The Overflow of 1874

*Written for Louisiana Road Trips Magazine in 2009:

            No one can deny that Northeast Louisiana (and many other places in the state) has had way too much rain here lately.  For many, the high water brought back images of the 1991 and 1973 floods.  My parents have told me many times of the water coming up to the steps of our home on Oregon Trail but never getting in during the 1973 flood.  I was a baby and they had to take us out of our home in a boat.  The memory of the floods of 1932 and 1927 can still make many seniors shudder with horror.  There was one flood though, that was just as destructive in the area as the 1927 one which has been lost to memory.  That was the flood of 1874.

             The fall and winter of 1873 were unusually dry in the Ouachita Valley.  By February of 1874, the cisterns were going dry.  Then in March, the rains finally came.  They didn’t stop.  The river began to rise and with the heavy rains that kept coming, the levees began to fail.  Morrison’s levee, six miles below town was the first.  When it collapsed, many sharecroppers’ homes were swept away in the flood.  The description brings to mind the Ninth Ward levee failures after Hurricane Katrina.  The levee collapse did relieve pressure on the town of Monroe.  Men desperately tried to maintain the Upper Pargoud levee north of town, but the water was coming in faster than the men could fill sandbags.  In early April, the Pargoud levee began to be overtopped.  As the water began to pour over the levee, it ran into Young’s Bayou and then filled it up all the way to Bayou Lafourche.  Lafourche water then met the water from the Mississippi overflow.  Within just a few days, the Pargoud levee collapsed, and the water had reached as far as the Monroe City Cemetery on DeSiard.  Refugees who had lost everything streamed in from all areas of the parish and began to overcrowd the little town.  The local newspaper estimated there were over a thousand people in the city that had been displaced by the flood waters.  Monroe became an island of refuge two and a half miles long by half a mile wide. 

Newspaper reporters described the flood water destruction.  At the flood’s highest point, Monroe City Cemetery was submerged under three feet of water.  Pargoud’s plantation had two feet of water.  On Bristle Ridge only a few little knolls were out.  People wanting to come from “Island DeSiard” (modern day Sterlington area) had to take a boat to town.  Trenton, which normally was fifty feet above low-water mark, now had eight inches to as much as eight feet of water.  Trenton had just rebuilt after a devastating fire the year before and now they faced a second rebuild in less than a year.  To the north at Island DeSiard, Loch Lomond plantation was entirely submerged.  Ouachita City was submerged so badly that a steamboat could not make a landing.  Further south of Ouachita Parish, it was reported that the towns of Columbia, Harrisonburg and Trinity were entirely underwater.

            The newspapers in Monroe reported on one death due to the flood.  On April 10th, the following item was reported:  “Mr. Riley, a very worthy laborer and ditcher, was drowned in crossing Bayou DeSiard in a dug-out last week.  He is the third brother who has been drowned, we learn, in a few months.”  There were probably many more deaths that went unreported.

            By the summer of that year, the flood waters had receded.  Communities in North Louisiana began to rebuild and the recovery began.  Other items dominated the news, such as Col. Isaiah Garrett’s death and two men lynched for murder in Shreveport.  The memories of the 1874 flood though, never faded from the minds of those who lived through its horrors. 

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