Sunday, May 12, 2019

Vantage Point Of Madisonville

A few days ago I gave a talk at the Madisonville Library about its specific geographical location being rich in area history. From the point of space occupied by its meeting room, one could, over a span of years, see a large number of significant historic personalities and events. The name of the talk was "Across The Years: A Vantage Point Upon History."

The Madisonville library

My sources of information for the speech material included the book by Ethel Boagni, the Madisonville Issue of the St. Tammany Historical Society Gazette; Steve Ellis- St. Tammany Parish: L’Autre Cote Du Lac, and Donald R. Sharp's History website. 

The specific geographic location I was talking about was located inside the meeting room at the library, a spot about 20 feet off the ground, 400 feet west of the Tchefuncte River, half a mile south of Hwy. 22 and a mile and a half north of the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Let's imagine climbing into a time machine and traveling back to several points of time looking at things that could be seen from the point of space on the second floor of the library building. 

Click on the images to make them larger.

First, there were the scenes as hundreds of people arriving by boat from New Orleans to escape the Yellow Fever epidemics in 1817, 1853, 1878, and 1905. They came to St. Tammany Parish for the reinvigorating pine-scented air,the pure artesian water, and the fewer mosquitoes.

Also within easy view of the library's second story would have been, in 1863, the coming of hundreds of people from New Orleans seeking refuge in St. Tammany Parish during the Civil War. 

Going back to 2000 years ago, if you were to follow the flow of water down the Tchefuncte River from the library, you'd be going southward to where the river joins that large body of water known as ....  The Gulf of Mexico. 

That is because two thousand years ago, New Orleans wasn't there yet, and the big shelf of land that New Orleans would be built upon wasn't there yet either. The land hadn't yet been deposited by the tons of silt and sediment coming down the Mississippi River with each Spring flood. (Area 3 within the red outline). As the silt spread out from the end of the river, it curved around and closed in the east end of Lake Pontchartrain, which was, in the beginning, a large bay on the north shore of the Gulf of Mexico. 
Lake Pontchartrain retains a connection to the Gulf of Mexico through two tidal passes, the Rigolets and Chef Menteur Pass, and, therefore, is more accurately described as an estuarine embayment than a lake.

The Lake Pontchartrain Watershed. The U.S. Geological Survey, 1995

Why is the Tchefuncte River deeper than Lake Pontchartrain into which it flows? The Tchefuncte River was formed when it emptied into the deeper Gulf of Mexico thousands of years ago.  As the silt and sediment coming down the Mississippi River built up the land upon which New Orleans would be built, that silt also flowed outward into the area which would become Lake Pontchartrain. The lake is now an average depth of 14 to 16 feet because of all the silt and sediment that was introduced into it with each Spring flood of the Mississippi River.

Had levees not been built to corral the Mississippi River and control its flooding, Lake Pontchartrain would have continued to have fresh deposits of silt and sediment each year and may have eventually filled up and become dry land.

Living in the area of Fontainebleau State Park east of Mandeville 2000 years ago were a group of Native Americans. Their culture was discovered by archeaologists digging through two shell middens in 1938. They came to be known as the "Tchefuncte Culture," a great discovery.

The Tchefuncte Culture no doubt fished and gathered oysters off the shore of the Fontainebleau State Park area in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result.... big piles of shells. There was another place, not far away, where early explorers also found big piles of shells.

This historical marker located on the riverfront in Madisonville mentions that the original name for the town was "Cokie," which was short for Coquille, a French word meaning shells. There was an "abundance of shells in the area," so that would indicate that the same Native Americans found east of Mandeville may have had a settlement also on the Tchefuncte River.

The Natchez Trace

Another interesting fact about the Madisonville area viewable from the library branch site is the fact that it is the beginning of the "northbound" fork of the Natchez Trace. Hundreds of years ago, Indians blazed a trail from middle Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi. That trail was then used by the newcomers for trade and mail delivery

Farmers and peddlers would follow the trail from the Muscle Shoals, TN, area down to the Mississippi River at Natchez, get aboard a raft or boat to drift down the current to New Orleans, and then sell their goods (as well as the raft) at New Orleans markets. Then they would get a boat across the lake and travel up to Madisonville.

At that point, they began the long journey home, heading up from Madisonville through southern Mississippi to join the Natchez Trace somewhere along its path and head on home. 

