Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Railroad History of Avery Island

This is an article I wrote for someone else's blog back in 2010.  I reprint it for the first time here:

My name is Shane K. Bernard and I'm the historian and curator for McIlhenny Company and Avery Island Inc., located on Avery Island, Louisiana.


Map of Avery Island, Louisiana,
with railroad routes highlighted in yellow.
Source: Avery Island Inc. Archives

Avery Island is a salt dome in lower Iberia Parish, Louisiana. It's not an island in the traditional sense; that is, it's not surrounded by a body of open water. In fact, it's located about 3 miles inland from the nearest body of open water. But it is surrounded on all sides by wetlands — either grassy salt marsh, wooded cypress swamp, or slow-moving, muddy bayous.

The railroad came to Avery Island in 1883, primarily to serve the Island's salt mine. The railroad also served the factory that produced the world-famous TABASCO® brand Pepper Sauce. It, too, was (and still is) located on Avery Island.

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I took most of the photographs in this series on restricted private property with the permission of the landowners, McIlhenny Company & Avery Island Inc. (my employers).


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The railroad reached Avery Island by crossing this trestle bridge over Bayou Petite Anse (actually the confluence of Bayou Leleu and Stumpy Bayou, which in turn flows into the nearby Petite Anse). I took this photo around 2000.


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This is what the trestle bridge looks like today (May 2010). Hurricane Rita washed away the top part of the trestle in 2005. Because the railroad no longer serviced the Island by that time (the rails on the Island having been ripped up in 2002), no effort was made to repair the bridge. (By 2000 the salt mine used eighteen-wheelers and barges to transport salt; McIlhenny Company likewise used eighteen-wheelers to distribute TABASCO® Sauce.)


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Here is Engine 455 crossing the same trestle bridge. This photo was taken in the early to mid-1950s; a diesel engine replaced Engine 455 around 1955.


Source: Avery Island Inc. Archives

Source: Avery Island Inc. Archives

Source: Avery Island Inc. Archives

Although Engine 455 ended up in a Houston scrapyard, someone at Avery Island salvaged its headlamp, which now sits in the McIlhenny Company & Avery Island Inc. Archives.


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Here is a circa 1955 photo of the diesel engine that replaced Engine 455. As you can see, the diesel engine is crossing the trestle bridge that leads onto the Island. (The boy in the photo is reminding the railroad workers that they are entering private property; I have been told this ceremony occurred annually for legal reasons.)


Source: Avery Island Inc. Archives

A few hundred yards down Stumpy Bayou are the trestle bridge parts washed away by Hurricane Rita.


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Note the marine life that had grown on the trestle. (My foot is in the image for scale.)


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Here is the rail bed — the elevated whitish hump running between and parallel to the grass and bamboo — as it looks today, heading south on Avery Island toward the salt mine.


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I took this photograph looking south on the same section of rail bed.


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Moving south, I found a small section of track still in place at the entrance to the McIlhenny Company corporate office.


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Right past the corporate office stands the McIlhenny station sign. There was never an actual station here, however, because the TABASCO® factory itself was the "station." (The older part of our corporate office served as the TABASCO® Sauce factory from 1905 until around 1980.) Incidentally, the station sign that appears in this photo is a new replica. The original sign shows up in the next image below; it is now preserved in the Archives. [Actually, as of February 2016 the sign is on display in the Barrel Warehouse section of the new Tabasco Museum tour.]


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In this circa 2000 image of the same spot, you can make out the spur (see arrow) leading from the main line toward the TABASCO® factory.


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This is looking at the station sign from the opposite direction. The yellow lines on this present-day photo show where the main line and spur (at right) would have been located.

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Following the spur toward the old TABASCO® factory leads to some kind of device on the ground (which I assume is related to the railroad). [I have since learned that the device permitted TABASCO® factory workers to manually move boxcars back and forth along the spur.]  The yellow line shows where the side track would have continued. As you can see, it would have gone right between the two buildings (where an enclosed walkway now stands). There the spur ended.


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This photo, taken around 1980, shows a diesel engine on the track between the two buildings. TABASCO®-related material would have been loaded/unloaded from the train at this location.


Source: McIlhenny Company Archives

A close-up image of the device that I assume to be railroad-related [See above bracketed note about the purpose of this device.]


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Heading south again on the Island, the rail bed passes this old sign with the number "9."


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Moving farther south the two rails became six rails. (Note the third set of rails below the arrow.) I was told that the extra set was a siding. This picture was taken in 2000.


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Here is the same spot during the railroad’s demolition in 2002.


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Here's another photo from the same area, showing the excavator and bulldozer that tore up the track; note the scrap in the dumpster.


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This is the same section of track, but looking in the opposite direction (north).


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This is what that same area looks like today.


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A close inspection of that spot reveals signs of its previous purpose — in this case, a railroad spike stuck in a rail plate.


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A few feet away is a rotting railroad tie that the demolition crew evidently forgot to pick up.


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This switch, photographed in 2002 on the same stretch of railroad, is no longer to be found. [I have since been told that someone on the Island made this switch into a mailbox.]


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We're now getting close to the Avery Island salt mine, which I'm unsure was ever so crowded with trains as depicted in this circa 1940 advertisement.  But perhaps it was, during the heyday of railroad transportation.


Source: Avery Island Inc. Archives

The rail bed reaches the salt mine and runs into this fence; note the salt mine structure in the background.


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Looking back northward from the same spot reveals this presumably railroad-related sign reading "D."


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Here is an 1899 photo of the salt mine with box cars present.


Source: Avery Island Inc. Archives

This circa 1930 aerial photo shows the salt mine; I've added yellow lines next to the railroad tracks. Note a spur leading off the main line.


Source: Avery Island Inc. Archives

This circa 2000 photo shows the railroad as it continued onto the salt mine property. I don't know if these rails still exist today because I did not return to the salt mine lease. (Perhaps another day and, of course, only with permission of the salt mine lessee.)


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A close-up circa 2000 image of the rails on the salt mine lease. These could be rails from the 19th century or early 20th century, given their decrepit condition. Most of the rails ripped up in 2002 appeared in good condition — nothing at all like these rails.


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Backing up a little, I found the rails that made up the spur shown in the above circa 1930 aerial photo.


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A close-up image of the spur rail as it appears today — almost buried beneath the topsoil.


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The spur rails lead into thick woods.


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This is where the spur rails once led: A gravel and sand pit on Avery Island. It shut down in 1917.


Source: Avery Island Inc. Archives

Shane K. Bernard, Ph.D.
May 13, 2010
Avery Island, Louisiana

Addendum of 19 May 2010:


Source: Avery Island Inc. Archives

With help from others it's been determined for sure that spur #1 on this aerial photo is the spur that led to the old salt mine (dismantled after the mine caved-in at that location in the 1890s) and spur #2 is the spur that led to the sand/gravel pit that closed in 1917. This photo is interesting because it shows both spurs in the same image. Again, the rails that make up spur #1 remain in good condition as of last week; while the rails that make up spur #2 were in terrible shape when I last saw them several years ago.

3 comments:

  1. Michael M. PalmieriApril 28, 2016 at 9:44 AM

    Here is a photo I took of the station sign in 1975

    http://mmp70160.rrpicturearchives.net/showPicture.aspx?id=798260

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for sharing that photo, Michael!

    ReplyDelete
  3. A good review but you never once mentioned what Railroad it was that served the island. I'm guessing from the 1980 photo of the diesal that it was Southern Pacific

    ReplyDelete