The Long One

A journey down La. 1 reveals the history and life’s blood of our state

By C. Richard Cotton

Curse it. Praise it.

La. 1 enters the state at Louisiana’s juncture with Texas and Arkansas, slices diagonally across the state from northwest to southeast and ends at the sandy shore of the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana’s premier byway is a lifeline for many state residents. It can be heaven when it provides an avenue of escape from a roiling hurricane and hell when it’s rainy and wet or jammed with slow-moving farm vehicles – or worse.

La. 1, White Castle, La.

Along the 469 miles of La. 1, known as Highway 1 to many in Louisiana, occasional roadside crosses adorned with faded plastic flowers mark the places where people have lost their lives. La. 1 takes, but it also gives.

“My third child was born on the Leeville bridge on La. 1,” said Thelma Kiger, the manager of the Grand Isle branch of the Jefferson Parish Library and the final person interviewed on this three-day La. 1 journey. Kiger was in labor the night of Labor Day in 1960, being raced by her mother to Lady of the Sea General Hospital in Galliano (her husband was working).\

They made it as far as the old bridge over Bayou Lafourche, which has since been replaced by a new, modern structure and moved to Port Fourchon. Afraid she’d be disappointed by yet another girl, the third, Kiger’s mother told her daughter she didn’t know the sex of the child “because it was too dark to see.” Kiger eventually carried four more children, not all girls, and none on La. 1. When she moved to Grand Isle in 1945, Kiger recalled, the highway was a shell road. Today, La. 1 is paved, a continuous ribbon of asphalt or concrete from Texas.

Out of Texas

Coming out of Texas seems the natural way to take La. 1. After all, it’s downhill from the sleepy community of Three States to the Gulf. A long, long, long downhill but downhill just the same. Heidi Tyson minds the State Line Liquor & Convenience store in tiny Three States. It’s the first store in Louisiana open for business on a Sunday morning. The sign on the gas pumps offers a gallon of regular for a few cents more than a dollar, a bargain anywhere along La. 1 today. “The signs are wrong. We don’t even have gas,” said Tyson. She’s never been to the end of the highway at the Gulf; in fact, she’s only been to South Louisiana “once or twice” and never to Baton Rouge or New Orleans.

Tyson shops sometimes in Shreveport, 40 miles to the south, but mainly in Atlanta, Texas, 25 miles to the north on Texas Highway 77, which is what La. 1 becomes several hundred feet from Tyson’s store. “Atlanta has a Wal-Mart. What more do you need?” Tyson asked. Arkansas lies a few feet from the rear door of the State Line store.

A U.S. Geological Survey stone 30 feet from the shoulder of the highway marks the three-state corner. Tyson said you can be in three states when you stand on the stone. She said people stop and do that. It’s not Four Corners, the famed juncture of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, but it’s a full three-quarters of what that distant point is. Just consider it Two Corners and a Side, get your picture taken and drive on a couple of miles to Three States Baptist Church.

The congregation led by the 73-year-old Rev. Alfred Lorick hails from all three states. Lorick doesn’t really make a distinction about where his flock lives; he’s worried about other things, like where they’re eventually going. “I’ve been at death’s door several times but I’m not afraid,” Lorick declared as the church members filed into the modest brick building. “There’s only two things you’ve got to do: die and meet the judgment of God.” Lorick, who claims to have survived a medical journal full of serious health problems, brags he once convinced an IRS agent that the traditional third “thing you must do,” pay taxes, is inconsequential and pales in comparison to the main two.

Dave Persons lives in nearby Smyrna, Texas, and attends the Three States church. He traveled La. 1 back and forth to Grand Isle for 10 years while he worked offshore. He doesn’t miss one foot of it. “It took me eight or nine hours,” said Persons. “That was after they opened Interstate 49 so before that it took an hour or two longer.”

Interstate 49 has quickened the trip from Shreveport to Alexandria but that stretch is only a small portion of La. 1. The first incorporated town along La. 1 is Rodessa, a small, former stop on the railroad track that parallels much of the road. Also along the road are numerous package stores, all of them advertising drive-through windows; drinkers are undoubtedly in a hurry in the Louisiana northwest.

