Earlier this week I wrote a post that talked about Ophélie, the fictional plantation I designed for The House of Crimson and Clover series. Ophélie was based on not one, but many plantations, some of which I’ve visited. In this post, I will introduce you to some of the plantations of the Great River Road in Louisiana.
The River Road refers to the stretch of road, about 20 miles outside of New Orleans, that runs along the Mississippi River toward Baton Rouge. The land was settled in the early 1800s as a popular location for plantations, due to the fertile land (great for sugar) and the location to the river. In its heyday, the River Road contained some of the best and most successful plantations in the entire nation, and today is one of the most popular tourist destinations for plantation sightseeing.
When we picture a plantation, we are often envisioning that grand Greek Revival mansion, with the columns and lined balconies. We picture women in sweeping skirts, and men drinking mint juleps on the porch. In fact, the Big House, as it was called, was only one piece. A plantation might as well have been called a village, for the property was often entirely self-sufficient. You’d find kitchens, blacksmith shops, sugar mills, stores, and anything else they needed to keep daily life running on the plantation. And, of course, there were rows of slave cabins on the property that housed the many men and women who kept the plantation running through the involuntary servitude of the time.
Almost all commerce was conducted via the river, in an era where steamboats were king. Whatever could not be produced on the plantation could be ordered and delivered.
Although the river was, quite literally, at the end of their driveways, the levee was built to protect their plantations from ruin, and over the years it was built taller and taller. Most of the plantations, therefore, no longer had views of the river that lay less than a football field away.
Eventually, in the 20th century, disease killed off many of the sugar crops, and much of the once-fertile land was sold off to oil refineries and other interested parties. Those that were not sold fell into disrepair. In the 1920s, interest grew in restoring many of these properties to their former glory, and this resulted in a good dozen or so plantations being saved and restored. While some are for private use only, several- such as the famous Oak Alley, Laura, and Destrehan plantations- are open to the public for tours.
The pictures in this post are all from my private collection.
Laura is one of the oldest Creole-style plantations left on River Road, and it can be spotted by the bright Creole colors. Two things make this property remarkable for us today: the first is how much of the plantation was maintained and restored; the second is that we have significant insight into what life was like on Laura, as Laura Locoul’s vivid diaries are left as a statement to its history. In fact, the tours of Laura are structured around the information contained in her diaries.
When you envision the quintessential plantation, Oak Alley is what comes to mind. Its hard to believe the 28 trees that line the driveway leading up to Oak Alley’s Big House were designed without that glorious house in mind, but in fact they date back to the 1700s. The house was built in 1829, in the Greek Revival style, but was also heavily influenced by the French Creole architecture of the Caribbean plantations. As with other plantations of the time, the home was abandoned but later purchased and restored, and is now open to the public for tours as well as overnight stays.
Destrehan is the oldest remaining plantation on River Road (and possibly the entire Mississippi Valley), dating back to 1787. The house was built in the popular Greek Revival style. Like many of their neighbors, Destrehan found their success in sugar farming. Although the house fell into disrepair like many others, restoration efforts commenced and they were able to save the Big House and a few outbuildings. Tours are available. You might recognize the house as the one used in Interview with the Vampire.
There are many great plantations not featured here- such as Nottoway, the Houma House, and San Francisco- but they are among those great homes that have been restored to their former glory.