Published – GulfLatitudes.com
©2013 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert
“Gentlemen, this will be the last time we will be together, for tonight I will drown.” Fisherman Andre Gilbeaux, uttered these words as he raised a glass to toast friends and family as the first squalls of a Category 4 hurricane walked over the Louisiana barrier island of Cheniere. By the next morning of October 2, 1893, Gilbeaux had in fact drowned along with his family and approximately 2,000 other individuals in southeast Louisiana – his brother-in-law survived to recount his premonition. Lost in the legacy of this storm made famous by Kate Chopin’s stories including, The Awakening, is the destruction and loss of life to many vessels and their crews plying the waters of Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne, the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1893, most vessels were still powered by sail on the Gulf Coast with the majority fishing the waters and bayous or transporting cargo to the markets in New Orleans. On the morning before the hurricane made landfall, the double-masted schooner Alice McGuiggin, owned by the Poitevent & Favre Lumber Company and under the helm of Captain William Delavier and his five man crew, prepared to sail from Pearlington, Mississippi. Carrying a cargo of lumber and oblivious to the monster storm that had battered Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula three days earlier and now churning towards them in the Gulf of Mexico, the Alice McGuiggin cast off and made her way into Lake Borgne in the light air of the morning.
First-hand accounts from that early Sunday morning describe the weather as still and quiet with a light breeze and glassy waters for much of Southeastern Louisiana. Reports from the schooner, Two Brothers, under the command of Captain Worley confirms slow headway through Lake Borgne towards the Rigolets Pass that leads into Lake Pontchartrain. Over 50 miles away to the southwest and only miles from the storm’s eventual landfall, the small steamer Joe Webre was tied up at the wharf on Grand Isle with Captain McSweeney and his crew of six onboard. Normally transiting vacationers and beachgoers from New Orleans to the Cheniere and Grand Isle hotels, October was the start of the slow season on the islands and the Joe Webre was quiet with her crew relaxing on this Sunday.
With a hurricane making landfall in Louisiana from the southwest, the first winds and squalls would push in and stream from the east or southeast with the storm’s counter-clockwise rotation. This has the effect of pushing water directly and rapidly into the marshes, bays and lakes that open onto the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. Tides had been running slightly above normal the previous day, but “unusual tides” were reported and documented by the watchman at the maritime quarantine station in the Rigolets by the late morning on Sunday. Not long after, dark clouds filled the sky to the south and the residents of the Louisiana coast quickly realized that this was not simply a nasty squall line – it bore the telltales of a massive hurricane.
In our modern age, it’s easy to forget that there were no advanced means of predicting a storm or its path in 1893, let alone distribute warnings to the coast or vessels offshore. There was no “cone of uncertainty” issued to coastal residents for days beforehand. If you were in the storm’s track, there was no evacuating or changing course to escape the black weather’s grasp. Instead of days to prepare, residents and mariners had mere hours, and for some – less than that.
Rose C. Falls perhaps described it best in her accounting of the approach of the storm in her book Cheniere Caminada: The Wind of Death, “Sunday the rain had been coming down, with now and then a temporary cessation for a few moments; but the falling rain did not seem to lighten the burden of the clouds which hung low above the city as the day drew to a close, and as the darkness of night began to steal through the gray of the weeping day, the wind came moaning down across the waters of Pontchartrain, driving before it a great window of inky clouds across a background of solid lead color, a phenomenon which boded no good for those caught in the track of the storm of which it was the forerunner and prophet.”
Pere (Father) Grimaux, the Roman Catholic priest who ministered to Cheniere and was one of the few survivors, described that afternoon under the bullseye of a major hurricane. The height of the waters mentioned by him would have easily overwhelmed the barrier islands that at best, rise only a few feet above sea-level, “Everyone apprehended that something terrible was about to happen. The fishermen foreseeing that a serious storm was evident, hastened to beach their craft near their houses. But those precautions availed not, for the wind blew in fitful gusts, increasing in strength and velocity every minute, coming from the south. At 7:30 pm huge waves were madly lashing the shore, and in a few minutes they had attained a height of six feet, and soon after eight feet.”
As the wind grew through the rapid succession of squalls blasting onto Cheniere and her neighbor, Grand Isle, the crew on the steamer Joe Webre, frantically secured their vessel to pilings with extra lines and eventually 8.25″ cables. As the height of the most devastating northeastern quadrant of the storm came ashore, Captain McSweeney powered up the vessel’s boiler and while still secured at the wharf, ran his boat at full steam into the wind in an attempt to relieve the growing strain on the lines and cables.
The crew of the Alice McGuiggin with her load of lumber heading to New Orleans had made good time in the building wind of the afternoon and should have nearly cleared the Rigolets and entered Lake Pontchartrain. However by dusk, Captain Devalier and his crew did not make it through and were eventually forced back down the pass towards Lake Borgne. It is likely that during the day, the crews of the schooner Alice McGuiggan and Two Brothers spotted each other as they sailed up the Rigolets. It is unclear what occurred, but it seems possible both vessels may have tried to anchor in a lee shore and ride the storm out in the narrow pass. However, it is known that both crews were in the same predicament in the narrow Rigolets – and that they would meet very different fates.
A scarce few miles can make the difference between life and death with the thick, ranging marsh of southern Louisiana acting as a sponge that sucks the energy out of a hurricane, but the towns on the sandy barrier islands have no such protection. By nightfall on Cheniere and Grand Isle, the small fishing villages were consumed by the watery chaos of the Gulf of Mexico. Entire families were fighting for their survival – and losing. Raised houses, thought to be shelter, were now washing off their foundations and breaking apart in the heavy surf and estimated 15′ surge. In the black of the night, there was no light save for periodic homes engulfed in fire from broken oil lanterns, crashing about like strange bonfires before they sank into the waves. Harrowing screams seemed to come from everywhere, even above the storm’s din. Witnessing all of this, the crew of the steamer Joe Webre was frantic and fighting to keep the vessel secured to the pilings, afraid to be loosed into the sea. They described great frothy wave crests with steep dark troughs between that were alive and sparking with intense bioluminescence, as if each time the boat crested, they were about to “plunge into an abyss of fire.”
