The last gap in the Old Spanish Trail
It was big and long-anticipated news when the papers proclaimed in the middle of March 1931 that a newly paved section of the Old Spanish Trail had been opened near Jennings, and that paving work was all but complete from the Atchafalaya to the Sabine.
The road, so named because it connected the old Spanish towns of St. Augustine, Florida, and San Diego, California, ran through Morgan City, Franklin, Jeanerette, New Iberia, Lafayette, Scott, Rayne, Crowley, Jennings, Welsh, Lake Charles, Sulphur, and Vinton, before crossing into Texas at Orange.
It was mostly gravel when it opened in Louisiana in 1929, but that was the year Huey Long began a massive road program. Parts of it had already been paved when, early in 1931, O. K. Allen, chairman of the state highway commission (and later governor), announced that every mile of it would be paved in Louisiana.
On March 12, 1931, F. L. Brownell, the engineer in charge of paving in south Louisiana, reported that the only detour between Morgan City and the Sabine was “over a good gravel road” between Rayne and Crowley. That last section was about to be paved, the engineer said, despite some question about just where the road would run. That important decision, believe it or not, had as much to do with politics as with engineering.
As the Rayne newspaper pointed out, “The Old Spanish Trail [was] one of the most important trans-continental routes in America and when the paving is completed in Louisiana and the route is thrown open to through traffic there will be between two and three thousand cars daily passing over it.”
Everybody wanted that traffic to pass in front of their business, something that Huey Long understood thoroughly. That’s why, some say, the road ran perfectly straight between towns but took all sorts of twists and turns inside some town limits.
There is no actual record of it as far as I know, but there is an entirely believable story that Huey set the route in most towns, making sure that the paved road and its important traffic went past the businesses of his friends (or bypassed those of his foes). That would explain otherwise inexplicable zigs and zags in the old road in several towns — and why some towns were bypassed altogether.
That was the fear in Rayne in 1931, when the newspaper reported, “With several out-of-town politicians using every effort to have the O.S.T. paving go south of town, it is now up to the people of Rayne to get busy and raise the money to carry the fight into the courts if necessary.”
The Crowley paper added, “Present information says the highway is going to miss Rayne or at least miss the business district of Rayne. It is supposed to pass south of the city. … Rayne is going to fight and Rayne citizens are going to do everything possible even to taking the matter to court. … They are fighting for what is justly theirs and for what they were promised.”
It didn’t come to a court fight. The announcement was made at the end of March: “The route of the highway between Crowley and Duson has been definitely settled and … it will run through the business section of Rayne.” It was to be built on the south side of the railroad track from Duson to Rayne, then turn south on Main Street “at the Farmer’s café corner,” pass through Rayne’s business district, then turn west toward Crowley.
The usual weather delays slowed the work, but in early 1932 the last piece of the Old Spanish Trail in south Louisiana was completed.
“Within a very few weeks there will be but one stretch of road on the Old Spanish Trail between the Mississippi and Texas borders left unpaved,” the Rayne newspaper complained in April 1932, a year after the “final” work began, “That will be a stretch … between Rayne and Crowley where some one once had visions of a massive concrete … overpass [over the Southern Pacific railroad track]. When the paving on the road was laid that stretch, some half a mile in length, was left untouched, the overpass to be constructed later. … Now that the bottom has dropped out of the state’s financial bucket, any chance there might have been of building [the overpass] has vanished.”
Ironically, the Great Depression that caused the loss of state funds also was responsible for the money to eventually build the overpass. In 1936, the federal Works Progress Administration put up the needed $120,558. The overpass “reported to be one of the finest in the state” and “completely modern in design” was opened just in time for the Fourth of July celebration in 1936.
The 1,825.64 feet of Portland Cement pavement gave “a wide and beautiful sweep to the overpass,” a lovely view of the surrounding countryside, and, finally, closed the state’s last unpaved gap in one of its most important highways.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.