Heart of Louisiana: Hurricane of 1915

Updated: Oct. 27, 2016 at 7:45 PM CDT
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(WVUE) - If you've ever driven Interstate-55 between Laplace and Ponchatoula, you've probably noticed an exit for Ruddock. Today, its only a boat launch. But a century ago, it was a thriving railroad town until a hurricane washed away Ruddock and other small settlements near Lake Pontchartrain. Dave McNamara has the story of a teenage girl who recalls that devastating storm, in the Heart of Louisiana.

In the mid-1850s, the first rail line curved around the western shore of Lake Pontchartrain, traveling through swamp and deep cypress forests between Laplace and Ponchatoula.

That train also had stops at several small settlements along the route – Ruddock, a sawmill town with a population of up to 1,000, and further south – Napton and Frenier.

"That was the stove that was in the Frenier train station," said Wayne Norwood.

Norwood, a retired policeman and sheriff's deputy, has spent the past few decades digging into the history of those lost communities. He has collected thousands of bottles and everyday housewares and tools.

"These are grind stones and you sharpened the knives and axes," he said.

Many of the early settlers were German immigrants, like the family of Helen Schlosser Burg. The train was their link to the outside world – picking up orders and delivering groceries and supplies.

"There was a local train that come out every morning and go on back every evening," Burg said.

Burg was interviewed by Norwood in 1990. She recalls how life changed in a single day on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 1915. The first hint of disaster arrived the day before.

"The train passed on the railroad, and he threw a newspaper off and it was telling them about a hurricane that was going to come," Norwood said.

"Papa used to say, 'You know, I'm worried.' He said some storm like that might come here someday. And sure enough, the next day it came,"Burg said.

The hurricane slammed New Orleans, with winds near 100 mph. A deadly storm surge and waves pushed toward the western end of the lake.

"The rain was so strong, it was just like buckshot hitting you in the face. Them waves was almost hitting under the house when papa took us out," Burg said.

First, the family sought refuge in the school house. But the relentless winds and rising water were shaking the walls.

"Papa said, 'We better get out of here because we'll all get killed. Let's go in the boat and go in the swamp.' So that's what - we were sitting in the swamp, all of us kids were crying," Burg said.

Then they heard the engines whistle – families made their way to the train.

"They got in the train and started toward New Orleans, and when they got there by the spillway, the track had washed away and got covered with debris. So he starts backing up, like he's going toward Manchac, and the track was washed away there," Norwood said.

Survivors huddled in the train's caboose as the water rose inside.

"Praying, kneeling and praying," Burg said.

"You were kneeling down in the water in the train and praying?" Norwood asked.

"Yeah, in the caboose," Burg said.

The next morning, the settlements of Ruddock, Napton and Frenier were gone.

"There wasn't no house left," Burg said. "All washed away."

An estimated 28 people died in the area. Their bodies were found in the debris, the woods and swamp.

"They had a little floating outfit, and they put them on there and brought them up to the cemetery," burg said.

Home sites were abandoned. Communities vanished.

"That was dishware and stuff that was in the people's houses when the storm hit, and just to show you the devastation, that's what's left, it's just broken pieces," Norwood said.

Those fragments from the past are all that's left from communities that were changed forever in a single day a century ago. For more information, click here.

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