Featured image: Lugger in the Barataria Estuary, 1893. Credit: Donald W. Davis Collection, Louisiana Sea Grant Digital Images Collection.
The unearthing of the common existence of black schooner captains and crews throughout the 19th Century has profound effects on the history of the Gulf Coast. In the second of three installments, author Troy Gilbert looks into the unnamed hurricane of 1893, made famous by Kate Chopin in her book The Awakening, and identifies that many of the schooners and luggers that sank in the storm were crewed by black watermen and captains.
Captain William Delavier was at the helm of the double-masted schooner Alice McGuiggin, used by the Poitevent & Favre Lumber Company of Pearl River, Mississippi to train up young African-American sailors in the handling of lumber and schooners. He and the novice sailors under his command would meet their terrible fates along with over 2,000 others in the Category 4 storm that slammed into Grand Isle and Cheniere Caminada in 1893.
With his brother-in-law surviving to recount his premonition, fisherman Andre Gilbeaux uttered these words as he raised a glass to toast friends and family at his dinner table as the first squall lines of a Category 4 hurricane walked over his home at sundown on the Louisiana barrier island of Cheniere. By the next morning of October 2, 1893, Gilbeaux had in fact drowned along with most of his family and over 2,000 other souls in southeast Louisiana.
Before hurricanes were named and terms like “cone of uncertainty” became common parlance in the South, there were no early warning systems for these storms – they simply happened to the people in their path. On the sandy barrier islands of Cheniere and Grand Isle, immortalized by the literary works of Kate Chopin, the storm that battered Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula three days earlier and now churning north in the Gulf of Mexico was about to simply happen to the 1,471 residents of the barrier island.
779 of these men, women, and children succumbed and perished on the island, but lost in the legacy of this hurricane was the foundering of schooners and luggers as their crews, many African American, sailed the muddle of shallow lakes and bays interconnected by narrow passes through the Louisiana marsh and coastal Mississippi. Unaware of the hurricane’s approach until their boats heeled over as the breeze freshened from the east and the first squall lines appeared on the horizon, most of these men under sail wouldn’t know that evening’s sunset on the water would be their last.
In 1893, the majority of vessels were powered by sail as they plied the lake trade through the waters of Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne, and the Mississippi Sound, transporting cargo or seafood to the markets of New Orleans or east to Mobile. One of nearly fifty underway as the storm neared the coast, the double-masted schooner Alice McGuiggin, used by the Poitevent & Favre Lumber Company to train up young, teenaged African-American sailors in the handling of lumber and schooners under experienced black captains, prepared to make way.
Captain William Delavier and a first mate directed his four young charges to free the docklines, and they sailed from the Pearl River lumber yard in Mississippi. Carrying a cargo of 35,000-square feet of lumber destined for New Orleans’ West End and oblivious to the monster storm to their south, the Alice McGuiggin and her inexperienced crew made way slowly in the light air of the morning.
First-hand accounts from that early Sunday morning describe the weather as still and quiet with a light breeze and glassy waters for much of Southeastern Louisiana. Reports from the schooner Two Brothers under the command of Captain Worley confirm slow headway through Lake Borgne towards the Rigolets Pass that leads into Lake Pontchartrain. Over 50 miles away to the southwest and only miles from the storm’s eventual landfall, the 100’ steamer Joe Webre was tied up at the wharf on Grand Isle with Captain McSweeney and his crew of six onboard. Normally transiting vacationers and beachgoers from New Orleans to the Cheniere and Grand Isle resorts, October was the start of the slow season on the islands and the Joe Webre was quiet with her crew relaxing on this Sunday.
With a hurricane making landfall in Louisiana from the southwest, the first winds and squalls would push in and stream from the east or southeast with the storm’s counter-clockwise rotation. This has the effect of piling up water directly and rapidly into the marshes, bays, and lakes that open onto the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. Tides had been running slightly above normal the previous day, but “unusual tides” were reported and documented by the watchman at the maritime quarantine station in the Rigolets Pass by late morning on Sunday.
Not long after, dark clouds filled the sky to the south and the residents of the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts quickly realized that this was not simply a nasty squall line, but it bore the telltales of a massive hurricane.
Rose C. Falls perhaps described it best in her accounting of the approach of the storm in her book Cheniere Caminada: The Wind of Death. “Sunday the rain had been coming down, with now and then a temporary cessation for a few moments; but the falling rain did not seem to lighten the burden of the clouds which hung low above the city as the day drew to a close, and as the darkness of night began to steal through the gray of the weeping day, the wind came moaning down across the waters of Pontchartrain, driving before it a great window of inky clouds across a background of solid lead color, a phenomenon which boded no good for those caught in the track of the storm of which it was the forerunner and prophet.”
