St. Francisville & Floods: A Tale of a Travelling House
By ANNE BUTLER - While St. Francisville developed on a high ridge overlooking the river, the port city of Bayou Sara was established in the late 1790s right on the banks of the Mississippi. Center of commerce for the surrounding plantation country, with a mile of warehouses to store cotton plus extensive residential and commercial sections, Bayou Sara was one of the 19th century’s most important river ports.But just about every spring, as ice and snow melted upriver, a raging torrent of water raced downstream and through crevasses in flimsy levees to destroy everything in its path. This included Bayou Sara, but its residents, resilient souls that they were, came back year after year after year, at least until the 1920s.In 1890 the New York Times described a levee break that inundated the entire town, stopping all business and compelling the abandonment of stores and homes by its 10,000 residents. Again in 1892 another flood put 10 feet of water into town, with considerable loss of property. Resourceful shopkeepers put merchandise on top shelves, tried to hold back floodwaters with mud boxes, and built raised wooden walkways and gangplanks so shoppers could keep their feet dry. But it was the flood of 1912 that was most devastating, with rising waters sending Bayou Sara residents rushing into the hills as large cracks appeared in the levee.
Beulah Smith Watts of Solitude Plantation vividly recounted the experience. “The rainy season began in the early spring of 1912. The melting ice and snow from the north began to swell the river. The Mississippi River began to rise and flood the low land. The levee which protected the town became threatened. Rains and winds caused alarm. The citizens of Bayou Sara worked day and night in the rain, filling sand bags to bank the levee in weakening places. School boys worked with them. Sand boils began to appear. Citizens of Bayou Sara were ordered to move livestock and possessions to higher lands. The rains had stopped, but the winds were high…The school was in St. Francisville. On May 2, 1912, before classes had started, whistles began blowing, and bells began tolling. We knew what had happened! School was dismissed, and we pupils ran to Catholic Hill to see the water rushing in, swallowing the town of Bayou Sara. The roar of onrushing water could be hear d for miles. The crevasse was 187 feet wide. The next day nothing but the tops of houses were visible. Most of the houses were swept away by the strong current of rushing water, and debris floated in the water.”The 1912 flood devastated areas all along the river, leaving hundreds homeless as rescue trains rushed to flooded areas to evacuate residents. At Bayou Sara, one newspaper account said, “The streets are under 25 feet of water. When the water rushed in late yesterday, houses were toppled from their foundations. A great sheet of water leaping through a gap in the levee 300 feet wide swept everything before it. The smaller buildings were dashed against the more substantial structures and the debris carried on by th e flood…Men and women ran wildly into their homes, picked up their children and fled, leaving all their belongings behind. Others took their positions in boats, and were picked up by the crest of the flood and carried miles from the town.”And then came the great flood of April 1927 that displaced close to a million people along the Mississippi River corridor, causing numerous deaths and threatening millions of acres of land. It was one of the world’s most devastating floods, called “the last uncontrolled rampage of the Mississippi River,” inundating 27,000 square miles. After that one, the Corps of Engineers began serious construction of substantial levees and flood control structures along the Mississippi River to protect heavily populated urban areas. But these efforts came too late to save the little port city of Bayou Sara; there’s nothing there now but a boat launch, steamboat landing, and a bunch of weeping willows.St . Francisville, high atop the bluff overlooking the site of Bayou Sara, beckoned survivors, and up the hill they came, merchants and families, businesses, even some houses. The 19th-century Bayou Sara residents salvaged what they could of damaged homes and stores, and moved on up the hill to rebuild their lives and re-establish their businesses safe from the floodwaters.One charming little structure that travelled from Bayou Sara up the hill to safety in St. Francisville is called Miss Lise’s Cottage, comfortably resettled across Prosperity Street from the West Feliciana Parish courthouse in 1890. It was a simple Creole cottage of two rooms, roughly 16’ by 16’, each opening to the outside. The rooms were divided by a solid wall; to go from one to the other entailed a trip outside along the front porch.