1912 – Disaster Strikes Twice – Great 1912 ‘Crawfish’ Crevasse
The yearly spring rise of the Mississippi brought fear of crevasses to those living on the riverbanks. Early in the 20th Century their worst fears
On May 14, 1912, a “crawfish hole” began to weaken the levee at Hymelia, just upriver from present-day Killona. It quickly grew to a 500-foot-wide gap in the levee spilling water across a huge area from Hymelia to as far as Donaldsonville and
Thibodaux to behind Gretna. The Hymelia Crevasse would send water rushing for hundreds of miles. The west bank of St. Charles Parish was severely impacted. Late that night, water was three feet deep in the streets of Killona, which was three and a half miles from the break. As with all crevasses, once the water left the river, its force was felt for many miles. Dr. Emile Burch, son of the owner of Hymelia and Glendale Plantations, had to provide for the safety and well being of his family just as many others did. Laborers were marooned in an old, abandoned sugarhouse on Hymelia’s grounds. Water rose to four and five feet in Paradis and Des Allemands, respectively, in the days following the break. Hundreds of state convicts were drafted to work on the levee repairs as ordered by the governor.
First-hand account of the Hymelia levee break from the LeMeschacebe newspaper, Les Voyageurs, Vol. XX VII, No. 1, March 2006:
Hymelia Levee Breaks Near Old Crevasse, Some of Largest Sugar Plantations Flooded
(Number of smaller farms exposed to inundation by break in levee near parish line in St. Charles, Jefferson, St. John, St. James and Lafourche will be affected) Submitted by Alton J. Terrio to Les Voyageurs.
“The Hymelia levee, on the West Bank of the Mississippi, just below the division line of this and St. Charles parishes, gave way Tuesday night at 7 o’clock, three acres below the spot where it broke in 1903, and church and plantation bells rang out the call for help and assistance. Messengers on horseback rode up and down the break corroborating the awful nature of the alarm.
“Wednesday morning the break was over 400 feet wide, with both ends of the levee caving rapidly. Waves four feet high surged through the gap and where trees stood in its path, the water lapped up five or six feet. The noise of the rushing water can be heard for miles around and the surrounding sugar plantations are being flooded in quick succession. Acres made marvelously fertile years ago by just such overflows will again be inundated and growing crops destroyed.
“We were reliably informed, Friday, that a determined effort is being made to close the crevasse. Capt. C.O. Sherrill, of the Fourth United States levee district is in charge of the stupendous proposition and is assisted by Major Kerr, of the State Board of Engineers and assistant U.S. Engineer, W. E. Knoblock. The Texas and Pacific Company has its bridge gangs on the spot and 250 convicts arrived on the scene from Baton Rouge early yesterday morning. The ends of the broken levee have been secured and the crib-work is now in progress. Thousands of sacks are being filled with dirt on both sides of the crevasse and the work progresses satisfactorily with chance of ultimate success. It is estimated that 10 or 12 days will be required to close the break, unless unforeseen obstacles should arise to impede the work.
“About 1,800 men are employed at Hymelia and these are divided into three shifts, thus keeping the work going night and day. During the night the place is illuminated by gasoline flare torches, set out along the levee.”
Work On Closing Hymelia May Be Abandoned
May 12, 1912
“The Hymelia crevasse is rapidly widening, not withstanding all efforts made to hold the ends. On Thursday 175 feet gave away on the upper end, making the gap over 1,500 feet wide. The cribbing at that point, due to the greatly increasing speed of the current, began to weaken and it was decided to abandon the work there and resume operations some 600 feet further in. This setback is most regrettable and has impaired the optimistic feeling which the engineers were imbued.
“The cribbing held better on the lower end and the work of driving piles there is progressing well. Drivers, working four abreast on a sliding platform, do the work at each end of the break.”
Hymelia Crevasse Widens
LeMeschacebe—June 8, 1912
“The Hymelia levee continues to crumble away section by section until the breach, at this writing, is nearly a mile in width. Monday night over 300 feet gave way with a roar that could be heard for miles.
“There is now more water passing through the crevasse than at any time, not withstanding the fact that the pressure from the river has lowered. The additional width makes up for this. The back waters continue to rise and St. John has some of the finest plantations under water. Glendale, Gold Mine, Maxie, Church Place, Columbia, Carroll Evergreen and Whitney count but a few acres above water. A desperate fight was made to hold the back levee on these places, but to no avail. Gold Mine alone holding out against great odds.
“How long the Mississippi will continue to pour through Hymelia can only be conjectured, but when it does cease the planting season will be too far advanced for profitable planting. Truly, the immediate future of agricultural and other interest is not promising.”
Few Plantations Escape Waters
LeMeschacebe—June 29, 1912
“All the plantations near Thibodaux and Lafourche Crossing in Lafourche parish, except perhaps one or two near the Gulf that were in the path of Hymelia Crevasse waters, are reported under water.”
The Hymelia Waters Stir Up Controversy
Assumption Pioneer—July 1912
“A cry of distress is being heard from the flood stricken people of lower Lafourche. It is a pitiable sight which greets one in that once prosperous section. Water on every side for miles, and no chance to recoup the loss, as the water is still covering all that section and is falling less than an inch in twenty four hours.
“This week, appeals were made to the governor to close the break so that the people can get some measure of relief from the terrible effects of the flood. The Lockport ‘Lafourche Leader’, in its last issue has the following to say about the highwater situation in lower Lafourche:
It is indeed deplorable when one thinks of the existing conditions of affairs in this section of the country: bounded on the north by Donaldsonville; on the South by the Gulf of Mexico, on the East by the Mississippi River and on the west by Bayou Lafourche, in which section the water is in a great number of places over seven feet deep and spread out from three to a few inches all through this territory. There are thousands of people in this stretch of country who would be glad to go to work and make crops of some description on lands that are now covered by waters of the Hymelia crevasse did it look as though this water would ever recede. It is now the 4th of July and the water in this territory has fallen but ten inches from its greatest height, while the river has fallen about 9 feet, and unless something is done to impede the flow of the water at the Hymelia break, there will be want, starvation and pestilence engendered through the lack of efforts of those who should do something to slacken the flow of water, if not entirely close the gap in the levee at Hymelia.
Should not the Lafourche Levee Board, with the amount of money they have in their Treasury do something to check the flow through the break! This matter should be taken up with all the members of the Lafourche Levee board in order to do something to alleviate the conditions of persons who have lost their all through this calamity.
Great Gap In Hymelia Levee Closed In 25 Days
Times Democrat—August 1912, reprinted in LeMeschacebe
(Night and day struggle with the Crevasse Torrent Results in Victory for the Engineers and Contractors – First Attempt by United States Engineers Failed Because of the Terrific Water Pressure. The Method Pursued in the Engineering Work)
“Hymelia is closed. By today the last timbers of the big dam will have been driven into place and the massive structure will stand like monster canal locks ready to impede the inland rush of the waters from the Mississippi. The successful closing of the crevasse will mark one of the greatest conquests over the old Father of Waters in a decade. If one should now stand on the dame [sic] he would observe the great sheet of water.”
Hymelia Crevasse was one of the last major crevasses to affect St. Charles Parish prior to construction of the Bonnet Carré Spillway.
This text is copyright © material by Marilyn Richoux, Joan Becnel and Suzanne Friloux, from St. Charles Parish, Louisiana: A Pictorial History, 2010.