History Lesson at Port Hudson

History Lesson at Port Hudson

On previous trips to St. Francisville, we always head straight for the historic town, walking the shaded main streets and shopping at Grandmother’s Buttons before setting off to tour a nearby plantation. Although we see the sign for Port Hudson State Historic Site as we pass, we never stop, always having a slight aversion to taking toddlers to a battle site. On our most recent trip, though, we had a change of heart and decided it was finally time for us to veer off the road and check it out.

Port Hudson State Historic Site

As is most often the case, we were pleasantly surprised by our decision. A model state facility, Port Hudson was immaculately kept up, with 6 miles of wipe-open trails for exploring and a child-friendly ranger who welcomed the kids and their insanity with open arms. An informative exhibit inside the museum offered miniature models of soldiers and horses that captured the kids’ imaginations, while the sad details of the actual battle were left to those old enough to read.

Golden-silk spider

The longest siege in American military history took place at Port Hudson, where for 48 days 6,800 Confederate soldiers held off 30,000 Union troops. There were thousands of casualties before the Confederates finally surrendered after hearing that Vicksburg had surrendered. The site is also important as being the first battle in which African American troops from Louisiana were allowed to participate in the battle, fighting for the Union army against the Confederates. Port Hudson later became a recruiting center for African-American troops.

After brushing up on our history and watching the ranger let the kids try on a canteen and practice moving a small cannon, we began our journey on the trails outside. It first led us through an open field to original cannons used in the Civil War battle here. Then, looping around, it immersed us into a shady forest with giant spiders weaving webs right over our heads and small bluffs offering elevation changes not often seen in Louisiana.

Fort Babcock

At Fort Desperate, an elevated boardwalk led us over the earthen hills built by the soldiers, and signs spoke of sharpshooters watching Union soldiers as they dug trenches to get closer to their enemy. We then crossed Foster Creek and found Fort Babcock, another series of earthen hills left behind to nature and the tiny frogs and lizards jumping and scurrying about through the fallen leaves. While the kids tested their bug-catching skills, we tried to imagine thousands of young soldiers hiding here in these woods 150 years ago.

Train car on display in town

The day was still early when we left Port Hudson, so we headed toward St. Francisville to pick up a bite to eat at Magnolia Cafe. On a whim, we decided to drive to the edge of town to view the Mississippi River and were surprised to find the road leading nearly straight up to the water’s edge. From here, we turned back and stopped off to investigate an old train car left behind from the West Feliciana Railroad. The kids climbed over every inch of it before we herded them back into the car to find out if the road was open to Cat Island.

Drive to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge

As we crossed the low-lying bridge over a local river, we were excited to realize that the road was not flooded as it had been on previous visits. A family jumped across rocks in the scenic river while we headed out into the country, past several sightings of grazing deer to the dirt road that leads to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge. A lack of signage and our own poor guessing at directions helped us “get lost in Louisiana” yet again before we finally found our way to the destination. Inside the refuge, we parked at the trailhead for the old cypress trees and walked the short distance to the viewing platform for the National Champion Bald Cypress – an enormous, ancient tree dominating the old growth forest around it. We took our time admiring this grandfather of trees, which spends half of every year swimming in the floodwaters of the Mississippi River. It’s a sight to see and the perfect ending to our day of adventure.

National Champion Bald Cypress
Fossil Hunting in Gravel

Fossil Hunting in Gravel

 

Exploring the waterfalls at Clark Creek

 

Our latest obsession is fossil hunting. During a recent trip to Percy Quin State Park, we were initially dismayed to find the normally beautiful lake now a drained, muddy bed. We made the most of it, though, venturing out into the squishy mud, collecting a few interesting rocks along the way. Back at home, the discovery of a document by Louisiana State University opened our eyes to what we had before us–rocks filled with imprints of tiny plants and sea creatures from hundreds of millions of years ago.

Now hooked, we had to find more. As it turns out, a good location for Louisiana fossil hunting is in the riverbeds of the Tunica Hills area. Unfortunately, fall is hunting season at Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area, so we set our sites on neighboring Mississippi’s Clark Creek Nature Area.

Our first find

A two and half hour drive from New Orleans, Clark Creek wasn’t quite close enough to make it without stopping for a sanity break for our 2 and 4-year-old. Pushing through Baton Rouge, we skidded to a halt in St. Francisville on the 400th “are we there yet??” interrogation. A very knowledgeable woman at the Visitor’s Center set us up with a brochure on Clark Creek as well as information on other attractions and, most importantly, food.