Vivian is up next, with its rest area south of town that sports this sign: Do Not Put Dead Animals in Trash Cans. A casual observer is left wondering just how widespread the dead animal-disposal problem is. Anyone traveling La. 1, though, knows there’s no shortage of dead animals along the road and, if collected, they could fill quite a few trash cans in quite a few rest areas.

In Oil City, which is experiencing a bit of a boom with the renewed drilling activity around the town, the highway is flanked on both sides with oil field supply companies. Pumps resembling grasshoppers bob up and down in roadside meadows while drilling hands pack the busy Gusher Mart convenience store. Around shimmering Caddo Lake, oil money has built opulent homes that seem out of place in a region of modest frame dwellings. In this area, La. 1 carries a lot of vehicles with Texas and Arkansas license plates heading into and out of the largest city on the route.

It’s into Shreveport, a bustling city with a downtown of tall buildings and a six-lane main street that happens to be La. 1. It may surprise South Louisianians, but Shreveport is a large, vibrant city and it takes almost an hour to drive through it on La. 1, even on a Sunday afternoon.

Desolation Road

South of Shreveport, the highway becomes 50 miles of straight, flat two-lane track void of traffic. Thanks to nearby I-49, small communities like Caspiana, Abington, Grand Bayou, Armistead, Hanna, Lake End and Powhatan, now virtual ghost towns, exist only to service the cotton farms and pecan orchards. It wasn’t always like that, but routes change and La. 1 is no exception. In many Louisiana towns, La. 1 has been moved from its original routes through downtowns to bypasses on the outskirts.

Shreveport resident Glenn Sapp attended college, then called Northwestern State College, in Natchitoches during the 1960s, mostly without a car. When he traveled between the school and home, like many students, he hitchhiked on La. 1. “It was a bad road back then and even now,” Sapp said. “I hitchhiked it a jillion times. There used to be beer joints up and down through there.”

The importance of La. 1 as a traffic artery, in fact, no longer exists between Shreveport and Alexandria. The interstate rules. A few miles south of Natchitoches, the highway runs mostly within view of the interstate, like a wide frontage road reserved for local residents to access home and freeway. La. 1 enters Alexandria unceremoniously, amid empty shells of businesses that, like the road, are also no longer necessary to life and commerce. A twin-screen drive-in theater, most of the white tiles fallen from the skeleton-like screens, bears silent witness to the demise of an era of Americana roadway.

Through Alexandria, La. 1 is a confusing tangle of twists and turns, seemingly included in the city’s street rerouting plans as an afterthought, a forced inclusion of the past. Below Alexandria, however, La. 1 is paramount.

Cajuns And Indians

There’s no noticeable change in the highway when it enters Acadiana, the part of Louisiana where French-speaking people settled. The road is black asphalt, millions of tire-polished pebbles shining through. A yellow centerline and white lines near the edges of the pavement mark it just as they do way back up in Three States, Rodessa and Oil City.

But there is a change along the way: Gallic names like Charrier, Fontenot, Bourgeois begin showing up on mailboxes. From here to the Gulf of Mexico, the culture is noticeably different from North Louisiana. Catholic churches begin to outnumber Protestant and signs offer boudin and andouille.

“I always thought it was nice we were on La. 1, the main highway through Louisiana,” said Theresa Thevenote, director of the Avoyelles Parish Library in Marksville. “As a teen, I cruised it. They still do.” Friday and Saturday nights are “cruising” time on La. 1 in Marksville. From drive-in to drive-in and parking lot to parking lot, teen-age drivers continue the tradition begun decades ago when teens finally got cars. Thevenote said La. 1, called Tunica Drive in Marksville, provides virtually the only avenue to either Alexandria or Baton Rouge. She, like many Marksville residents, left on La. 1 for LSU and returned on La. 1 after completing their studies.

Bill Day, director of the Tunica-Biloxi Indian’s cultural and historic preservation office on the 450-acre reservation in Marksville, said La. 1 has a much longer history than what the white man has provided it. “All highways and byways around here were Indian trails. La. 1 bisects the old tribal lands,” Day explained. The old tribal lands resemble nothing from the past. Like many Indians around the United States, the Tunica-Biloxi (numbering about 60 on the reservation) opened a casino.

