With exquisite antebellum mansions, ancient oaks dripping with Spanish Moss, and, of course, Ol’ Man River, the Great River Road offers visitors an exploration into a mythical past and a glimpse into a bygone era. Great River Road plantations can be visited on a number of interesting sightseeing tours from New Orleans. The Great River Road streaches nearly 70 miles between Baton Rouge and New Orleans along either bank of the Mississippi River. Once the richest areas in America, it was here during the 18th and 19th centuries that New Orleans’ most prominent families made their fortunes in sugar and built beautiful white-pillared homes. Hundreds of these mansions once lined River Road, but today few remain.
Oak Alley Plantation
The revival of this region began in the 1920s with the restoration of Oak Alley Plantation, noted for its quarter-mile avenue of 28 live oaks leading towards the Mississippi. The trees were planted in the early 1700s long before the mansion was built in 1839 by Jacques T. Roman, a French-Creole sugar planter from New Orleans. This “Grande Dame of the Great River Road” was built in the classic Greek Revival style popular during the antebellum period and features a colonnade of Doric columns surrounding the house. Guides in period costume take guests through the antique furnished home, which is one of the most filmed plantations in Louisiana.
Three miles east of Oak Alley is Laura Plantation, a French-Creole plantation managed by women for 84 years. “Creole” originally referred to the children of European settlers (primarily French and Spanish) born in the New World, and became the non-Anglo-Saxon culture that developed before the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
Boasting a large collection of original family artifacts and 12 buildings on the National Register, a guided tour of the mansion and grounds is based on the “Memories of the Old Plantation Home” written by Laura Locoul. Laura’s great-grandfather Guillaume Duparc built the house in 1805. The colorful Creole-style home was built high off theground to protect it from flooding, and the raised basement was used as a wine cellar. On the grounds surrounding the “Big House” are remnants of the 160-year-old slave cabins where folklorist Alcée Fortier first recorded the west-African folktales of Compare Lapin (Br’er Rabbit in English) from the Senegalese slaves in the 1870s.
Down the road towards Baton Rouge is the magnificent Nottaway Plantation, the largest remaining antebellum mansion in the state. Constructed in 1859 by John Hampden Randolph of Virginia, the “White Castle,” as it is called, was designed by Irish-American Henry Howard, one of the greatest New Orleans architects in the 1800s. The large house is in the Greek Revival and Italianate style for which Howard was renowned. Remarkable for its many modern innovations, the home included gas lighting, hot and cold running water, and a bowling alley. The beautiful White Ballroom, a pure white semi-circular room with hand carved Corinthian columns and crystal chandeliers, provides a typical example of the home’s opulence.
by Andrea M. Meek