Looking for a quick place to pick up lunch, we ordered wraps at Cozy Corner Bistro and walked past the St. Francisville Inn to eat on the picnic tables in the adjacent park. While the kids climbed trees in the park, we glanced down at the Inn’s pebble driveway and discovered the first of the day’s fossils. In under ten minutes, we had found a half dozen river rocks bearing impressions of tiny ferns and marine animals. Giddy with excitement, we loaded back in the car and headed for Clark Creek.

Making friends at the Pond Store

Google routed us along Tunica Trace to the Fort Adams Pond Road, which proved to be a bumpy ride pitted with potholes. Regardless, it was a nice jaunt into the countryside, past pastures of cows and horses and even an old Pond Store, circa 1881.

Just around the corner from the Pond Store was Clark Creek Nature Preserve. We parked alongside a handful of other cars and loaded our backpack with water and snacks. The 700-acre preserve boasts 50 waterfalls, champion trees and miles of hilly, strenuous trails.

Clark Creek’s Waterfall Trail

We set out on the leaf-covered Waterfall Trail, admiring the scenery and listening to the birds chirping. Long rows of stairs bypassed steep slopes that turned slippery in wet weather, and much of the trail had a surprisingly sharp drop-off on one side. At the intersection with the Primitive Trail, we veered off the main trail to walk along the stream’s edge (often having to jump across to switch sides). It was here that we began taking breaks to examine rocks and had already found several interesting pieces when we heard the first waterfall.

Passing beyond a leaning tree, we found ourselves on top of the waterfall, looking down to the pool below. We backtracked through the woods and emerged again on the lower end, marveling at our first sight of a waterfall since the Smokey Mountains. The pool was warm to the touch, and the kids practiced their “mountain-climbing” by jumping across boulders.

Exploring the creek bed

Although the Waterfall Trail leads to six waterfalls, we set our goals on seeing the first two, knowing that we’d most likely be carrying kids on our way out. The second was just as stunning as the first, making us realize the trip would have been a success even without the discovery of fossils.

By the time we made it back to the car, nearly three hours had passed and the sky was darkening with the incoming front. Despite being a bit sore, we were delighted with our day’s adventures through this picturesque nature preserve. Plus, we found plenty of brachiopod, crinoid and tabulate coral fossils for our coffee table’s “show and tell” bowl.

Escaping to St. Francisville

Grace Church of West Feliciana Parish

After suffering through three days of rain over Labor Day weekend, I watched in disbelief as a week full of sunshine mocked me out my office window. Saturday couldn’t come fast enough, and we were up and out the door before the geckos had even fled our porch from the night before.

We had saved this trip to St. Francisville until we had the perfect weather conditions, where every historic home glittered in the sunlight and low water levels provided access to the nation’s largest cypress tree. Yet no matter how many times we visit this “best of the small towns,” we always begin our adventure at Grace Church of West Feliciana Parish. Take two steps into the surrounding, tree-shrouded cemetery and you become immersed in history, walking among elaborately carved headstones honoring those who died nearly 200 years ago. The entire area gives the sense of treading through the pages of a book. Three-year-old, dinosaur hunter Charles must have shared the mystique, spinning me a tale of T-Rex eggs and triceratops bones lying just beneath the surface.

Magnolia Cafe

From the cemetery, we strolled around the historic district, making sure to peek in Grandmother’s Buttons, before following a motorcycle crew to lunch at Magnolia Cafe. Outside on the screened-in porch, Paul and I filled up on overstuffed sandwiches, while August flirted with our table neighbors and Charles showed us his collection of dinosaur fossils in between mouthfuls of shrimp.

Our plans had included a trip to the garden ruins of Afton Villa, but a quick stop at the local tourist information let us know they didn’t open until October 1. Instead, we left with a recommendation to visit Oakley Plantation, where famous naturalist John James Audubon once worked as a tutor while creating 32 of his intricate bird paintings. Charles spent his time here giving the resident peacock an afternoon workout followed by making us a meal of mushrooms and osage oranges in the cooking pot on display outside a slave cabin.

Oakley Plantation

Back downtown, we stopped in for an afternoon coffee at Birdman Coffee and Books and treated the kids to some chocolate ice cream. Rejuvenated, we headed back out, this time down a gravel road deep into Louisiana’s wild country. Egrets and blue herons eyed us carefully as we passed their hunting grounds on our way to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge. Our destination was the National Grand Champion bald cypress tree, accessible by land only from July through December and flooded by the Mississippi River the rest of the year. A short, half-mile hike led to the base of the tree, which unfortunately we could only admire for a few minutes before the inevitable mosquitoes launched their attack. So, while worth the visit, I would definitely recommend bringing bug spray.

Sufficiently exhausted, the kids slept soundly the whole way home, not even waking as we shouted the obligatory “Geaux Tigers!” while driving back over the LSU lakes.

National Grand Champion Bald Cypress