LAST ISLAND-AUGUST 10, 1856
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In the mid 19th Century many well-to-do residents of New Orleans and Acadiana discovered the barrier island known as Isle Derniere (Last Island) to be a welcomed retreat from the hot humid climate of many inland cities. Although

 

a small village inhabited year round by fisherman, many of Last Island’s cottages were erected by families of means who sought a summer of beach and social activities within a relatively short distance from their homes in places like New Iberia, Thibodaux, and New Orleans.

Wives and children would often spend the entire summer months enjoying the sunshine and surf the island had to offer. Many of these families brought along servants to tend to the cooking and laundry chores. Husbands would occasionally join their families by way of a steamship traveling a regular schedule to and from the Louisiana coast along the winding bayous and bays.

The Muggah family operated a small boarding house on Last Island. By reports the building only accommodated about 40 people. It was described as a simple two-story, wood framed structure with a large first-floor room used for gatherings and dances. The Muggah inn was the largest building on Last Island.

For many years it was rumored that an huge resort was located on the island; however the lithograph depicting such a building was only an architectural conception prepared under the direction of the owners of the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans. The owners were exploring the possibility of building this large hotel (known as the Tradewinds) on Last Island as it’s popularity as a summer retreat increased.

On the afternoon of August 8, 1856, visitors on the beaches noticed an increase in wave intensity as threatening storm clouds formed in the distance. No particular concern was made at the time as most felt the phenomenon as simply a summer storm. The following day the winds began to steadily increase as clouds darkened and children were instructed to stay out of the water.

The island’s population grew more concerned as hope for the arrival of the steamship, Star would be in time to rescue them from the impending disaster. By mid day on the 10th, intense wind-driven rains came down as families huddled inside their cottages to brace for the storm. As the afternoon passed the skies turned black and a 12-foot storm surge began to overtake the island and its inhabitants. There were no masonry buildings and one by one, every building either collapsed or was carried away by the torrid Gulf waters.

Over 200 people (about one half of the island‚Äôs occupants) perished. Those that survived told stories printed in local newspapers of the horrible calamity as people clung to anything that floated. Families were separated and many parents witnessed their children disappear beneath the waves one by one. One such account of a father huddling in prayer with his wife, 5 children, and servant inside their home as the wind howled and roof lifted. The father went out onto the small porch to check on the storm as its roof collapsed injuring his leg. He crawled inside to rejoin his loved ones and soon the building gave way as the entire family was thrown into the raging waters. He witnessed the servant holding his youngest child afloat as they both went under. As the father swam about, he managed to cling to a piece of floating debris; ironically he was the only member of the family to survive. He was found barely alive in the marsh south of Terrebonne Parish‚ÄĒ some 9 miles inland.

The hurricane lasted for over 12 hours and the morning following the hurricane, the sky welcomed a beautiful day with gentle breezes; however, the destruction quickly became apparent as ravaged buildings and lifeless bodies were found everywhere. There was no food or fresh water to be found and when the survivors saw the Star approaching in the distance, a great relief was felt. The captain of the steamship had removed the superstructure of the boat in order to remain upright as the ship had been caught in the hurricane as well. Many were treated by a physician on board the steamship and within two days, the Star returned to the mainland where survivors related the stories of their terrible ordeal to their families and friends. Most citizens living along the coast knew of at least one family tragically affected by this terrible hurricane.

Through modern meteorological analysis, it is believed the 1856 hurricane would have been a Category 4. Winds on the island were sustained at over 125 miles per hour; and even with today’s modern structures, that intensity would have caused significant amount of destruction.

There have been several books written which have related the stories of survivors of this massive hurricane. Lafcadio Hearn authored a book with Delia LaBarre and Jefferson Humphries called Chitain 1898. Although a fictional story, it is based on the terrible storm of 1856.

Another very notable book written in 1997 by James Sothern is Last Island. Mr. Sothern, a Houma native, has provided an outstanding factual account through research from area newspapers and personal accounts by the survivors of the storm. His book dispels many of the beliefs of theTradewinds resort on Last Island in 1856 and the thousands of people rumored to have perished. I highly recommend this book for Sothern’s detailed research and stories of eyewitness survivors.