Traveler: Colonial Trail Discoveries
Crisscrossing Central Louisiana
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The most traveled alternate route from Vidalia was the Harrisonburg Road, a quick connection from Natchez to Ouachita River settlements. From the main trail at Ferriday, drive up the Mississippi Valley on La. 15/U.S. 425 to Sicily Island, then swing west on La. 8 to the Ouachita River and Harrisonburg. Wayside diversions include National Register plantation hunting along 15/425 (all private), waterfall hunting on the wild and steep Rock Falls Trail in Sicily Island Hills WMA (hunting license or Wild Louisiana Stamp required for any activity in WMA’s), a stop at the Harrisonburg Recreation Area on the east bank of the Ouachita (picnic tables and good view of Ft. Beauregard Hill rising above the town) and a tour of the tiny parish seat. Displays of Native American pottery, pirogues and “points” line the halls of the 1925 Catahoula Courthouse, the Methodist church dates to 1853, and Ft. Beauregard itself – an abrupt elevation once surmounted by Confederate artillery – now features an observation tower and World War I and II memorial. To rejoin U.S. 84, head down Ouachita River Road (La. 124) to Jonesville, or, for thrills, drive 6 miles west on La. 8 (skirting Catahoula National Wildlife Preserve), turn right on narrow, twisting La. 126 to enjoy the roller-coaster ride to Aimwell, then take La. 459 south to Jena.
For a great detour off the U.S. 84 drive, combine three of the major “connector trails” – Catahoula Lake Road, Red River Stage Road and Old Mail Road – or, taken in a different order, the same combination makes a fine circle tour from Alexandria. The Catahoula route departs 84 at Archie (west of Jonesville), follows La. 28 beside the big lake through cornfields and forests, skirts Dewey Wills WMA and then heads westerly through 20 more miles of rural scenery to Pineville. Stick with 28 through Alexandria and a dozen miles west to Gardner, then zigzag up La. 121 and 1200 on the Red River Stage Road to Boyce. There the trail shifts to La. 8, crosses the Red and heads up the river valley, with its pastures, pecan orchards and beautiful tilled fields of rusty-red soil, to Colfax.
The historic riverfront district of Louisiana’s “Pecan Capital” boasts vintage structures like the Colfax Chronicle’s big raised cottage and substantial masonry buildings that once housed banks and hotels, all clustered about the Grant Courthouse on Main Street where historic markers give brief histories of the town and of the tragic Colfax Riot of 1873 (aka Colfax Massacre, stemming from disputed state and local elections, when whites attacked the courthouse where blacks had gathered to guard Republican officials). Follow Main to the railroad and old depot, now serving as the “Pecan Festival Country Store,” focal point of the festivities that are set for Nov. 2-4 this year, then take the Old Mail Road 3 miles east via La. 8 to a detour to the big recreational reservoir called Iatt Lake and the Bayou Rigolette dam that created it. By now La. 8 is just a deep and narrow corridor through soaring pines, leading 9 more hilly miles to the historic logging village of Bentley and one more to Kisatchie Forest’s Catahoula District office. Beyond the beautiful village of Pollock and the once-jumping Fishville resort, the trail will lead 8 miles (crossing Big Creek and Little River) to a rest area – where vestiges of the old White Sulphur Springs health resort still remain – before completing our triple-trail circle back to U.S. 84 at Jena.
Not all colonial trails were interstates, many branching off the main east-west routes and ending at particular Louisiana destinations. The Avoyelles Parish network, for instance, is a web of Indian trails that evolved into wagon roads, all stemming from the Catahoula Lake Road (La. 28) and leading to various settlements in the parish. There were two main “connector trails,” and the modern roads most faithful to those entry points are La. 107 from Pineville and La. 115 which departs 28 at the Grant-LaSalle parish line. In Avoyelles the two merge at Effie, cross Red River and become Main Street in Marksville.
Entering town, turn left on La. 1192 and, a mile later, right on Ft. DeRussy Road, which leads to the breastworks of Ft. DeRussy and a monument to the slaves who built the fortifications. During the Red River Campaign of 1864, the partially completed fort fell to a Union assault on May 14, but after CSA victories at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill, U.S. forces retreated to Alexandria, burned the city, continued down Red River and, despite Confederate resistance in Avoyelles (Mansura, Moreauville and Ft. Yellow Bayou, May 16-18), accomplished an oxymoron: a “successful retreat.”
Farther into Marksville, take a left on Andrus, quick right on Preston and left on M.L. King to a 2,000-year-old Hopewell archaeological site. Its mounds and embankments comprise the Marksville State Historic Site. As you leave, a left-right on Preston and Mark leads to the 1927 Avoyelles Courthouse at Main Street, where markers give brief histories of the parish and of the local invention of the Bowie knife. Along the old halls are clusters of vintage photos and documents, and one such grouping introduces Solomon Northup, a kidnapped freeman sold into slavery in Avoyelles (recounted in his 1853 book Twelve Years a Slave and soon to be retold in a Brad Pitt movie now filming in Louisiana).
Follow Main to La. 1, turn right and find the Hypolite Bordelon House at 242 West Tunica, now a Chamber office and Welcome Center.
Now take La.1 south to the big Tunica-Biloxi Cultural Center (near the Paragon Casino Resort), whcih tells stories of the area’s related tribes. Next down La. 1 is Mansura, settled by former soldiers of Napoleon, where a right on La. 107 leads to the Cochon de Lait Festival Center and, next door at 1832 D’Eglise St., the 1790 bousillage Desfossé House (temporarily closed). From L’Eglise, Coco Street leads to La. 1 where a Welcome Center shares space with a 4-H Club Museum (whose story begins with the 1908 Corn Club of Avoyelles, predecessor of 4-H in Louisiana).
South on La. 1, turn left on La. 451 to follow Big Bend Road along Bayou des Glaises as it loops back around to La.1 at Hamburg. Within the circle is a WMA named Pomme de Terre (you can call it Spud), and the trail passes idyllic communities like Bordelonville and landmarks like the Larto Bridge (built in 1916 for high-water evacuations) and 1927 Prothieu Store, now a museum.
From Hamburg cross La. 1 onto La. 114, which becomes Main Street in Moreauville and then follows Bayou des Glaises west. At Long Bridge turn left on La. 29 to the Bayou Rouge town of Cottonport, and the Cottonport Museum (open Wed.-Sat.), a gathering place for quilters, whose creations as well as antique quilts are sold and raffled during the annual Festival of Quilts (Oct.6-7). Five miles west in Evergreen, turn left on College and right on Church to see the beautifully simple 1841 Bayou Rouge Baptist Church, then follow 28 through cotton, corn and cane fields to Bunkie, with its 105-year-old Bailey Hotel (318-346-7111). The great old brick T&P depot at 110 NW Main St. is now a Welcome Center and war memorial.