The 2,530-mile long Mississippi River -- which rises in Minnesota and empties into the Gulf of Mexico -- has not only played a seminal role in fashioning the history of both Louisiana and the United States but has also provided a potent example of nature’s destructive power. Indeed, the constant shifting of the river over the centuries has left River Road plantation homes like San Francisco and Nottoway, once a considerable distance from the water’s edge, lying behind massive protective levees just feet away from potential annihilation.
“Once there was a neck opposite Port Hudson, Louisiana, which was only half a mile across, in its narrowest place. You could walk across there in fifteen minutes; but if you made the journey around the cape on a raft, you travelled thirty-five miles to accomplish the same thing. In 1722 the river darted through that neck, deserted its old bed, and thus shortened itself thirty-five miles,” said riverboat pilot and author Mark Twain when reflecting on the power of this colossal waterway in his book Life on the Mississippi (1883).
It’s especially apposite that this natural process of destruction and renewal -- seen so often in these prodigious changes in river direction -- has also been mirrored by mankind’s impact on the State of Louisiana. For impressive as a river’s meanders are, they almost pale into insignificance when compared to the transformation wrought on the political, social and economic landscape of the state by successive generations of Acadian (Cajun), Creole and German settlers who through dogged perseverance -- and the importation of thousands of slaves -- managed to turn vast tracts of swampland into one of the most productive cotton and sugar producing combines in North America. Little wonder then that the 70-mile section of Louisiana’s River Road was once home to more than 400 plantations and to one the largest concentrations of millionaires in the nation.
The Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, LA
Built in the 1859, the 1020-acre Nottoway Plantation -- the former home of the Randolph family -- is Southern Louisisana’s largest surviving antebellum mansion. The imposing facade of this lavish 53,000-square-foot mansion -- which blends both Greek and Italian architecture -- is supported by immense three-storey columns and the interior is just as impressive. The mansion’s signature “white ballroom” -- which follows the semi-circular contours of the home’s rotunda -- delivers the most impressive interior experience with its Corinthian columns and hand-cast archways as well as the full-length floor to ceiling “windoors” which could be opened to facilitate additional ventilation as well as allowing egress to partygoers who wished to whisk their dancing partner around the exterior gallery of the rotunda.
The plantation passed out of Randolph hands in 1889 and now acts as both a museum and a historic hotel. The latter offers luxury accommodation in the mansion itself as well in the Carriage House, Boy’s Wing and a series of cottages adjacent to the main property.
Nottoway Plantation, 31025 Louisiana Hwy. 1, White Castle, LA 70788 Tel: 866-527-6884
San Francisco Plantation, St. John the Baptist Parish, LA
On an aesthetic level visitors may find the juxtaposition of an elegant plantation home sandwiched between an immense Mississippi River levee and an oil refinery to be a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. However, in spite of its industrial backdrop, the San Francisco Plantation offers an intriguing glimpse into life on a sugar plantation. The latter was originally established by, Elisée Rillieux, a free man of colour, and was subsequently acquired by business partners Edmond Bozonier Marmillion and Eugène Lartigue for the princely sum of $100,000.
The chic gothic style antebellum mansion -- bracketed by a pair of water towers and painted in vibrant Creole colors -- was built in 1853 and is said to resemble the steamboats that once plied their trade on the river. Indeed, the writer Frances Parkinson Keyes depicted the mansion as such in her 1952 novel "Steamboat Gothic.”
Although few of the original pieces of furniture remain the interior has been staged with numerous period antiques that date to heyday of the plantation in the 1860s.
San Francisco Plantation, 2646 Hwy. 44 (River Road), Garyville, Louisiana 70051-0950 Tel: (888) 509-1756
The Greenwood Plantation, St. Francisville, LA
Although this colonnaded Greek-style architectural gem was gutted by fire in the 1960s -- leaving just the 28 Doric columns and the chimney stacks in its wake -- the current mansion replicates the original 1830 footprint of the building with appropriate concessions to modern building codes.
There are several good reasons why visitors may want to head to this plantation including the on-site bed and breakfast inn, the beautiful lake that affords some fantastic photo opportunities as well as the fact that the mansion has been the star of numerous films including the 1985 ABC TV mini-series “North and South” (based on the novels by John Jakes), “GI Joe: Retaliation” (2013) and “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer’s “The Host” (2013) in which the property’s magnificent collection of live oaks -- bedecked with a fragile mantle of Spanish moss -- apparently provide an atmospheric backdrop for some haunting scenes in this sci-fi thriller.
Greenwood Plantation, 6838 Highland Road St. Francisville, LA 70775. Tel: (800) 259-4475
The Laura Plantation, St. James Parish, LA
Visitors in search of a crash course in Creole culture -- and the intriguing dichotomy of those with a mixed European and African ancestry also being slave owners -- should definitely add a tour of the Laura Plantation to their travel itinerary. Whilst this traditional circa 1805 Creole plantation home may lack the visual impact of its more grandiose Doric columned counterparts those interested in an insight into the Creole and French colonial history of Louisiana will not be disappointed. Restored by owners Norman and Sand Marmillion after a devastating fire gutted the “big house” in 2004, a tour of this plantation home gives visitors a unique insight into a familial Creole culture that was slowly subsumed to the Anglo-American way of life subsequent to the Louisiana Purchase.
The history of this once highly successful family business -- which at its height covered 12,000 acres and utilized 175 slaves -- was the subject of Laura Locoul Gores’s riveting mémoire of her life at l'habitation Duparc and the 70-minute guided tour of the Maison Principale does a good job of bringing the subjects of her book to life. The lives of the four generations of Creole women who oversaw the plantation’s day to day operations are all touched on during the tour as are the reasons behind Laura’s decision, in 1891, to wind up her family’s involvement in the sugarcane plantation (readers can purchase “Memories of the Old Plantation Home” via the Laura website).
The matriarchal Creole family dynamic, the Code Noir (the rules governing the holding of slaves in France’s colonial empire), the Napoleonic Code (especially in respect of the inheritance of property by women) and the harrowing conditions experienced by the slaves -- along with the dangers involved in working on a sugarcane plantation -- were all aspects of the tour that were recounted in some detail by our female Creole guide.
Laura Plantation, 2247 Highway 18, Vacherie, LA 70090 Tel: (888) 799-7690
For information on Louisiana’s “Oak Alley,” “Rosedown” and “Oakley” Plantations as well as “Centenary College,” “Locust Grove” and “Port Hudson” check out the piece entitled “Exploring Louisiana's antebellum legacy on the Mississippi River Road.”
Additional Information: Google River Road Tour Map • River Road Plantation slideshow •