Grand Isle, Louisiana is a barrier island in the Gulf Coast in Jefferson Parish about 50 miles south of New Orleans. It is about 8 miles long and up to mile and a half wide. Prevailing currents and weather activity has caused it to expand and contract as it slowly drifts eastward toward Grande Terre. It has a resident population of about 1,500 which grows to 20,000 in the Summer months.
Grand Isle has been a popular summer getaway since the late 1800's and renowned for its fishing and crabbing and the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo. Off its waters you can catch blue fin tuna, red snapper, flounder, yellow fin, Spanish mackerel and much more . The famous writer Lafcadio Hearn who lived in New Orleans from 1877 to 1887 called Grand Isle "...the prettiest island in the gulf." Nearby Grande Terre was a base for the famous pirate, Jean Lafitte. Grand Isle comes from the French for ' big island.'
A 1813 map of Grand Isle and Grand Terre
Grand Isle has a central ridge which is elevated several feet above sea level, which is called a chenier, derived from the French for "oak ridge." Unlike many other barrier islands in the gulf the chenier on Grand Isle allowed for the growth of extensive oak groves whose roots provided a livable land. Indians such as the Chitimachas and the Ouachas who have lived in the area for 2,000-6,000 years and probably visited the area to hunt and fish.
All oak trees bend northward, shaped by the winds from the Gulf
The French and Spanish explorers, but gave little attention to the area in the early 18th century. By the 1720s the French began to develop an interest in the Barataria region for colonization. The Barataria route from New Orleans was open when a canal was completed to the Mississippi River to Bayou Barataria. Some old maps indicate the presence of what might have been a Fort called Fort Blanc in the mid 1700's.
The Spanish built a watchtower and pilot station on the western tip of Grand Terre in 1780.
Coast Guard Station 1930s
The first documented settlements on Grand Isle start from the 1780s. Jacques Rigaud received a land grant from Spanish Governor Galvez in 1781 for 120 arpets one apert is about 190 feet . This was followed by more land grants.In 6 years the Spanish granted ownership to all the land on the island. Why would someone want land in what was then a remote location ? Drinking water was only available through cisterns and there was the constant threat of hurricanes and storms as there is today. One reason were the vast Baratarian oyster banks which could be transported to New Orleans easily as could fish and hides .
privateered goods were moved from Grande Terre to New Orleans through the maze of bayous on small boats called pirogues.
The destruction of Lafitte's on Grand Terre fort shortly before the Battle of New Orleans, from The Buccaneer (1958) starring Yul Brynner
1805 to 1814 were the pirate years for the area when Jean Lafitte and his privateers were based on nearby Grand Terre. The raided mostly Spanish ships for 'black ivory' ( slaves) and other booty to be resold in New Orleans. However, Grand Isle did not a usable harbor like Grand Terre, making it ill suited for privateering. Lafitte and his band were forced off Grand Terre in 1814 by the U.S. government . Construction started on Fort Livingston in 1841 on Grand Terre . Many of Lafitte's men such as Louis Chighizola did retire on the island. There are many stories of pirate treasure on Grand Isle.
As the 19th century progressed plantations begin to appear and the island supported a number of sugar plantations and cotton. Some of these grew to be large concerns and there was more land available than there is today.One of the largest was the Barataria Plantation. By the 1830 census there were 107 people on the island. After the Civil War and the end of slavery many of the large plantations were broken up into smaller tracts for farming. Chinese immigrants came to dry fish and shrimp .
After the Civil War, the island also became a popular summertime resort and famous visitors such as Lafcadio Hearn and Kate Chopin wrote of its beauty. Until construction of a highway to Grand Isle in the 1930s travel to the island was usually made by steamer via the Harvey Canal and Bayou Barataria. The mighty hurricane of Oct 1,1893 leveled many of the popular hotels on the island. Before the 1893 storm Grand Isle experienced a resort boom, with some predicting it would become the Rivera of the South.In the 1880s it was possible to travel to Grand Isle from New Orleans in 8 hours by steamer for only $2. A railroad completed in 1890 to Myrtle Grove in Iberville Parish reduced travel time to 4 hours. One of the most famous of Grand Isle's 1890 resorts was the 160 room Ocean Club, built in 1892, only to be destroyed in 1893 by the storm. Like the Titanic, its owner claimed nothing could blow it away. the 1893 hurricane killed 2000 people on the Gulf Coast and wiped the island of Chenière Caminada ( to the west of Grand Isle), killing almost half of that islands 1500 inhabitants, few were killed on Grand Isle, however .
The Awakening was written by Kate Chopin in the gilded resort boom era of Grand Isle of the 1880's. Kate Chopin was one of the most individual and adventurous of nineteenth-century American writers, whose fiction explored new and often startling territory. When her most famous story, The Awakening, was first published in 1899, it stunned readers with its frank portrayal of the inner word of Edna Pontellier, and its daring criticisms of the limits of marriage and motherhood. The subtle beauty of her writing was contrasted with her unwomanly and sordid subject-matter: Edna's rejection of her domestic role, and her passionate quest for spiritual, sexual, and artistic freedom.
by Kate Chopin takes place in Grand Isle. It was made into a movie in 1991 starring
A bridge was completed to the mainland in 1931, which led some such as New Orleans businessman Alfred Danziger to believe they could develop Grand Isle into another Galveston. Hurricane Katrina brought a 5 ft surge and damaged the bridge to the mainland and many homes and camps. The bridge to Grand Isle is now has a $2.50 toll.
House in the 1930s with an old oak tree
Tarpon Rodeo records