Monday, May 15, 2017

Let's Begin At The End

Bayou Segnette State Park
7777 Westbank Expressway
Westwego, LA 70094
GPS: 29.88990o, -090.16239o

Where Does the Mississippi River End?

My casual first response has always been "New Orleans." Not quite. A closer look at Google Maps or a paper road map shows the river continuing for some distance past New Orleans to a place called Venice, LA. So, Venice, LA was our destination for today's road trip.

Day trip to find the end of the Mississippi River

VENICE (GPS: 29.271952, -89.353220)

Venice is an unincorporated community and census-designated place in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, United States. As of the 2010 census, its population was 202. It is 77 miles south of New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi River at 29°16'37"N 89°21'17"W. It is the last community down the Mississippi accessible by automobile, and it is the southern terminus of the Great River Road. This has earned the town the nickname "The end of the world." Venice lies at the end of the longest continuous levee line in the world, stretching 650 miles north to the Arkansas River. In 1969, Hurricane Camille's 200 mph wind destroyed much of Venice.

Have we found the end of the river?

Commercial fishing, sport fishing, and oil refining appear to be the main activity in Venice.

My river information tells me that Venice is at mile marker 10.2, not 0.0. So there must be more.

PILOTTOWN (GPS: 29.178855, -89.256167)

Further south, on the east bank of the river, is a place called Pilottown. Google Maps marks it with a dot and a marker for a post office.
Pilottown is the interchange point for bar pilots on the ocean-going vessels that navigate the Mississippi River. Bar pilots meet ships at sea and guide them through the passes up to Pilottown. River pilots take over the journey to ports on the Mississippi. The process is reversed on outgoing trips.

Originally known as Balize, Louisiana, Pilottown is the southern border of the Crescent Pilots Route and the exchange point for the Crescent and Bar Pilots. Vessels headed upriver are piloted by the Crescent Pilots and those headed down river are piloted by the Bar Pilots. Pilottown was settled about 100 years ago when traffic on the Mississippi River shifted from one channel to another. This forced river pilots to abandon their station about five miles downriver. Other people followed, attracted by the nearby National Delta Wildlife Refuge. In the 19th and early 20th century, many pilots and their families lived here. The peak population was likely reached in the 1860's when Balize had a population of over 800 people. The repeated devastation caused by violent storms and hurricanes caused most residents to relocate. Today the permanent population of Pilottown is less than 20 people.

The town now consists of a few buildings built on piers and connected by raised sidewalks. Only the Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association has housing in Pilottown for their members on call. Accessible only by boat or by helicopter, Pilottown is located on the swampy ground of the lower Mississippi River Delta, about 85 miles downriver from New Orleans (65 miles by air) and about 10 miles south of Venice, Louisiana. It is just upriver from the point where the river splits into multiple branches. Despite the remote location, the Crescent Pilots’ Station has the latest technology and communication equipment to ensure the safe and efficient flow of maritime commerce.

Main building of the Associated Branch Pilots' Complex

River pilot entering pilot's clubhouse, Pilottown, Louisiana, September 1938
In Pilottown, the pilots are on call day and night so some sleep during the day.

Pilottown intrigues me. Here are links to more information and stories:

History of River Piloting

About Pilottown

Interviews with Pilottown residents

My river information tells me that Pilottown is at mile marker 2.0, not 0.0. So there is yet more.

HEAD OF PASSES (GPS: 29.151346, -89.251231)

On the map, in the water, is the term "Head of Passes". This is mile marker 0.0.
The official end of the Mississippi River

The Mississippi River officially ends here, 953.8 river miles from Cairo, Illinois. At this point, the stream divides into three channels, 1) Pass a Louture, 2) South Pass, 3) Southwest Pass. They each branch into smaller passes and all eventually empty into the Gulf of Mexico.

Early French navigators favored the Southeast Pass off Pass a Louture and France fortified an outpost named Balize on its banks. The first Civil War river Battle was fought at the Head of Passes in 1861. It was one of the few Confederate naval victories of the war.

The Passes were a constant problem for the port of New Orleans in the 1800's. At high water passage was easy, but at low water heavy ships often could not find an open channel between river and sea.

In 1875, the U.S. Congress contracted with the pioneering river engineer Captain James B. Eads to open a reliable channel to the sea. (Eads had completed building the giant bridge over the Mississippi at St Louis the previous year.) Congress drove a hard bargain with Eads: If he failed they paid him nothing; if he succeeded they would pay him eight million dollars. Eads built a system of jetties on the South Pass, and within four years the river had dug itself a 30-foot deep channel to the sea.

Early in the 1900's a similar jetty system created a 40-foot channel in the Southwest Pass, and it became the major route for ocean-going vessels.

This is what the end of the Mississippi River looks like:

This is the end of the Mississippi River

We didn't get to Pilottown or Head of Passes. Although, if I had taken the time, and coughed up the money, I know I could have gotten a boat to take me to both.

So this is the end of the Mississippi River:
Venice -- The official end of the Great River Road and the last place accessible by auto.
Pilottown -- The last inhabited location on the river; accessible only by boat or helicopter.
Head of Passes -- A geographical mark in the water signifying the official end of the river.

We did get to Venice; explored, took pictures, and of course found a restaurant -- CrawGators Bar & Grill at GPS: 29.240208, -89.364915. Their Seafood Gumbo is delicious. Be sure to drop in the next time you're in the neighborhood.

Crawgator Bar and Grill


The trip begins here and now

The camera data on this picture says 2:22 PM (CDT), May 15, 2017, so let's declare that as the start of our Great River Road trip.


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