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Story Archives: Mystery: Who or what damaged Concordia levee in 1886? Getting mail 1815-1839
|Mystery: Who or what damaged Concordia levee in 1886? Getting mail 1815-1839|
In 1886, the Corps of Engineers received reports that the Glasscock Levee below Vidalia in Concordia Parish was "in a dangerous condition" during a high water. A breach was feared.
This portion of the Mississippi River levee passed through the Glasscock Swamp from Green's to the Fairview levee south of Deer Park. Glasscock today is a huge island formed when the Glasscock cutoff was made early last century to shorten a big bend in the river.
But more than a century ago, Corps' assistant engineer H.S. Douglas and Capt. Dan C. Kingman reported that a potential break at the Glasscock Levee "was only prevented by the exertions of parties living in the neighborhood."
The weakness in the levee, "unexpected" and "apparently unaccountable," had caused parish residents to worry and "gave rise to rumors of defective construction." To temporarily remedy the problem, logs, barrels and others materials were placed in the embankment.
But as the high water began to recede the real and most serious problem with the levee was found to be not faulty construction but expert dam builders -- beavers.
The Corps reported: "The borrow pits dug in the construction of the levee, being in buck-shot soil, which is non-absorbent, remained filled with water the year round, and in these pits a colony of beavers had located. They had made their dens or houses in the levee embankment itself, and had tunneled almost through several points."
At the point where a levee break was feared, the Corps discovered during an inspection that "the beavers had made a hole entirely through the embankment." What made the damage impossible to see was that the levee was "thickly overgrown with young trees, briars, and weeds."
Four days before Christmas -- Tuesday, Dec. 21, 1886 -- a Corps' crew went to work to clear the overgrowth. Beneath the greenery, the workers found "six separate places" where the "embankment had been burrowed by the beavers."
The crew dug a 2,000 ft.-long ditch to drain the borrow pits into the river and "deprive the beavers of their harbor." But before all the water drained off, the ditch was closed twice by the beavers, and reopened by the work crew each time.
Once the water was drained, workmen returned to locate the "beaver holes." They found the "passage-way to the den generally started at the outer edge of the levee berm, in the borrow pits, and concealed by water. The passage-way would have several branches leading into the den in the center of the levee."
The den was located on "the land slope, and was from three to four stories in height, the first being about on a level with the natural surface of the ground, and the uppermost one nearly up to the crown of the levee."
The Corps was astonished that the levee had not collapsed because the "injury...could hardly have been greater, as it was reduced to a mere shell..." So great was the damage that the levee had to be rebuilt at "several points for a length of from 25 to 30 feet."
Workmen killed eight beavers during the repair work and by March 3, 1887, the levee was considered once again safe although the project was abandoned briefly "on account of high water." Later, the crew deepened the ditch previously constructed and dug yet another at a point up river.
The Corps said the beaver problem was the first reported in the New Orleans' district, and concluded:
"Had a crevasse occurred at this locality, it would very likely have been attributed to faulty construction of the levee or to the boring of crawfish, and not to the true cause, the beavers."
GETTING MAIL OUT-OF-STATE
According to Concordia historian Robert Dabney Calhoun, the first post office in the parish was created in 1813 in newly-named Vidalia (formerly Concord) and James Dunlap was the first postmaster. Joseph Dunlap was the second and Samuel Thornberry, the third, until he resigned on June 21, 1815.
A fourth postmaster was named, Joseph Vidal Jr., son of Concordia's founder, Vidal Sr., but junior never took the job and for reasons unclear, Concordia was without a post office for the next two decades.
So how did Concordians get mail during that period?
We can answer that question because of information found in a lawsuit from the files of Stacy & Sparrow, Concordia's most prominent law firm of the 19th Century, in a legal matter which involved a Natchez attorney named William Ferriday. Without bogging down in the details of the case, we'll go straight to the subject here -- the mail. In this case, there was a basic question of whether the defendants had been properly notified -- by post -- of an action which resulted in the lawsuit.
Two letters had been mailed from New Orleans -- one addressed to a party in "Natchez" and the other to a party in the "Parish of Concordia." Each letter arrived at the Natchez post office with no place to go from there.
The two defendants in the case -- John Routh and Austin Williams -- were both residents of what is today Tensas Parish but still part of Concordia in 1838. They said the two important letters, both sent from New Orleans to the Natchez post office, were sent to the wrong place. One letter was addressed to Routh, the other to Williams.
During the winter, spring and fall seasons, the two men lived on their plantations on Lake St. Joseph, but lived near Natchez in the summers. Since Concordia had no post office, the men received their mail on the Mississippi side of the river.
At the time, Concordia's Mississippi River shoreline stretched 135 to 140 miles in length. There were post offices across the river from Concordia at Fort Adams, Natchez, Rodney and Grand Gulf, but Natchez was the most central location for Concordia residents to get their mail, according to testimony provided by post office officials.
The defendants, however, said that because Natchez was 55 miles away from their Lake St. Joseph homes they received their mail from Grand Gulf, which was only about seven miles distance. Several witnesses for the defendants said that Grand Gulf and Rodney were much closer "to the majority of the population" in Concordia than was Natchez and that letters addressed to them through the Grand Gulf post office "were received by them" there.
But a man named Lafferandine, who clerked in the New Orleans' post office for many years, testified that "letters simply directed to the Parish of Concordia are always forwarded by that post office to Natchez."
Woodson Wren, who served as postmaster of Natchez in 1839, said the Natchez post office was "the nearest to the majority of the people, and where the greater part of the inhabitants of Concordia received their letters during the years 1828 and 1839; that there was no post office in Concordia for years, and the nearest one on the Mississippi side was Rodney, but Natchez was the most convenient and central one for the Parish of Concordia, the most business place, and the one of greatest resort."
This information, crucial in the lawsuit which went all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, also provides a rare historical glimpse at how people in Concordia got their mail a century and a half ago. It also is revealing that the simple task of picking up the mail involved riding your horse onto the steam-powered ferry at Vidalia, disembarking on the Natchez shore and riding up the narrow bluff road to the post office in upper town.
Whether the skies delivered sun, rain, sleet or snow, this was a time-consuming task that was likely done once, twice, maybe three times a month on the average.
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