Sitting right on La. 1, the casino is the brightest, gaudiest structure along the 469 miles of highway. As an afterthought – or possibly an attempt at vindication for ostentatiousness – the very corner of the casino lot was outfitted with a bronze memorial to veterans of the U.S. armed forces. Gambling money has bought a fine museum back on the reservation. Fashioned after a Tunica-Biloxi mound and house, it’s Day’s headquarters and home to some of the Tunica Treasure.

An Angola State Penitentiary guard over a period of about 20 years robbed Indian graves of artifacts and even human remains. A federal court in 1989 forced him to return the articles to the tribe. “We don’t say his name in here,” Day said of the grave robber. He led some visitors through the exhibits and dioramas to a rectangular hole neatly chiseled in the concrete floor of the museum. It was draped with yellow tape so visitors won’t fall in. “We’ll bury the remains from the graves here,” Day said.

Community Pride

Everywhere along the roadway, hints of civic pride abound, whether it’s pointed requests to halt littering or simple welcome signs outside towns. Simmesport Mayor Craig Couvillon supervised the painting of a caboose by female inmates of the parish jail. The gleaming stainless-steel Kansas City Southern rail car along La. 1 will become the town’s new tourist information center. “La. 1 is the mainstream through this whole area,” Couvillon declared as he petted the head of his golden retriever and constant companion, Butch. The dog goes everywhere the mayor does, riding in the back of his truck through town.

Across the Atchafalaya River from Simmesport, Lettsworth is home to Roland Landry Sr. and his old grocery store. The building was constructed in 1945 or ’46, he can’t remember exactly when since he didn’t take it over until 1957. “La. 1 has made our living,” he said.

“It’s our bread and butter,” his son Roland Jr. chimed in. The younger Landry mostly crawfishes when he’s not helping out at the store. Most of the mounted buck heads in the store are ones he shot. The live deer in the pen outside, though, are the elder Landry’s. He’s been raising them for years and they’re a popular attraction, especially for deer hunters who might need a close look at the animal they probably won’t see in the wild.

On across the Morganza Spillway, La. 1 eventually comes to New Roads. It skirts the edge of False River and eventually teams up with U.S. 190, a vicious section of badly paved, chaotic highway. High flying Kenneth Brigman’s perspective of La. 1 is from 180 feet up and he’s not particularly concerned about the road. Brigman climbed onto an outrigger planted on the side of a West Baton Rouge Parish water tank and threaded cable down to the ground far below.

Brigman and his partner John Conley, both from Bastrop, were preparing to enclose the tank in a massive tarpaulin so it could be sandblasted and painted. The tarp prevents paint chips from polluting the environment They talk quickly, like there might not be enough time to get all their words out. There’s a nervous edge to their calmness; Brigman chain-smokes cigarettes. They are grateful the wind is slack and the temperature is warm. They’re not alone.

Baton Rouge looms on the horizon; the State Capitol, Exxon, downtown buildings, they’re all visible from the top of the tower. But La. 1 skirts past them, passing instead through Port Allen, alongside the Mississippi River. Then Plaquemine, White Castle and Donaldsonville, all towns that have seen more prosperous times — mostly before La. 1 was a major thoroughfare, back when the river ruled. During sugar cane harvest season, the roadside is strewn with cane debris fallen from wagons; smoke from burning cane fields sometimes blankets the highway in a gray, opaque shroud. In Donaldsonville, the road abruptly turns right –south — for its final leg to the Gulf of Mexico.

Longest Street in The World

Bayou Lafourche is the defining feature for most of the final 136 miles of La. 1. The waterway begins quietly at a pumping station on the Mississippi in Donaldsonville and grows until it’s a substantial flow into the Gulf at Port Fourchon. Marion Washington has been a school crossing guard in Napoleonville for the past 14 years. Her station is outside Napoleonville Middle School, in the middle of the highway a few feet from the bayou’s edge; she holds a stop sign that’s lost its handle. “It’s a busy place,” Washington said early in the morning as she waved through cane wagons, cars, trucks and students in an animated dance that makes the Macarena look easy.

