We've seen the devastating effects of recent hurricanes on our barrier islands. But one of the first recorded tragedies occurred in the 1850s, when a monster hurricane pounded Last Island. The storm was so severe, it split the long sandy island in half, wiped out a summer resort, and created a few legends along the way.
In the 1850s a visitor called this pristine stretch of sand and surf the finest beach in the world. Isle Dernieres, or Last Island, located on the Gulf coast of Terrebonne Parish, had become a fashionable beach resort. Louisiana plantation owners and the well-to-do of New Orleans would summer here.
A woman wrote this letter in 1855 describing her first visit …."Here you can bathe, ride, walk and even dance if you like for there is good music here and balls twice a week."
In 1856 there were a few dozen buildings here on Last Island, including a couple of two story structures, a hotel, and then a dance hall or entertainment facility. And there were a number of small vacation cottages that lines the beachfront.
"The cottages were all along the beach, right along here," says James Sothern.
Sothern, a Houma historian and science teacher, wrote a book about Last Island. His illustrations show the resort village and the steamboats would ferry vacationers from a railroad station in Patterson out to this island resort.
"It was a real fun place until that tragedy in 1856," says Sothern.
One visitor wrote that on Saturday morning, dark clouds rolled in. The cattle walked nervously. On Sunday, rain poured in torrents. The wind became a furious tempest and the seas began to rise.
"But apparently they didn't know," says Sothern, "they were having a good time and this storm must have come rather suddenly."
A Presbyterial minister, Reverand R.S. McAllister, later wrote that he was in a home with a dozen people. The wind tore the roof off in a crash. Then all of the walls were ripped away. The pastor described the scene, with people "bending, cowering, at times prostrate on the floor. We gazed into each other's faces with looks of despair."
They moved through the stinging rain and sand to a children's carousel, and spent hours clinging to its wooden frame as waves swirled around them and they were battered by logs and debris.
"They were being blown round and round but they hung on and when the wind stopped they credited the merry-go-round with saving their lives," says Sothern.
As the low-lying dunes emerged from the storm surge, not a single structure, not even a foundation was left on Last Island. Reverend McAllister and the other survivors found a grim scene of bodies -- a husband and wife embracing in death. A silent child in the lifeless arms of its mother.
An estimated 320 people were killed on Last Island. The minister wrote that the sights "gave a shock never to be forgotten, and called up certain feelings which no language can describe."
But if the storm had struck a few years later, the disaster could have been even greater. There were ambitious plans for a grand "Trade Wind Hotel."
"On the day that the storm hit, August 10, 1856, there was a meeting in the St. Charles hotel of people who were going to put up the money to build this grand hotel," says Sothern. "All the drawings were made, and they voted to go ahead with it. But then the next day when they got the news, it was abandoned, it was a terrible disaster."
But many believed this hotel was actually built. On the storm's 100th anniversary, in 1956, an article in the Picayune told the story of Last Island's terrible hurricane, and reported that many people died.