Pere (Father) Grimaux, the Roman Catholic priest who ministered to the people of Cheniere and who would be one of the rare survivors, described that afternoon under the bullseye of a major hurricane to the newspapers. The height of the waters mentioned by him would have easily overwhelmed the barrier islands that at best, rise only a foot or two above sea-level.
“Everyone apprehended that something terrible was about to happen. The fishermen foreseeing that a serious storm was evident, hastened to beach their craft near their houses. But those precautions availed not, for the wind blew in fitful gusts, increasing in strength and velocity every minute, coming from the south,” he recalled. “At 7:30 pm huge waves were madly lashing the shore, and in a few minutes they had attained a height of six feet, and soon after eight feet.”
As the wind grew through the rapid succession of squalls blasting onto Cheniere and her neighbor, Grand Isle, the crew on the steamer Joe Webre secured their vessel to pilings with extra lines and eventually 8.25″ hog chains. As the height of the most devastating northeastern quadrant of the storm came ashore, Captain McSweeney powered up the vessel’s boiler and, while still secured at the wharf, ran his boat at full steam into the wind in an attempt to relieve the growing strain on the lines and chains.
The young crew of the Alice McGuiggin with her heavy load of lumber heading to New Orleans made good time in the building wind of the afternoon and should have nearly cleared the Rigolets and entered Lake Pontchartrain. They were gaining good experience in the brisk winds; however, by dusk, as the weather soured, the winds forced her back down the pass towards Lake Borgne, and Captain Devalier had his hands full directing his inexperienced crew from behind the wheel.
In the squalls, he would have had to scream to instruct his young, frightened sailors through reefing and eventually dropping sails as well as tying a line underneath the hull from her port to starboard sides in event the schooner pitchpoled. With a slick wooden bottom covered in algae and marine growth, it would be impossible for them to scale the massive hull of an overturned schooner. Without something to grasp, their only fate would be to drown in the angry water.
It is likely that during the day the crews of the schooners Alice McGuiggan and Two Brothers spotted each other as they sailed through the Rigolets towards New Orleans from the Mississippi Coast. As the hurricane progressed over the marsh, the two schooners and many others were in the same predicament in the narrow pass and all would have tried to anchor in a lee shore offering very little protection and attempt to ride the storm out.
Throughout the night, the men of the Alice McGuiggan and Two Brothers fought for their lives – and would meet very different fates.
A scarce few miles can make the difference between life and death with the thick, ranging marsh of southern Louisiana acting as a sponge that sucks the energy out of a hurricane, but the sandy barrier islands have no such protection. By nightfall on Cheniere and Grand Isle, the small fishing villages were consumed by the watery chaos of the Gulf of Mexico.
Entire families were fighting for their survival – and losing. Raised houses, thought to be shelter, were washing off their foundations and breaking apart in the heavy surf and estimated 15′ surge. In the black of the night, there was no light save for periodic homes engulfed in fire from disturbed oil lanterns, crashing about like strange bonfires before they sank into the waves. Harrowing screams seemed to come from everywhere above the storm’s din. Witnessing all of this, the crew of the steamer Joe Webre was frantic and fighting to keep the vessel secured to the pilings, afraid to be loosed into the sea. They described great frothy wave crests with steep dark troughs between that were alive and sparking with intense bioluminescence, as if each time the boat crested, they were about to “plunge into an abyss of fire.”
As the coast was ravaged and drowned and the hurricane crawled inland, the more protected city of New Orleans and nearby inland lakes and passes began to feel the real force of the storm. Oyster and fishing camps and hunting clubs along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Catherine succumbed, many with oystermen or New Orleans businessmen trapped inside, unable to evacuate in their sailing dinghies after their fateful fishing weekend away from work and home. The lakeshore resorts of New Orleans – West End, Spanish Fort, Milneburg and Little Woods – were quickly inundated with boathouses, restaurants, piers, camps and summer homes lost. Schooners and dinghies at West End foundered or smashed into splinters on pilings, while the Southern Yacht Club lost every building save for their clubhouse.
In the Rigolets Pass, the schooner Two Brothers was ripped from her anchorage, unmanageable with no steerage and at the mercy of the winds and currents. Surge poured into the lakes and marshes, and she was carried to the west, deep into Lake Catherine and eventually over miles of marsh where no vessel had ever sailed and slammed into the raised L&N railroad. Badly damaged and sinking and having lost three crewmembers overboard, the remaining sailors climbed to the higher ground of the railroad tracks and rode the storm out.