The "El Camino Real," The King's Highway

Another important highway through the area, visible from the second floor of the Madisonville library building, was the King's Highway built by early Spanish explorers. It was known as the "El Camino Real." 

According to this historical marker in Springfield, LA, state Highway 22 follows the old east-to-west route of the El Camino Real. That would have made it a major mail-route, as well as a path followed by travelers of all descriptions. There were several different forks of the El Camino Real (also known as The Royal Road), one of the most important ones stretching from Prentiss, MS, through Natchitoches, LA, and on across the Sabine River into Texas, passing through San Augustine, the most historic town in that big state. 

“In 1814 St. Tammany Parish was a rather out-of-the-way place nationwide. Roads were nothing to boast about, and there was mail that came overland on the King's Highway to Madisonville.” 
                            Polly Morris, 1975

 The Watchful Eye

In 1779, in the midst of the American Revolution, the British warship "West Florida" had control of Lake Pontchartrain. An American captain, William Pickles, challenged the vessel off the south shore of the lake near Bayou St. John. He was in command of the "Morris," a smaller and less armed ship, but he prevailed in the "Battle of Lake Pontchartrain" and captured the "West Florida."

He then went to the north shore, landing around Bayou Castine in Mandeville, and had the British settlers there swear allegiance to the United States. He claimed the territory for the new American nation.

What he did next had a great impact on St. Tammany Parish. He put out a warning to all the pirates, ne'r-do-wells, and looters to stay out of St. Tammany. The northshore area was under his protection now and he would "immediately sink" any vessel from New Orleans that was going over the lake to cause chaos, steal, burn or pillage the countryside north of the lake. It was wartime, and there was a steady stream of criminals leaving New Orleans to take advantage of the war situation to steal and destroy for their own financial benefit.

From the point of view of the second floor meeting room at the Madisonville library, you could have looked southward and seen Capt. Pickles as he went back and forth patrolling the lake and protecting St. Tammany from the ravages of the war.

David Bannister Morgan

Another famous Madisonville area personality was General David Bannister Morgan.  He would have definitely come into the field of view of the library meeting room, because he was a surveyor, and he dragged surveying rods and chains all over Madisonville and the area, taking measurements and drawing plat maps.

 He did dozens of surveys for land grants being awarded all up and down the Tchefuncte River corridor.

 He liked the area so much that he moved to Madisonville in 1812, the year after the town was named after President Madison.

Morgan is also known as Gen. Andrew Jackson's second in command at the Battle of New Orleans. In December of 1814, Gen. Jackson came through Covington and on to Madisonville on his way to the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson spent the night at Morgan's house. So the next day, they ventured forth to New Orleans via a boat across Lake Pontchartrain, passing by the Madisonville riverfront in full view of the spot where the Madisonville library would one day be built.

Jackson's victory in New Orleans made him a national hero, and thirteen years later, in 1828, he was elected President of the United States.

President Andrew Jackson

One of the first things Jackson did after the battle, however, was to petition Congress for improvements to the road he took from Tennessee through Mississippi and Louisiana. That road, called Military Road, became an important mail route and highway for commerce. 

A historical marker in Columbus, Mississippi, through which Jackson's "Military Road" passes

Military Road enters St. Tammany Parish near Enon, merges with the current La. Hwy. 21, and continues through Covington down to Madisonville.

On July 8, 1820, General Jackson reported to Washington that the (Military) road had finally been completed. It covered 483 miles from Madisonville to Nashville, allowing mail to be delivered from Washington to New Orleans in a mere 17 days.”

Powell Casey

Persons in Madisonville would have rejoiced at the improvements to the Military Road, making the trip to Covington much easier. From Madisonville there was also a branch of the road that went to Baton Rouge.

Three Major Highways and One Major Waterway

So anyone standing on the second floor of the Madisonville library has a great view of not only the major waterway, the Tchefuncte River and its associated commercial trade, but also the comings and goings of the three major highways that form a crossroads in Madisonville. 

Early documents spell Tchefuncte in various ways on their maps: 

Kefuncte ( d’Anville, 1732),Quefoncte (Dupratz, 1758),Kefonte (Bellin, 1763),Chefuncto (Romans, 1776),Chifoncta (Gould, 1778),Tchefuncta (from a 1887 brochure describing Covington as well as the newly-named Tchefuncta Country Club Estates, 1956)

The town offered a great place to dock from which all kinds of ships headed back and forth across the lake to New Orleans, and everyone who came here wanted a land grant along the river.

