Wheels, Wheels, Wheels

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How life in St. Charles Parish would change in the first half of the 2oth Century with the arrival of the automobile and the improvement and construction of roadways! Sixty percent of Louisiana was rural at the turn of the century, and St. Charles Parish was a rural parish. Mud roads were everywhere. Roads were so often impassable that wagons and buggies would get stuck. Farmers had difficulty bringing their produce to market and often used the river instead. Doctors struggled to reach their patients. In order to reach their students, teachers often lived on school premises or rented rooms nearby. Voters even had difficulty reaching the polls. But change was on the horizon!

Huey P. Long Bridge – Old Spanish Trail Project

In 1908, Henry Ford began producing his Model T. In 1915 in Mobile, Alabama, a group of automobile enthusiasts, spirited by the Spanish padres and conquistadores, met and organized the “Old Spanish Trail Project.” The project promoted a paved automobile highway across the southern United States connecting St. Augustine, Florida, to San Diego, California. Louisiana became a thorn in the side of the trail organization, failing to pave the road and replace ferries with bridges. In 1919, shamed by the completion and opening of the trail in all other states except Louisiana, Governor Huey Long paved the highway with asphalt all through the state and contributed more than half of the construction funds for the Huey Long Bridge. (The bridge was and still (2010) is owned by the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, which is owned by the City of New Orleans and managed by the Public Belt Railroad Commission.) In 1935, the Huey Long Bridge replaced the Walnut Street Ferry removing the last Old Spanish Trail obstacle.

 In St. Charles Parish, the new two-lane Old Spanish Trail Highway (now U.S. 90) built by Governor Long was a diversion from the original path, which lies nearby. A portion of the original historic Old Spanish Trail, probably in existence since the 1700s, remains today in St. Charles paralleling the railroad track from Paul Maillard Road in Boutte through Des Allemands to the Lafourche Parish line. (U.S. 90 was expanded in the 1960s to a four-lane highway and is proposed to become a part of the new I-49 corridor.)

The King of Spain sent a representative to America to participate in the dedication of the 20th Century trail.

Destrehan is Site of Old Jefferson Highway Dedication

Old Jefferson Highway, dedicated in 1919 as one of the first cross-country automobile highways traversing the continent from New Orleans to Winnipeg, Canada, came through St. Charles Parish in the era before U.S. highways. The original stretch through the parish was the road that is now River Road, or LA 48, and it started in New Orleans continuing into the Jefferson, St. Charles, and St. John the Baptist parishes and beyond. Nicknamed the “Palm to Pine Highway,” it was built with help from associations of early motoring groups. That original route soon blended into other routes. But it apparently was front-page news in New Orleans on Friday, February 5, 1926, when the mayor of Winnipeg, Canada, arrived in Destrehan to welcome acting New Orleans Mayor Arthur J. O’Keefe at the dedication of the highway. Many locals were on hand for the party held near the tennis courts at the Mexican Petroleum plant site.

Roadways in St. Charles Parish

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 designated the historic Mississippi River Road Corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans one of the nation’s eleven most endangered historic properties. It is a legacy worth preserving!

River Road
The Great River Road was first a muddy path, then graveled before hard surfacing.
St. Rose Tavern
Built in 1922, the St. Rose Tavern site has been a bar, hotel, restaurant, and barbershop over the years. As a hotel, it was used to house construction workers building the Airline Highway during the 1930s. This picture was taken in 2007.

Airline Highway

From its earliest beginning as a muddy path along the Mississippi River, the Great River Road had been a vital transportation link to other parts of the state and the country. On the east bank, in later years, it was the sole overland route between New Orleans and Baton Rouge until the completion of U.S. LA Highway 61— the Airline Highway — in 1935. To travel the 80 miles between Baton Rouge and New Orleans as the crow flies required a day’s drive along River Road, a 120-mile dirt highway winding along the banks of the Mississippi River. Airline Highway, a straight concrete road linking Baton Rouge and New Orleans, reduced the trip to less than two hours. The highway earned its name from being straight as an airport runway.

U.S./La. Highway No. 61-65 to New Orleans
U.S./La. Highway No. 61-65 to New Orleans. In the background is Moisant International Airport (early view), used by the citizens of St. Charles Parish. (Source: St. Charles Parish Resources and Facilities publication, 1961)

“Who will ever forget the perils and the inconveniences and the nightmarish experiences of that 120–mile drive?”
(The New Louisiana)

Built in 1935, “Claytonia,” the home of Dr. John E. Clayton, was a showplace on Airline Highway in Norco. It was destroyed by Hurricane Betsy in 1965. (Photo courtesy of Carolyn Cambre Alleman)

Airline Highway remained a two-lane road north of the Bonnet Carré Spillway until the mid-1950s. It was not until the Huey P. Long Bridge was completed in 1935 that the west bank of St. Charles Parish became “connected” with New Orleans for both rail and vehicular traffic.


Dr. John Earle Clayton, born in 1892, was involved in medicine and politics most of his life. He retired from politics in 1968 after serving as coroner from 1944. He was known by his peers as the “Dean of St. Charles Politics.” In a 1979 River Parish Focus article, Henry E. Yoes III stated that Dr. Clayton was known for three things: (1) his ability to diagnose illnesses; (2) his political acumen; and (3) Claytonia. He lived his last years in LaPlace.

Dr. & Mrs. Clayton
Dr. & Mrs. Clayton were honored by St. Charles Parish officials in 1969. Dr. Clayton was presented with a plaque proclaiming him ‘Dean of St. Charles Politics.’” Standing left to right were Julius Sellers, Dr. Earl Alleman, State Senator George Oubre, State Representative Ralph Miller, daughter Earline, Clerk of Court Eddie Dufresne, and Sheriff John O. St. Amart. (Source: River Parish Focus, 1979)

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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Further Reading

The Great River Road 5-Cent Commemorative Stamp
Sponsored by Crescent City Stamp Club

The Life and Times of Dr. John Earle Clayton
By Henry E. Yoes III
River Parish Focus
Vol. 1 No. 8