(7th in a Series)
In the March of 1882 – seventeen years after the Civil War -- the steamboat Susie, loaded to capacity with food and supplies, left New Orleans and headed up the Mississippi River to the southern tip of Concordia Parish. Entering the Red River at Turnbull Island, once a giant horseshoe bend in the Mississippi, the Susie traveled on to the mouth of the Black River at Acme.
She then headed up the Black for Troy (now known as Jonesville), located across Little River from Trinity. Troy was the headquarters of a giant relief effort to rescue and save the lives of people and livestock while also providing food for flood victims and their animals. The Susie also transported people and livestock to high ground.
Although the town was flooded, supplies were kept high and dry atop the Indian mounds located there.
The flood of 1882 was devastating. Water rose to the eaves of houses and covered all of the land from Natchez to the hills of Catahoula and Rapides parishes.
A newspaper reporter for theNew Orleans Times-Democrat wrote a series of stories on the flooding along Black River. He was amazed at the gloom, suffering and desperation he saw. People lived on scaffolding in houses. Livestock stood on rafts tied to trees.
The leaves of willow trees had been stripped by the farmers to feed their livestock. Although it was spring and all of the trees were adorned with leaves in beautiful shades of green, the willows were mostly bare.
Many people died. Thousands of pigs, horses and cows were washed away.
In the face of great disaster families had to decide which animals could be saved and which could not. Great efforts were made by each household to save the milk cow and the mule or horse because they were most important to a family’s survival.
What shocked theTimes-Democrat reporter was the decision of many families to remain in their flooded homes, many teetering on collapse, rather than move out of harm’s way.
But Black River people knew how to survive a flood.
‘HOW HIGH IS THE WATER?’
In 2012, in an article by Dayna Lee forFolklife in Louisiana, Hiram “Pete” Gregory recalled the floods of the mid-20th century and how the Black River folks survived them.
A Concordia native who is related to many parish families and who grew up to become an anthropologist, Gregory early in life was fascinated by how people lived and the traditions they carried on.
“It flooded in 1945, '49, '50, and some years we moved out, some years we didn't, but it flooded,” he said. “Vidalia had a little ring levee that the railroad built, so Vidalia flooded from seepage water.”
“We had no ring levee in Ferriday” and “we had no protection from Black River at all. If Black River backed up when the Mississippi went into flood, Ferriday flooded. The people on Black River flooded almost every year and then they'd move out. In 1945, the water stayed over two months. My dad slept in the attic of the house. Stuff we couldn't move we'd leave in the house. He'd go stay in the house at night and we'd come and go in the boat, a wooden bateau with a motor.”
It was a time when people always had their eyes on the rivers when the winter rains began.
“I can remember my grandmother would get theMonroe Morning World and the first thing she would read were the obits for everybody in Franklin and Richland parish where she grew up. The second thing she'd read -- [this was] to my grandfather, who couldn't see very well—she'd read the paper to him. She'd read him the flood stages, the river stages.
“There's that song, ‘How High is the Water?’ Well, that's what he'd ask her. ‘How high's the water?’ and she'd give him the stages from Cairo to the Gulf. And he could figure in his head how long it was going to take for the river to crest and come down, so they knew how to do that. People started putting boats together to move the cattle out up to the hills, and they'd start scaffolding furniture in the houses to get it up above the water that they thought was going to come. It's amazing what they could do. They'd scaffold stuff up in the houses, put stuff up in the attics, and we'd move as much as we could.”
In 1945, between Ferriday and Vidalia, the “whole levee that parallels the highway now . . . was covered with tents” populated by “poor people. My grandfather said that the front land when the steamboats ran was good farming, and then the river flooded more and more and they got poorer and poorer. Once very prosperous Black River people were pretty poor [and] in desperate need of a levee.”
While the Mississippi River mainline levee was constructed after the 1927 flood, a ring levee added more flood protection for Concordia residents during the 1950s.
“It's interesting since the levee went in,” Gregory said. “That was always my mother's dream that they'd have that ring levee. She used to say if they had a levee down there they'd be some of the most affluent people in the parish and that's true. They've done really well—the levee plus soybeans. They all came out pretty good farmers.”