Hurricanes are unique in their destructive abilities; they linger and apply their destruction over massive swaths of geography. Using both wind and water, these storms move depending on upper atmosphere steering currents and the effects can easily last for over 24 hours. By contrast, tornadoes are rapid events that leave horrific destruction in a very small footprint; hurricanes spit off tornadoes from their squalls like an afterthought. The crew of the Joe Webre on Grand Isle was battling all of these elements and about to endure the storm’s eyewall.
The few survivors from Cheniere and Grand Isle all described a massive tidal wave that struck before the relative and brief calm of the hurricane’s eye. This is the same wave that broke the hog chains and ripped the Joe Webre free from her moorings and loosed her and her crew into the wilds of the hurricane. The ship’s steam engineer, George Rolf, Jr. described this moment to New Orleans journalists. “The hogchain parted speedily under the strain, and then we took refuge beside the ice box,” he said. “A wave swept the deck and soon carried the latter protection from us. The wind then suddenly calmed, and we took shelter in the pilot house.”
Free now to the whims of the storm, the Joe Webre was pushed north over the oystering grounds of Barataria Bay and the boat disintegrated as it was lashed by floating debris from homes, boats, drowned cattle, and everything else that makes up a town. In a momentary lull in the howling wind, the crew recounted hearing cries from people drowning in the stormy, dark flotsam. Completely unable to deliver aid let alone see them in the darkness, all they could do was fight for their own survival and hold on.
Captain McSweeney understood that the Joe Webre was foundering, and he ordered all aboard into the steamer’s dinghy. The eye of the hurricane was passing over them, and this was likely their only chance. As the first breeze brushed their wet faces from the northwest, the storm roared back in full throat. Moments later they watched the pilothouse explode in a terrific wind gust. The Joe Webre then foundered and slipped beneath the waves of Barataria Bay.
The wind direction changed with the passing of the eye and water that had pushed over the islands and into the marsh, suddenly forced its way back into the Gulf of Mexico – carrying along with it everything that floated.
As their dinghy passed back over the island with the dark tide, the crew paddled towards the upper tiers of an oak tree that rose above the water and grabbed hold. One by one, they climbed into the canopy, but the ship’s chambermaid was a 300lb black woman, and as the dinghy sank, the men ran lines under her arms and used shear force to pull her up into the boughs. Together they survived, hunkered up in the giant oak tree with raccoons and other critters, all waiting for the storm to run its course.
The hurricane and floodwaters eventually receded and left behind a level of devastation and loss of life that in its pure terror, almost surpasses any natural calamity for the United States – including Hurricane Katrina. For days afterwards, survivors pulled their rotting family members and neighbors from the marsh and beach surf. Without water or food, nearing exhaustion and emotional collapse, these lonely few were forced by necessity to dig mass graves and eventually funeral pyres using the lumber from their homes washing back ashore.
The first relief boats from New Orleans arrived on the third day after the storm and were mostly luggers and schooners whose homeports were Cheniere and Grand Isle. Having sailed days before the storm to the city by chance, they were now packed with ice and supplies and clueless as to what they were about to experience. These sailors landed and found their homes, families, and lives washed away, with only ragged neighbors sitting on the beach in the heat, withered and miserable. It was a rare occasion for these rescuers to find their wives or children. Out of a population of 1,471 on Cheniere, 779 were lost, and many were never found.
For days afterwards, survivors were discovered washing up on shorelines all along the coast or making their way slowly through impenetrable marsh. One mother was spotted from a train as she waded through chest high water filled with storm-disturbed critters. She carried with her two children under her arms and a baby in swaddling clothes that she held by her teeth. Vessels and their crews consistently found others who had been less lucky, clasping doors and debris turned into make shift rafts out in the Gulf, some as far away as Pensacola, Florida – having survived the storm only to then perish from a lack of water and the elements at sea.
For Captain Delavier and his young crew aboard the Alice McGuiggan, their harrowing tale of battling the storm will never be fully known, nor would their bodies be recovered. The Alice McGuiggan was eventually discovered by a mail boat, mast-downward in Lake Borgne, only three miles from the pier she left on the Pearl River that fateful morning; the storm had tried to pull her out to sea. All told, at least 17 other schooners and luggers went down on the Gulf Coast, with many of their captains and crews never to be found.
The sad legacy of this storm is that the barrier island of Cheniere, with her graves and monuments to those lost, is nearly no more. As with all of Louisiana’s coastline, barrier islands, and marshes, it is rapidly eroding into the Gulf of Mexico and leaving millions of residents and towns, including New Orleans, as the new unprotected frontline for a hurricane’s wrath.