The Mail Must Go Through

 The roadways were important for one simple reason: the mail must go through. In her series of history articles published in the mid-1970's, Polly Morris told the story of the Post Oak. "Legend has it that there was an old oak tree ( at Madisonville) that had a generous hole in its ancient trunk. Letters were deposited in the natural post office for pickup, and it was said to be the oldest post office of sorts in St. Tammany Parish," she wrote. 

Although Spain protested American acquisition of Louisiana, Spanish governors had permitted American mail-riders to go to New Orleans via Baton Rouge or via Madisonville and across Lake Pontchartrain, said Powell Casey in his history of Military Road.

The mail was even important in the founding of Covington. A government mail contract was given to Capt. William Wharton Collins that was said to be generous in its time (1812). He would receive $900 per year for taking the U.S. Mail from Madisonville across the lake to the Old Spanish Fort in his packet boat which made regular trips anyhow. It was a short haul for good money. He told his brother John Wharton Collins about the area and the rest is history.

A mail packet boat would have made the frequent trips between Madisonville and New Orleans, bringing mail from all points east across the lake to the Crescent City. This would have been visible from the second story of the library branch for sure.

The Beginning of Texas Colonization

 What does the town of Madisonville have to do with the first colonies of American settlers in Texas? Plenty, actually. Joseph Hawkins died on October 1, 1823. He is buried in the Madisonville Cemetery. Who was Joseph Hawkins? He was a friend and business partner of Stephen F. Austin , the "father" of Texas.

The grave of Joseph Hawkins was recently found in the Madisonville Cemetery. 

In 1821 Joseph Hawkins of Madisonville and Stephen F. Austin signed a contract agreement to become partners in establishing the first Anglo-Colony in Texas. Together they began promoting the movement of American settlers into the newly-opened area.     

According to research by Donald R. Sharp, Hawkins invested several thousand dollars of his own money to finance the first settlement for the influx of colonists into Texas, and when he ran out of that money, he started investing money belonging to other people.    

Hawkins and several other Madisonville area residents were thus instrumental in promoting the beginning of settlements in Texas.    

In 1821, Mexico had pushed Spain out of Texas, but the area did not remain a Mexican possession for long. Texas  became its own country, called the Republic of Texas, from 1836 until it agreed to join the United States on December 29, 1845.

So around 1820-1821, it was likely that, from the point of view of the Madisonville library, you could have looked towards the riverfront and observed Hawkins and Austin walking alongside the water, discussing their plans for promoting and building a new area for settlement in Texas.

The ancient road from Natchitoches to San Augustine, Texas, called by the Spanish The King's Highway, played an important part in the movement of colonists. The need for a ferry across the Sabine River at the Texas border became more important, and the man who provided that ferry was named James Gaines. The ferry crossing became known as Gaines Crossing. James Gaines had been sheriff of St. Tammany Parish between 1812 and 1813.

The Nautical Graveyard

The bottom of the Tchefuncte River is a naval graveyard. Dozens of sunken boats have been found along the banks, and the search continues for more. Some have significant historical ties.

Here's a newspaper article from several years ago:

"North Wind Exposes War Relic

     COVINGTON — Strong north winds pushed the waters of the Bogue Falaya River into Lake Pontchartrain last week, and laid bare one of the curious remnants of St, Tammany's history  the hulk of a Civil War ship scuttled in an inlet across the river from Covington.     
     According to historian Frederick S. Ellis, the ribs-and timbers left exposed by receding waters were at one time the Carondelet. one of three Confederate gunboats sunk in the Bogue Falaya during the War Between the States.     
The story of the three gunboats started in late April of 1862, when Union Admiral David Farragut steamed his way into New Orleans, which surrendered without a fight.
      Three gunboats, the Carondelet, the Oregon, and the Bienville, were ail safely nestled in Bayou St. John during Farragut's trip up the Mississippi, and apparently did not see action during the fighting at Forts Jackson and St. Philip at English Turn, before the bloodless Yankee entry into New Orleans.
     During the Confederate evacuation of the city. Judge Ellis recounted, the officer in charge of the three gunboats was ordered to sail them to Mobile, where they could be put to use by the Rebels.
     Instead, Judge Ellis wrote, "he brought them to the Bogue Falaya River, where they were stripped of their armament and burned and sunk in the river."