In late March 1882, theTimes-Democrat reporter aboard the Susie saw nothing but water and desperate people. At Red River Landing on the Mississippi, planter C.P. Ferguson said it was believed his plantation levees would hold but when they broke, scores of tenants had to be rescued from trees and cabin roofs while others still awaited rescue.
In extreme northern Pointe Coupee below Concordia, floodwaters poured through and over the levees of the Chandler Plantation. The cows, chickens and hogs were boarded onto a large flatboat. On the plantation on Turnbull Island, where it’s fertile land rarely flooded, “broad sheets of water told only where the fields were.”
In that particular area around Fort Adams, Miss., and lower Concordia, the Mississippi River, the mouths of the Atchafalaya and the Red, and the old river channels were all filled with boats: “Small boats, skiffs, pirogues, etc., are in great demand.”
As the Susie moved up the Red, the reporter noted: “A pirogue sometime flits from the bushes and crosses the Red River on its way out the Mississippi, but the sad-faced paddlers never turn their heads to look at our boat. The puffing of the boat is music in forests or dark caverns, but a peculiar kind of solemn silence and impressive awe.”
The reporter saw families on rafts tied to the willows. A fire burned atop a pile of dirt placed on the floor of one raft.
“One does not appreciate the sight of earth until he has traveled through a flood,” wrote theTimes-Democrat reporter. “At sea one does not expect or look for it, but here with fluttering leaves, shadowy forest aisles, housetops barely visible, it is expected. In fact, a graveyard, if the mounds were above water, would be appreciated.
“The river here is known only because there is an opening the trees, and that is all. It is in width, from Fort Adams on the left bank of the Mississippi to the bank of Rapides Parish, a distance of about sixty miles.”
‘A STATE OF COMMOTION’
After traveling the Red upstream for a few hours, the Susie reached the mouth of the Black River at Acme. The signs of suffering were immediately seen. One man had attempted to drive 150 head of cattle and 100 hogs to higher ground in Avoyelles Parish when the floodwaters began to rise. He lost a third of his cattle and 60 percent of his hogs along the way.
Up the Black a few miles, only the tops of cabins could be seen in some places.
"In order to save coal, as it was impossible to get that fuel at any point to be touched during the expedition, a lookout was kept for a wood-pile," theTimes-Democrat correspondent wrote. “On rounding a point, a pirogue, skillfully paddled by a youth, shot out, and in its bow was a girl of fifteen, of fair face, beautiful black eyes, and demure manners. The boy asked for a paper, which was thrown to him, and the couple pushed their tiny craft out into the swell of the boat.
"Presently a little girl, not certainly over twelve years, paddled out in the smallest little canoe and handled it with all the deftness of an old voyageur … She was bound out to pick the willow leaves for the stock, and she pointed to a house nearby with water three inches deep on the floors. At its back door was moored a raft about thirty feet square, with a sort of fence built upon it and inside of this some sixteen cows and twenty hogs were standing. The family did not complain, except on account of losing their stock, and promptly brought a supply of wood in a flat."
As the Susie chugged upriver, more flooded dwellings were seen. Many of the occupants had fled to higher ground. Outhouses, henhouses, split fence-rails, a picture frame, buzzards atop a bloated carcass floated with the current.
As the Susie neared the big bend at Parhams (present day Black River Lake), the reporter observed along both shores many signs of distress and gloom. Cattle stood breast-high in water on the higher ground,
Hours later, the Susie reached Troy. Former Confederate General Zebulon York was leading the local flood relief effort. He now concentrated his efforts solely on saving human lives as the flood waters threatened to destroy many of the remaining half-submerged houses still occupied by families and livestock.
Across Little River from Troy, the village of Trinity was "in a dangerous plight, and momentarily it is expected that some of the houses will float off.” Additionally, it was feared the steamer Delia had sunk in a storm on Catahoula Lake.
York reported that more rations and tents for shelters were needed, that everyone was in a “state of commotion” and that “complete demoralization has set in.” Down the Black, the widow Taylor and her son, who had two days earlier refused to leave their flooded home and head for the hills, were feared dead. Reports had arrived that "a woman and child have been washed away below here, and two cabins floated off."
The paper reported: “After weeks of privation and suffering people still cling to their houses, and leave only when there is not room between the water and the ceiling to build a scaffold on which to stand. It seemed to be incomprehensible, yet the love for the old place was stronger than that for safety."
(Next Week: Ambush at Acme, pine knots and Trinity)