On my recent American Cruise Lines’ voyage down the Mississippi aboard the paddlewheeler Queen of the Mississippi, we left the state of Mississippi behind about halfway through the week. Our new destination was Louisiana, on the western side of the river, making our first stop in a very inviting looking town called St. Francisville, which, despite a pouring rain that morning, proved one of the most interesting ports on the Mississippi.
St. Francisville is actually the second oldest incorporated town in Louisiana, with Spanish and British roots rather than French, as you find farther south in the state. Nearly 150 structures compose its National Register Historic District, recalling the world of the antebellum South. The artist and naturalist John James Audobon did a number of his famous bird drawings here.
It began as a settlement right on the river known as Bayou Sara, and by 1850 had grown to be the largest port along the Mississippi between Natchez and New Orleans, with a rather rowdy reputation. Bayou Sara is now totally overgrown with vegetation, and during the short drive inland to the current town of St. Francisville, you wouldn’t even suspect it had been there without a guide informing you of it.
Our stops that morning would include two plantations, The Myrtles and Rosedown, both representative of the fabulous wealth amassed by cotton planters in the region in the decades before the Civil War. Two-thirds of American millionaires at that time were said to live between New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi, enriched by King Cotton and the slave labor that made it all possible.
The plantation owners lived like kings, while their enslaved workers were considered mere chattel, property to be worked like farm animals. And while the black and white dichotomy is common knowledge, actually touring the plantations brings it home in a way that merely reading about it never could. On the tours of the plantations, none of this history is glossed over.
The Myrtles dates from 1796, boasts a 120-foot verandah, a 5,000-square-foot brick courtyard, hand-painted stained glass, Baccarat crystal chandeliers, Carrara marble mantels, gold-leafed French antique furniture, Aubusson tapestries and ornate friezework, and sits on ten acres shaded by huge live oaks.
The main emphasis of the guided tour, however, was on the people who lived and died there and the alleged haunting of the house. In fact, The Myrtles, now a B&B, advertises itself as “One if America’s most haunted homes,” and has been featured on ghost-hunting TV series.
One legend involves a resident who was shot outside the house, staggered in, and died on the 17th step of the staircase leading to the second floor; visitors and employees have both sworn they can still hear his footsteps.
Another legend centers around a slave named Chloe, whose ear was cut off when she was caught eavesdropping on the then-owner. After allegedly poisoning the owner’s wife and two children in revenge, Chloe was hanged and thrown into the Mississippi, but her ghost is still seen “hanging around,” as the guide put it. And so forth.
The Myrtles guides play these stories up for all their worth — which, in historical terms — isn’t much, but it makes for a fun if somewhat macabre tour.
Rosedown, now run by the state of Louisiana, has a more demure tour. It was built in 1835 by the Turnbull family, and one of its owners, Daniel Turnbull, became one of the richest men in America. Most of Rosedown’s 3,500 acres (at its largest) were planted with cotton; today the remaining 370-acre grounds are known for the elaborate gardens designed by Daniel’s wife, Martha, modeled after formal Italian and French gardens, as well as the magnificent 660-foot-long oak alley that leads to the Federal-Greek revival-style main house.
Hundreds of slaves at a time made all this possible. While the Civil War and, later, the boll weevil, did away with slave labor and the cotton crops themselves, the house remained in the ever-less-prosperous family until 1956, when it was restored and opened for tours ten years later. It’s now a National Historic Landmark.
A brief drive around St. Francisville’s historic district made me yearn for more time to walk around town, but now it was time for the Queen of the Mississippi to depart for Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana, 30 miles downriver. To get into the Louisiana mood on board, we lunched on shrimp and grits, southern cornbread salad, and seared mahi mahi with shrimp andouille etoufee on our way.
Next up: Baton Rouge