As the coast was ravaged and drowned and the hurricane slowly moved inland, the more protected city of New Orleans and her nearby inland lakes and passes began to feel the real force of the storm. Fishing camps and clubs along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Catherine started to succumb, many with New Orleans businessmen trapped inside – unable to evacuate in their sailing dinghies after their fateful weekend away from work. The lakeshore resorts of New Orleans – West End, Spanish Fort, Milneburg and Little Woods – were quickly inundated with boathouses, piers, camps and summer homes lost. Schooners and dinghies at West End were foundering or smashing into splinters on pilings while the Southern Yacht Club lost everything but the clubhouse.
In the Rigolets, the schooner Two Brothers, was unmanageable and had no steerage and was now at the mercy of the winds and currents. Water still poured into the lakes and marshes, and she was carried to the west, deep into Lake Catherine and eventually over miles of marsh before slamming into the railroad bridge. Badly damaged and sinking and having lost three crewmembers overboard, the remaining sailors climbed to the higher ground of the railroad tracks and rode the storm out.
Hurricanes are unique in their destructive abilities – they linger – and apply their destruction over massive swaths of geography. Using both wind and water, these storms move depending on their steering currents and the effects can easily last for over 24 hours. By contrast, tornadoes are rapid events that leave horrific destruction in a very small footprint – hurricanes spit off tornadoes from their squalls like an afterthought. The crew of the Joe Webre on Grand Isle was battling all of these elements and about to endure the eyewall.
The few survivors from Cheniere and Grand Isle all described a massive tidal wave that struck before the relative and brief calm of the hurricane’s eye. This is likely the same wave which broke the cables and ripped the Joe Webre free from her moorings and loosed her to the whims of the hurricane. The ship’s engineer, George Rolf, Jr. described this moment to New Orleans journalists, “The hogchain parted speedily under the strain, and then we took refuge beside the ice box. A wave swept the deck and soon carried the latter protection from us. The wind then suddenly calmed, and we took shelter in the pilot house.”
Free now to the whims of the storm, the Joe Webre was pushed north into Barataria Bay and the boat started disintegrating as it was lashed by floating debris from homes, boats, cattle and everything else that makes up a town. In a momentary lull in the howling wind, the crew recounted hearing cries from people drowning in the stormy, dark flotsam. Completely unable to deliver aid, all they could do was fight for their own survival and hold on.
In the brief lull, Captain McSweeney understood that the Joe Webre was foundering and he ordered all aboard into a dinghy. The eye of the hurricane was passing over them, and this was likely their only chance. As the first breeze brushed their wet faces from the northwest, the storm roared back. Moments later they watched the pilothouse explode in a terrific wind gust, the Joe Webre then foundered and slipped beneath the waves.
The wind direction now changed with the passing of the eye. Water that had been pushed over the islands and into the marsh, now suddenly forced its way back towards the Gulf of Mexico – carrying along with it everything that floated. As their dinghy passed back over the island, the crew paddled towards the upper tiers of an oak tree that rose above the water and grabbed onto it. One by one, they climbed into the canopy, but the ship’s chambermaid was a 300lb black woman and as the dinghy sunk the men ran lines under her arms and used shear force to pull her up into the boughs. Together they survived, hunkered up in the giant oak tree and could only wait for the storm to run its course.
The storm and floodwaters eventually receded and left behind a level of devastation and loss of life that in its pure terror, surpasses any natural calamity for the United States – including Hurricane Katrina. For days afterwards, survivors pulled their rotting family members from the marsh and beach surf. Without water or food, nearing exhaustion and emotional collapse, these lonely few were forced by necessity to dig mass graves and eventually funeral pyres out of lumber washing ashore.
The first relief boats arrived on the third day and were mostly luggers and schooners whose homeports were Cheniere and Grand Isle. Having sailed days before the storm to New Orleans, they were now packed with ice and supplies from the city – clueless as to what they were about to experience. These sailors landed and found their homes and lives washed away, with only ragged neighbors sitting on the beach in the heat, withered and miserable. It was a rare occasion for these rescuers to find their wives or children. Out of a population of 1,471 on Cheniere – 779 were lost, many were never found.
For days afterwards, survivors were discovered washing up on shorelines all along the coast or making their way slowly through impenetrable swamps. One mother was spotted from a train as she waded through chest high water filled with storm-disturbed critters. She carried with her two children under her arms and a baby in swaddling clothes that she held by her teeth. Vessels and their crews consistently found others who had been less lucky, clasping doors and make shift rafts out at sea – having survived the storm only to then perish from a lack of water.
For Captain Delavier and his crew aboard the Alice McGuiggan, their harrowing tale of battling the storm will never be known. Nor would their bodies be recovered. The Alice McGuiggan was eventually discovered by a mail boat, mast-downward in Lake Borgne, only three miles from the pier she left in Pearlington that fateful morning – the storm had tried to pull her out to sea. All told, 17 other schooners and luggers went down on the Gulf Coast, with many never to be found.
The sad legacy of this storm is that the barrier island of Cheniere, with her graves and monuments to those lost, is nearly no more. As with all of the Louisiana coastline, barrier islands and marshes, it is rapidly eroding into the Gulf of Mexico and leaving millions of residents and towns, including New Orleans, as the new unprotected frontline for a hurricane’s wrath.