The above article spells out just some of the Civil War activity on the Tcherfuncte River during the 1860's, with all of those boats passing by Madisonville on their way upriver.

There may even have been one submarine in that group, however. According to an article written by David Carambat in the early 1990's:

  The World’s First Submarine

     St. Tammany resident Horace Lawson Hunley designed and built the world’s first working submarine. He built three prototypes, and the name of the first one was the "Pioneer", at 30 ft long and built of 1/4" steel boiler plate.

     Its capsule-like construction for the crew of two or more who would hand crank the vessel under water, operated it with a complete set of diving planes, rudder and bilge pumps, was advanced technology for the time.

     “More importantly, it was built here in New Orleans by James R. McClintock and Baxter Watson, both marine engineers for Hunley in 1861. After a successful test of the submarine in Lake Pontchartrain, the Union came closing in on the Orleans region and the Confederates were fleeing to parts east of here like Mobile and Charleston.  

     In their effort to deprive the Union of commandeering any useful navel vessels, the confederates towed what they could with them and hauled any remaining boats, including (some say) the Pioneer, up the Tchefuncte and other rivers and bayous on the north shore where it is reported they were burned or sunk. Several  of these sunken vessels have been found. To date, the Pioneer remains hidden under probably no more than a few inches of mud and silt.”

That must have been interesting, standing on the riverbank in Madisonville and watching that odd-looking contraption being towed upriver. 

The Ferry Boats

 Probably the most active watercraft on the river was the ferry which carried horses, wagons, school children, big cars and little cars across the Tchefuncte at Madisonville. 

The Excursion Boats

No presentation about life in Madisonville in the vicinity of the new public library would be complete without mentioning the large number of passenger excursion boats that docked regularly at the riverfront in the early 20th century. These were the steamboats that crossed the lake daily with two or three trips on the weekend, for the purpose of bringing New Orleans fun seekers to the Northshore, particularly Mandeville, Madisonville and Covington (at Menetre Landing).

These were the excursion boats, the New Camelia, the Madisonville, the Susquehannah, plus plenty others. They came with bands on board for musical entertainment, and those bands disembarked with the passengers and began playing gigs on the northshore music hall circuit. It was an exciting time, New Orleans residents flooding into Madisonville, Mandeville, Abita Springs, and Covington for a weekend, and often a summer, of relaxed living, cool breezes, and fun events.


Madisonville has a long legacy of shipbuilding, and the site of the new public library is right on top of the old Jahncke Shipyards, a premiere participant in supplying ships for both wartime needs and the merchant trade. 


The above shot is pretty much where the new library is today.

 It was always a grand celebration when newly-built ships were launched. There would be bands playing, dignitaries giving speeches, the young daughter of some prominent figure smashing a bottle of champagne against the bow of the ship.

 The ship-launching scale model pictured above was built by Lowell Ford and is on display at the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum across the street from the new public library branch.

To launch the ship, the chocks would be pulled out from the sides, the ship would begin to slowly slide down the shipways into the river, creating giant waves. In this current aerial photo (below) of the area, the library is at the middle top, and the "turning basin" on the other side of the Tchefuncte River is on the directly opposite side. Upon being launched ships would slide backwards into the river into the turning basin, which is now Marina del Ray. 

 As it entered the river stern first, the cheers would go up.

The hundreds of shipyard workers who worked on the ship would cheer, and then, when it was all over, they would begin to wonder if they still had a job. Hopefully a new contract order would be coming in soon for another ship that would need their skills and expertise.

And the site of the new public library is right there in the middle of where it all was.

The view from the library location in January of 1920 was distressing, however, the day the former excursion boat New Camelia sank in the Tchefuncte River. She had finished out her glory days of daily runs back and forth across the lake, and instead was docked at the south end of the Jahncke Shipyards being used as a boarding house for shipyard workers. One day she quietly descended beneath the waves to the bottom of the river.


The Glory Days...


The New Camelia's final resting place, right off the river bank near where the new library branch was recently built.

And that ends our across the years journey visiting many of the interesting people and events that took place in the vicinity of the new public library branch. Time to "power down" the time machine and get back to today's Madisonville. Is Morton's open yet? No? Well, crank up the machine and we'll get there just in time.

To save a PDF file of this article 
to your computer, CLICK HERE.