Mississippi River Levees (18th Century)

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Settlers along the river were required to build levees within a certain time period or lose the land. These levees were about two feet high and six feet wide, with both a foot and a horse path on top. Through the years, improvements and enlargements were necessary. Thus began two centuries of lingering threats of flooding on the German Coast from levee breaks, called crevasses. Not until after the first quarter of the twentieth century (with the construction of the Bonnet Carré Spillway) would residents of the German Coast be freed from such annual flooding threats.

Bird\'s Eye View
Father Paret’s watercolor painting depicts the Little Red Church and its surroundings in the heart of St. Charles Parish. The area displays present-day locations of Dufresne (Esperanza) and Hahnville on the west bank, across the river from Destrehan and New Sarpy on the east bank. The east bank Little Red Church, its cemetery, and the presbytery are surrounded by several dependency buildings. A visual of pre-Civil War St. Charles Parish.

Levees were in place on both sides of the river as early as the 1730s from about 20 miles below New Orleans to the upper end of the German Coast. This was an impressive accomplishment for the small farm settlers of the German Coast who did not have the labor force of the large concessionaires downriver. Historians always emphasize this fact in their writings. However, levee construction would over the years contribute to wetland loss and rich land building sediment loss as man begins to tame the river.

French colonial laws and directives required landholders along streams and bayous to build roads and levees fronting the waterways. Stricter enforcement would be applied in the later eighteenth century under Spanish rule.

In 1732, Louisiana Governor Etienne Perier issued a directive ordering every man who owned land along the Mississippi River to build a public road in front of his property and with that order, construction of the Mississippi River Road began. Even today, the State of Louisiana only holds tacit title to most of the land known as River Road. In 1990, with the passage of Public Law 10-398, the United States Congress created the Mississippi River Corridor Study Commission that resulted in the creation of Louisiana’s Mississippi River Road Commission and the development of the Mississippi River Road Master Plan, a blueprint for the River Road’s future. In 1991, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the historic Mississippi River Road Corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans on the nation’s eleven most endangered historic properties.

In 1779, Coast Commandant Robin de Longy reported that serious repetitive flooding from a crevasse in the Bonnet Carré bend of the river, as well as a devastating hurricane, resulted in severe crop damage for the settlement. Another serious storm occurred in 1794. Both of these storms took the same path as the 1722 hurricane that destroyed the original German Coast settlement.

This text is copyright © material by Marilyn Richoux, Joan Becnel and Suzanne Friloux, from St. Charles Parish, Louisiana: A Pictorial History, 2010.

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