Bonnet Carre Spillway holds a hidden history
ST. CHARLES PARISH, La. (WVUE) - The 86-year-old Bonnet Carre Spillway’s state of the art design at its early 20th century opening stands the test of time.
A marvel of engineering, the Bonnet Carre Spillway sits about 30 miles north of the heart of New Orleans on the Mississippi River in St. Charles Parish.
“The land usage was good so from an engineering perspective, they could capture some portion of the river and then manage the spillway between here and Lake Pontchartrain,” says Army Corps of Engineers Archaeologist Jason Emery.
There are two crevasses of breaks in the levees near the area in the late 19th century.
A place in the winding path of the big muddy where nature was already trying to break free.
Many are familiar with the rushing waters protecting land downstream, but the land that we stand on right now holds a hidden history.
Even after those massive floods, Montz was a thriving community.
“A lot of the whole area was in use until it became a spillway,” says Emery.
The tract of land, now periodically flooded, once housed at least four plantations even after the Civil War. Many of the formerly enslaved still worked the land where they had been born, lived and died.
“The Roseland Plantation, The Pierre Rost Hermitage Plantation who toiled on this land and that’s how I came to the realization that my great, great grandfather was buried here,” says Chris Smothers, descendent and genealogist.
Smothers’ journey into his family history led him to the United States National Archives.
“I didn’t even know the records existed,” says Smothers.
Following the stories of his 86-year-old grandmother, he took a chance and discovered a treasure.
“John Brown was the father of Douglas Brown. He was born approximately 1835.”
He was a soldier in the United States colored troops fighting with the Union Army for the promise of freedom.
“Fortunately and courageously, my ancestor John Brown and many other relatives felt this was their opportunity to obtain liberty,” says Smothers.
These Civil War veterans’ stories were detailed in affidavits from the soldiers, their widows and friends in pursuit of their rightful military pensions.
“It’s very emotional,” says Smothers. “You can interpret the pain in their words. How they really, really suffered.”
The hundreds of pages of written accounts lead back to this land.
In a deposition from March 1903, Lydia Brown says:
“I am the widow of John Brown who served in the Union Army for about three years. The soldier and I were slaves of Pierre Rost and lived before the war at the Rost place. After the soldier was mustered, he came to the Rost Place again and we lived as husband and wife until he died.”
Pierre Rost consolidated the plantations in the area. Some land was eventually sold to the Kugler family.
On the National Register of Historic Places that name identifies one of the two known burial grounds marked only by a boundary of white metallic strips in the flood plain.
“The oral accounts tell us that there were markers in this area,” says Emery. “I don’t have a sense of the way they were, the way the markers were aligned.”
The other labeled Kenner after its last land owner.
“Here would be the burying ground here that would have been the enslaved community at the time. Starting with the antebellum period continuing through the life of the plantation” says Emery.
There are accounts of burials right up until the time the federal government started work on the Bonnet Carre Spillway in 1929.
“Not making any apologies for it. The world was a different place in 1929,” says Emery.
The living were displaced, but the graves remained.
Through the Bonnet Carre Spillway’s 1935 dedicated as the first flood control project completed in the post 1927 mission to tame the Mississippi River.
A carnival-like celebration with President Franklin Roosevelt visiting in 1937, the same year of the structure’s first opening likely spreading the first layer of alluvial soil that began the cemetery’s erasure from this landscape.
“Yeah, many years I spent trying to find the narrative you know trying to find answers for my grandmothers. They were really robbed of a lot. It’s kind of like, not only did it help me build a connection to them, but it really gave them closure for a lot of the injustices they witnessed in their youth,” says Smoothers.
“What we are doing now is protecting a preserving in place,” says Emery.
It’s part of Emery’s job to manage the effect of the United States Corps of Engineers Operations on cultural and historical resources in this region.
“We do monitoring of the cemeteries after operation to ensure that there is no conditions of damage,” says Emery.
In recent years, after the flood waters subside, a team of archaeologists and Corps personnel inspect these properties to make sure the water didn’t disturb the graves. But for 40 years, the sacred ground had not been treated as such.
“There was a 1975 discovery of human remains along this corridor,” says Emery.
Human bones, artifacts such as and Odd Fellows Society crest and a stone fragment that appears to be part of a military headstone of a U.S. colored troop veteran were unearthed in the eastern plot known as the Kenner Cemetery.
That lead to an extensive archaeological survey in 1986.
In 2012, the Army Corps of Engineers held public meetings contacting the descendants of what they believe to be anywhere from 150 to 300 people buried in the known areas.
“The 1975 human remains are scheduled for reinterment as we move towards a master plan and reinterpretation.” Emery.
“These are people’s ancestors whether they know it or not,” Smothers.
The Corps revealed a plan to create a space honoring the lives once lived here as part of a grand plan for the spillway. Nearly 10 years after that public input, the cemeteries are still not non-descript plots in a vast field and those disinterred remains, remain in storage.
“There needs to be an official landmark designating the sacredness of this area,” says Smothers.
“As far as that effort with the master planning, starting in 2010. So we’re 10 years down the road from that,” says Emery. “I think what I understand is there’s some legal challenges associated with out authority to be able to do some of the things we propose. But, honestly, I don’t know the answers to that. In the end, I think we can get back to you. I think and I support it.”
“There were lives here. People who sacrificed their lives here,” says Smothers.
The people buried in these now unmarked graves sacrificed their strength to produce the sugar that fueled this economy long before the oil.
“They have names and they should be honored as with any person of value.” Smothers.
They sacrificed years away from loved ones to fight with the Union Army in the Civil War.
“There should be a collective effort to try to honor them and recognize them,” says Smothers.
And now they sacrifice their final resting place to the swirling waters of the overflowing Mississippi River.
Last year’s 2020 Bonnet Carre Spillway opening marked the 15th in its existence.
In a follow-up as to why there’s been no movement on the 2012 plan for reinterment and redesignation of gravesites, an Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson said,
“The Bonnet Carre masterplan is a long-term guide for future management and advancement of the spillway’s recreational, natural and cultural resources. The currently proposed master plan includes new features that require additional authority and funding before it can be finalized for implementation.”
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