborers who made profits
possible, have suffered a similar fate. Thousands upon thousands
of these buildings once existed across the South. Today, a
state might have maybe six or so surviving examples, with
one on one plantation, two on another, etc. However, the standard
row arrangement (once the norm across the South but virtually
unheard of today) can still be seen on one River Road plantation,
Although a few major houses were lost in the 19th century,
the River Road remained largely intact until the 1920s. During
that decade Mosiac disease severely depressed the Louisiana
sugar industry, with the result that great house after great
house was abandoned and fell into ruin.
Also in the 20th century,
dredging the river bottom for ocean-going vessels ushered
in an era of industrial development that changed the character
of many parts of the River Road. More importantly, due to
the encroachments of the Mississippi, federal action, owner
disinterest, fragmented ownership, demolition by industry,
and a weak economy, historic properties were lost, sometimes
by the score.
The region's revival began with the restoration of Oak Alley
in the 1920s. The River Road was a beehive of activity in
the 40s, with such landmarks as Houmas
House, Ormond, Bocage and Evergreen
being restored. Much has been said about the impact of industry
along the River Road, but there have been cases in which industry
and preservationists have cooperated with spectacular results.
Chief among these is the restoration of San
Francisco Plantation House, which was accomplished with
the financial assistance of the Marathon Oil Company.
Today's River Road is a study in contrasts, with broad cane
fields, antebellum mansions, petrochemical plants and suburban
strip developments, all jumbled together in a chaotic mixture.
Nevertheless, much of the past remains to be enjoyed.