by Anne Butler
In February, as the West Feliciana Historical Society museum, on Ferdinand St. in St. Francisville, hosts the travelling Smithsonian Institute exhibit called Journey Stories, the focus is on who we are and how we got here. St. Francisville and its now-vanished sister city Bayou Sara beneath the bluffs have got some fascinating tales to tell in this regard.
There were rough early roadways through the wilderness along which the initial settlement patterns could be traced, the pioneers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries braving attacks by Indians and bandits and wild animals as they descended the Natchez Trace into what was then Spanish territory to carve the early indigo and cotton plantations from the Feliciana wilderness. Even the main street of St. Francisville in the 1800s was the scene of cattle drives and heavy-laden wagons en route to the riverport at Bayou Sara below the hill. Muddy quagmires during wet weather and deeply rutted the rest of the time, these roadways led to some unfortunate accidents, buggies bouncing and overturning, with runaway horses compounding the problems. One of the earliest burials at historic Grace Episcopal Church, on the road leading through St. Francisville to the river, was that of baby Edward Baldwin, just five months old, whose cause of death in 1840 was listed as ‘flung from buggy,’ a not-uncommon occurrence.
Passengers boarded these riverboats with not a little fear and trepidation despite the fact that many of the steamboats were floating palaces offering luxurious cabins and sumptuous meals. The newspapers of the day were rarely governed by the dictates of good taste and proper political correctness, and journalists had a field day coming up with ever-more scintillating stories of trials and tragedies in order to sell papers. One of the more flamboyant accounts appeared in a September 1843 extra edition of the Louisiana Chronicle, headlined “Bayou Sara, LA Steamer Clipper No. 1 Explosion, September 1843.”
Although only 14 persons were killed, ten others missing and feared dead, and nine wounded, the article calls this “one of the most terrible catastrophies which has ever happened on the Mississippi.” As the Clipper No. 1 was backing from her moorings at the Bayou Sara landing, she blew up “with an explosion that shook earth, air and heaven, as though the walls of the world were crumbling to pieces about our ears. All the boilers bursting simultaneously---machinery, vast fragments of the boilers, huge beams of timber, furniture and human beings in every degree of mutilation, were alike shot up perpendicularly many hundred fathoms in the air.”
“On reaching the greatest height” (and as the writer reached equally great heights of lurid description), “the various bodies diverged like the jets of a fountain in all directions, falling to the earth and upon roofs of houses, in some instances as much as 250 yards from the scene of destruction. The hapless victims were scalded, crushed, torn, mangled and scattered in every possible direction, many into the river, some in the streets, some on the other side of the Bayou nearly 300 yards---some torn asunder by coming in contact with pickets and posts, and others shot like cannon balls through the solid walls of houses at a great distance from the boat.”
The Journey Stories exhibit examines migration patterns across the country, augmented by a number of local lectures and special programs. On Saturday, Feb. 11, a walking tour highlights significant contributions of St. Francisville’s early Jewish immigrants, and at 3:30 at Audubon State Historic Site, a one-woman play entitled “Rachel O’Connor’s World” presents the life of one determined Feliciana plantation owner.
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities) or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.