The road that opened the last frontier
In early 1949 people were talking again about finally building a road to Pecan Island, the isolated chenier south of Abbeville, but nobody was taking bets that it would actually happen.
People had talked about a road through the marsh since the 1930s, when the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was looking for “make-work” projects for men who lost their jobs during the Depression. That road didn’t get built, nor had several other attempts fared any better, and a 2½ hour boat ride was still the only way to get to the place.
In March 1949 an unidentified writer for the Abbeville Meridional described the trip this way:
“From Abbeville [drive] out on the Perry Road, through the immaculate streets of that small community, past the Esther school and the Esther Catholic cemetery … and to Intracoastal City, where the Shell Morgan Steel Craft launch is waiting to take you to Pecan Island.
“Then into the Old Intracoastal canal, past abandoned trappers shacks … [and] a struggling oak repulsing the attacks of salt water … [passing] the Pecan Island mail boat returning to Abbeville with a few passengers and some produce … [and] through the waters of White Lake — and then you arrive at that part of Vermilion that is a land unto itself.”
About 500 people lived there then, fewer than only a decade before. The faint-hearted had moved “to the land of electrically lighted streets … of motion pictures and 5 &10c stores.” There were few, if any, electric lines or telephones on the island.
There was a road, but it ran on the island, not to it. It was seven miles long and stretched “from the West end of the Island down to where the Upper and Lower Ridges join,” then, according to the Meridional, it “forks and ventures on somewhat uncertain feet out into the marsh.”
But now there was talk of a “hug the coast highway” from Port Arthur to Abbeville that would link the people on the island with motion pictures, and medical facilities, and the entire outside world — if the money could be found.
In an editorial in April, the Meridional complained that “the people of Beaumont and Port Arthur have passed bond issues … for the paving of the proposed highway. … Cameron Parish, which is one of the most sparsely settled in the state, has also passed a bond issue. … But the people of Vermilion Parish, who would probably benefit more from the coastal highway than … either of the other areas, have not provided for their part.”
Vermilion finally promised to pay its share, but then the state dragged its feet.
In December, the Meridional reported that Gov. Earl Long and Highway Commissioner R. R. Richardson, had written to the Abbeville Chamber of Commerce “promising that some action would be taken on the project in the near future.”
“The near future” turned out to be not as near as some people thought.
There was an all-day barbecue on Pecan Island in May 1950 to celebrate signing of a -contract for “the Pecan Island road.” But the contract wasn’t for the paved hug-the-coast highway from Texas, only for a shell road inland through Forked Island to Kaplan. And that wouldn’t be built overnight.
Even so, practically everybody celebrated the contract, and celebrated again three years later when that strip of shell, in the words of a highway department release, opened “one of the last frontiers of Louisiana … to the traveling public.” The department promised then that the long-awaited paved road to Texas was coming “in the near future.”
Still, even a shell road was cause for celebration by all but a handful of curmudgeons. That handful didn’t mind a road that let people get from Pecan Island to the mainland; their problem was that it also made it easier for people from the mainland to get to Pecan Island.
One reason for that point of view was probably summed up in one line of the highway department story: “The 450 residents … [have not been] bothered by any established law or interference from outsiders.” The curmudgeons liked it that way.
The paved coastal highway was eventually completed, letting more outsiders in, disgruntling the disgruntled even more, but whetting the appetites of visionaries like Abbeville Mayor Jimmy Vorhoff. He wanted to link what is now Hwy. 82 to one running across coastal Texas and into Mexico.
He also wanted to build roads to other isolated spots within the parish. It had the ring of déjà vu when he predicted in 1975 that a road to Chenier au Tigre, deep in the marsh, was “possible within a year or a year and a half.”
Pecan Islanders with good memories nodded politely, but thought to themselves, “Yeah, right.”
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.