“La. 1 is all they had and it was dirt and gravel,” remembered 78-year-old Leo Barrieaux, caretaker of the St. Philomena Catholic Church cemetery in Labadieville. “Everybody was on foot or horse and buggy. They paved it before the war then you’d see more cars, but it was no parade.” Nearby, funeral home employee Mark Morvant put the finishing touches on a new tomb.

“Eves’ is done,” he said of the deceased Eves Naquin’s headstone. Barrieaux remembered Naquin because he’d worked for him on Iron Grove Plantation “back of Thibodaux” in 1939. The caretaker seemed to miss those days. “It was the old times,” said Barrieaux. “You could sleep outside and nobody wouldn’t do you nothing.”

A few miles down the road in Thibodaux, David Usey was in attendance at the funeral of his uncle, dead at 62 of diabetes complications, at St. John Catholic Church. The 48-year-old plumber longed for old days, also. “Pinpoint this highway right through Lafourche Parish and ask why this is the highest cancer rate in the nation,” said Usey. He complained that water in Bayou Lafourche, used by many towns along La. 1 for municipal drinking water, is contaminated worse than ever before. Usey is part of an ever-growing, vocal populace that wants the land and water returned to its once pristine state. He said jobs provided by polluting industries aren’t worth the cancer deaths.

La. 1 is affectionately known as “The Longest Street in the World” along the bayou. It’s the main street for most communities along its length. Anthony Charpentier Shipyard in Larose sits right on the “Main Street.”

It’s owned by 41-year-old Anthony Charpentier, who claims his is the oldest shipyard along the bayou. “I’m the fourth generation. We’ve been here 85 years,” said Charpentier. He rattled off a quick family history that included a synopsis of his great-grandfather’s founding of the boat repair business and how his forefather’s mules dragged the shrimp boats out of the water and up onto the drydock. Charpentier also told how his father and several uncles all died within a short period of time a few years ago; the losses obviously still occupied his thoughts. “When it’s your time, it’s your time,” Charpentier said. “Death has no mercy. It’s part of life.”

Joe Callais has been cutting hair at his barbershop for the past 48 1/2 years. As he trims Joseph M. Rome’s or Buzz Evans’s or Sewell Dufrene’s hair, he can watch cars on La. 1 and boats on Bayou Lafourche out his shop’s large front windows. Callais said La. 1 was paved in 1938. Dufrene, 86, said he saw his first car, a Chevrolet, on La. 1 when he was a young boy. “We might not have the best road but, the farther down you go, the better people you got,” joked Rome, who’s had Callais cut his hair “since he started cutting hair.” Rome is almost completely bald but doesn’t attribute the baldness to his barber’s technique.

Road’s End

Outside Golden Meadow, infamous along La. 1 for its often-cursed “speed trap” (Rome claims it’s not a speed trap because it’s well-marked and “everybody in the world knows about it”), the road is fast and straight. It’s the final sprint to a finish line marked by sand and seagulls. Grand Isle, the southern terminus of La. 1, was known at the turn of the century as Last Isle. Main Street on Grand Isle is, like so many towns before it, La. 1. Unlike towns before it, though, Grand Isle has stacked large granite boulders (imported from Kentucky) in front of its new community center and named the rocks for past and present Louisiana governors. There’s the Buddy Roemer rock and the Mike Foster rock. And, of course, don’t forget the Edwin Edwards rock, complete with a Mount Rushmore-like profile of Edwards chiseled into one edge.

Slightly more than a mile away, La. 1 ends (and begins) in the parking lot of a marina. No fanfare, no hoopla. There’s not even a plaque like the ones along the past 469 miles that marked everything from the birthplace of blues legend Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter near Caddo Lake to countless Civil War skirmishes.

Mary Collins, an employee of Lefort Furniture Co. in Cut Off said she “travelled all the way to Shreveport on La. 1 almost 30 years ago,” in 1968. “I wanted to see the state – and it was fantastic.”

She’s right. Gaze out at the Gulf of Mexico. Think about three days on La. 1, passing the hundreds of green and white signs emblazoned with the number “1” and the word SOUTH.

Curse it. Praise it. Then turn the car around and head north, back the way you came.

 January 12, 1997 
 Publication: The Advocate (Baton Rouge, La.) 
 Page: 17-Mag 
 Word Count: 3247 
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