The Story of Last Island, Louisiana

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Last Island in 1853

In 1856, a massive hurricane struck Last Island, destroying every structure and killing over one hundred people, many of them from Louisiana’s most prominent families.

Last Island, also known by its French name Isle Dernieres, is a composite barrier island on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. Today it is uninhabited, known as a sportsman’s paradise rich in fish, shrimp, and oysters.

Isles Dernieres

In the early 1800’s, Last Island was a flourishing resort for Louisiana’s wealthiest citizens. It was one contiguous island, 25 miles long, 1 mile wide, and 5 feet above sea level. Stretching East/West along the coast of Terrebonne Parish, it lay between Carillou Bay to the North and the Gulf of Mexico to the South.

An Antebellum Era Resort

The population of Louisiana grew dramatically following the Louisiana Purchase. New Orleans became a busy port and successful plantations developed along the Mississippi River. Wealthy families, anxious to excape the summer heat, traveled to the outer islands to enjoy the ocean breeze. As early as 1847, tourists were headed to Last Island for swimming, fishing, and beachcombing. By 1852, several hundred families were regular visitors.

The yellow fever epidemic of 1853, killing over 11,000 in New Orleans alone, made the island even more appealing. Little was known about the disease except that it seemed less common near salt water. More tourists began to choose the island in hopes of escape.

By 1854, Last Island had a flourishing hotel and 50 private homes. By 1855, the Opelousas Railroad Express was completed all the way to Bayou Boeuf, significantly shortening the steamboat portion of the trip and encouraging even more visitors.

These events worked together to insure the popularity of Last Island as a summer resort. In August 1856, there were almost 500 people on the island. The vacationers enjoyed lazy days on the beach and, at night, the Muggah Hotel provided lavish meals, dancing, cards, and billiards. It was, at first, a perfect summer.

The Storm

The hurricane that struck Last Island in 1856 is ranked the 10th strongest in U.S. history. At the time, storm prediction and identification was not advanced enough to give the residents any warning. Memoirs written by survivors do clearly discuss the signs of a gathering storm, but by the time they realized its magnitude, there was no escape.

By Saturday morning, August 9th, the winds crossing Carillou Bay had strengthened and the surf on the Gulf of Mexico became violent enough to bring many of the guests to the beach to watch. Some became nervous, realizing there was no way off the island until the streamboat Star arrived that evening. However, evening came and the Star did not arrive.

The full force of the storm hit Sunday morning. The Star finally arrived at mid-morning, but was unable to dock and ran aground. Captain Abraham Smith dropped anchor and gave orders for the wooden cabins to be removed, leaving only the hull of the ship intact. This enabled it to remain anchored instead of being dragged across the island by the wind.

By afternoon, the water rose from Carillou Bay on one side of the island and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. At the height of the storm, the island was completely inundated. After four hours every structure had been destroyed and 174 people had died.

The Victims

Several survivors wrote compelling memoirs of the event. They described how the hotel disintegrated around them and how loved ones were pulled from their arms into the rushing water. They witnessed friends and family members floating by clinging to uprooted trees or planks of lumber. They saw corpses dangling in branches or partially buried in the sand. With almost half the population killed, there was not a single family untouched by loss.

By late afternoon, the storm subsided and most survivors made their way to the Star, the only remaining refuge. John Davis left in a sailboat, making his way to Bayou Boeuf seeking help. He arrived there on Wednesday, August 13th. Two steamboats containing rescue parties launched the next morning.

The survivors were stranded for almost five days. The force of wind and water had torn away most of their clothes and many had been injured by flying debris. Food and water supplies had been destroyed. One young cow was found hiding in some trees and was butchered for her meat.

As news of the disaster reached Bayou Boeuf, looters headed across the bay to the island. They took jewerly and money from the scattered corpses. Rescuers reported that every corpse recovered had been looted, with their pockets torn and cut, and many with missing fingers from which rings had been taken. A band of looters approached the cowering survivors on the Star but Captain Smith bravely turned them back.

Epilogue

The destruction and loss of life on Last Island during the hurricane of 1856 impressed Louisiana’s citizenry to the extent that the resort was never rebuilt. To date, the island remains uninhabited, broken into several pieces by the storm and visited only by fisherman and those seeking solitude.

Sources:

  1. Dixon, Bill. Last Days of Last Island: The Hurricane of 1856, Louisiana’s First Great Storm. Lafayette: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2009.
  2. Southern , James M. Last Island. Houma: Marketing & Distribution Specialists, 1980.