Jean Laffite

The Myth, The Person and the Bridge Rail

Frank DiCesare Photographs

(page 1 of 4)

On a chilly morning last January, a group of workmen gathered on the Calcasieu River Bridge along Interstate 10 to begin a day of decorating. Armed with steel-headed mallets, rivet guns and bolts the size of shotgun shells, they removed damaged sections of the bridge’s decorative handrails and replaced them with ones that had been refurbished and glazed with a light gray paint. Orange traffic cones forced cars traveling east to merge into a single lane. The heavy weight of history was apparent, and members of the media were on hand to photograph this special event.

Cast more than 50 years ago during the bridge’s construction, the handrails replaced that morning are far from ordinary. Welded within each of their frames stands a repeating motif, a pair of crossed pirate pistols, adorning the bridge from its eastern point in Lake Charles across the Calcasieu River to Westlake at its western end. In total, more than 5,000 of them flank the bridge, reminding daily commuters of Louisiana’s pirate past and its legends of adventure and conquest on the high seas and tales of buried treasure.

But of all the pirates to pass through Southwest Louisiana in the early years of the 19th century, none has captured the imagination of locals quite like Jean Laffite (scholars favor this spelling of his name). Since the time of his death, which most scholars date from between 1823 to 1826, Laffite’s life has grown into the stuff of legend, a fascinating and enduring gumbo of fact and fiction based in part on the roux that is oral tradition. “He’s a very romantic figure,” says Paul Hoffman, professor of history at Louisiana State University. “There’s both a mythic person and a real person in Laffite, and it’s almost impossible at times to figure out which one is which.”

For some people, Laffite is the pirate who springs from the pages of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, a dashing and swashbuckling Long John Silver type who raided ships in search of booty, wheeled and dealed with the federal government, charmed Louisiana’s elite and buried treasure in the area known today as Contraband Bayou in present-day Lake Charles. To others, he was a penniless privateer whose spoils disappeared quickly because of bad luck, bad behavior, indictments, jail time and expensive lawyers who demanded their money up front. With Laffite, believers have choices.

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