When the road ends, keep going. Toward where the river passage gives way to the Gulf of Mexico. At any time the horizon is dotted with a variety of ships both inbound and out. Carefully navigating the marsh as they have been for centuries. In 1946, writer James Kalshoven reflected:
“Below Venice, Louisiana, the Mississippi River is free of all restraint and does as it pleases. It’s a river without permanent banks, spreading out over the landscape like a glass of water spilled on a tablecloth. Land and water are not definite distinctions; what is land today, may be submerged tomorrow.”
Yet just north of the river-fork (called the Head of Passes) stands the lighthouse and skeleton of Port Eads Marina. A relatively new but largely uninhabited settlement along the bank. Previously having served as a rest stop for fisherman and residency for ship pilots, it was destroyed in the wake of hurricane Katrina in 2005. Only to be rebuilt and expanded to the tune of $12 million as part of an infrastructure rebuilding initiative. The facility was closed again just five years after re-opening.
According to Port Eads Fishing Refuge board member Rene Cross in an interview with the Louisiana Sportsman, the Marina, considered the “number one marina and fishing destination in the Gulf of Mexico” closed in 2019 due to it being unsustainable to operate.
Named after James B. Eads following his introduction of an innovative method which consisted of a wooden jetty system, successfully limiting the buildup of silt along the river outlets.
This made the water navigable for longer periods of time. And allowed larger ships to pass, as previously it was common for uninitiated captains to simply run aground. Fortunately that was not as common an occurrence as perceived, considering the precursor to Port Eads was a place more or less dedicated to assisting such vessels navigate the bar.
Claimed by Robert De La Salle in the late 1600s, La Balize existed near the mouth of the Mississippi and eventually doubled as both a settlement for river pilots, fishermen and their families. This coincided with the establishment of a French fortress and smattering of soldiers. Who’s arrival did not disturb the locals who quickly became accustomed to living in the area. And often the French required local expertise about as much as the locals appreciated the increase in supply ships coming down from New Orleans.
As a result, there was a boom in development and population. La Balize gradually expanded despite the very real risks of natural disasters that would later be their undoing. Having to be rebuilt several times before moving five miles inland to the northwest in what is referred to as the Southwest Pass on the western bank. The village remained vulnerable to seasonal hurricanes, having to constantly be rebuilt, leading to its eventual abandonment following the 1860 storm season.
Few accounts describe the village as it was for more than a few sentences. Although British author Frances M. Trollope did, while en route to Cincinatti in 1832, write in her travel book (Domestic Manners of the Americans):
“Large flights of pelicans were seen standing upon the long masses of mud which rose above the surface of the waters, and a pilot came to guide us over the bar, long before any other indication of land was visible.”
Today this region represents the southernmost end of Plaquemines Parish. And there is little left of La Balize centuries later. Still, the need for pilots had not been affected. So these families moved upriver, establishing Pilottown.
Referred to in the past by some as a “handful of houses on stilts”. A common structural characteristic this far down the Mississippi. Having had no stop signs, one school, one general store and an almost non-existent crime rate even at its peak while being inhabited by some 200 people. A 2010 census insists on a population of 0. Although it maintained permanent residency up until 2005. Any new “Pilottowners” would be hard-pressed to send or receive mail under the now defunct zip code of 70081.
Today it still maintains some facilities to accommodate members of the Crescent River Port Pilots’ and other associations with exclusive rights to operate within the 85 mile stretch heading north up into New Orleans. Historically these groups were difficult to join, with some locals seemingly wary of the unfamiliar. Although it is hard to say how much this has changed since the 1980s when the last post master, Edna Smith who retired in 1998, expressed a general feeling of disinterest in most outsiders.
Now to the dismay of some recreational fishermen who utilize traditional water-routes, the 24/7 dredging of the Southwest Pass is now required in order to ensure the continued flow of commerce upriver. Something only the federal government can afford and is essentially required for the economic well-being of every major city along the Mississippi.
In some cases it has been rumored that the silt is simply being shifted to other passages important to smaller ships not willing to risk run-ins with larger more industrial vessels. There is also the speculation of operations such as the management of Port Eads Marina falling into private hands.
At this point the sentiment in Plaquemines Parish regarding some of these legacy landmarks varies between optimism and frustration. These perspectives in context to the challenges faced when developing structures and industry in the area, reflect a frontier mentality seen in few places across the country. In addition, there are few places like it. And if history is any indication of our very human tendency to prefer unique challenges, it makes sense that there are at least no plans to cease trying.
Crane-Mercury is a new digital publication created in the spirit of celebrating culture in southeast Louisiana. We will be launching soon and do hope you decide to stick around. Feel free to join our mailing list for future updates!