They danced, carefree, in the resort hotel’s ballroom, hundreds of men and women from New Orleans and across Louisiana, stepping through a quadrille contredanse to the music of an old German fiddler. Now and then, they felt a tremor in the floor, as wind and rain battered the hotel in ever-stronger gusts. The memory of the fiddler’s music would be tinged with melancholy for one of the ball-goers—by the next night, half of the dancers would be dead.
More than 160 years ago, on Sunday, August 10, 1856, a hurricane tore apart a Louisiana island, destroying nearly every building on it and killing 200 people. The aptly named Isle Derniere, French for "last island," was Louisiana’s southernmost outpost of civilization, home to a resort town popular for its cool breezes, until the unnamed hurricane erased it. About 200 others, white and black, escaped the hurricane's destruction. What's left of Isle Derniere has never been inhabited again.
The disaster holds a prominent place in Louisiana history, but its story adds up to much more than that. The permanent destruction of an American coastal town stands as a warning today for communities in Louisiana and beyond, in peril from climate change, extreme storms, and rising seas.
Isle Derniere, 24 miles long and at points a mere mile wide, lay five miles south of the Louisiana mainland in the Gulf of Mexico, southwest of New Orleans off Terrebonne Parish. A mix of beaches, dunes and marsh, it stood about five feet above sea level. In the 1840s, wealthy Louisianans built the first of 100 summer homes on the island. Visitors came by steamboat to swim in the sea, paddle out on excursion boats, walk the beaches, explore the island by horse and carriage, and twirl on a carousel. Muggah’s Hotel, the largest structure on the island, included a restaurant and ballroom and offered bowling and billiards. Isle Derniere was advertised as a summer resort, and it’s unlikely that anyone lived there year-round.
Few celebrants on Isle Derniere the day it was destroyed had contemplated the dangers of summering on a remote barrier island during hurricane season. “Having been at the Island for so many seasons and in all kinds of weather I felt no apprehension,” wrote sugar planter Michael Schlatre, who owned a home there. He wasn’t the only person who was unconcerned about the island: That summer, the Muggahs were negotiating with investors to build a new, larger hotel there.
The first warning signs appeared on Friday evening, August 8. “Toward night the water assumed an angry appearance, and the waves on the Gulf were quite high,” recalled W.W. Pugh, speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives, who was on the island that weekend. By Saturday, Isle Derniere’s marshes were submerged, and the cattle on the island were pacing and lowing.
The storm grew to gale force. The Star, a steamboat ferry headed toward the island, lost its bearings in the storm, and by Sunday morning, the crew debated whether to turn back to its mainland port. But Captain Abraham Smith, concerned about the fate of those left on the island, insisted on returning amid the hurricane—a decision that saved many lives.
The never-named hurricane hit Isle Derniere with full force at about 3 p.m. By then, it was the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane, with winds up to 150 miles per hour. “It seemed all the aerial currents in creation had been turned upon us,” recalled Reverend R.S. McAllister of Thibodaux, Louisiana. “Fiery lightning almost constantly illumined the heavens.…The Gulf upon one side and the bay upon the other were advancing upon us.” Sugar planter Thomas Mille’s slaves fled their timber shack as it began to blow apart, and they ran to Mille’s house. One slave, Richard, tried to convince Mille to move his family and slaves into a stable built with sturdy, deeply driven pilings. Mille refused.
Houses shook, slid down the beach, lost their roofs and tore apart. Many residents raced for the hotel, hoping for refuge, but it, too, was blown to pieces. The exposed men and women began to perish, bludgeoned by flying debris or drowned as a 13-foot storm surge inundated the island.
Survivors outlasted the storm by clinging to anything they could. Reverend McAllister and 11 others raced to a carousel and hung onto it all night as it spun in the wind. Many refugees from the hotel, including Pugh, took refuge behind its cistern. Though the Star’s top decks were ripped off, its hull stayed afloat and provided cover for 160 people.
Schlatre watched most of his family drown, but saved himself by crawling onto a large piece of wooden debris with his Mille, his neighbor and fellow planter. They rode it as a raft, and the current carried them five miles to the mainland before stranding them in a marsh. Mille’s slave Richard hid out in the stable, the only building the storm didn’t level. Emma Mille, the planter’s 18-year-old daughter, was one of several survivors who grabbed pieces of wood as they were swept out to sea, then held on until the storm shifted and cast them back onto the island.
The next morning, survivors wandered Isle Derniere, surrounded by the dead. “The jeweled and lily hand of a woman was seen protruding from the sand,” McAllister recalled. All of the island’s homes were gone, even their foundations. Richard found Emma on the beach, deeply wounded, and brought her to Alfred Duperier, a doctor who had survived the storm by tying himself to an armoire and floating on it for 20 hours. While treating her for her injuries, the 30-year-old widower felt a bond grow between them; they married that December.
A saloonkeeper and a crewman from the Star found a sailboat that could still float and set out for the mainland. Arriving in Brashear City (now Morgan City), they alerted the crew of a steamer, which arrived at Isle Derniere to rescue the survivors three days after the storm. Schlatre and Thomas Mille were rescued by a passing ship five days after the hurricane, though Mille, starved and dehydrated, died two days later.
Isle Derniere, split in two by the hurricane’s waters, was never inhabited again. Later storms eroded it further, and by 1988, 78 percent of its former land mass was submerged. Today, its remains form the Isles Dernieres chain—five islands, three of which make up Louisiana’s Terrebone Barrier Islands Refuge, which is home to nesting waterbirds.
The boundary between land and sea is never fixed in Louisiana. Last year’s floods near Baton Rouge reminded the nation that the danger of losing entire communities to storms and floods is ever-present. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina wiped out most of the uninhabited Chandeleur Islands. Holly Beach, a tiny Louisiana town known as the Cajun Riviera, has been leveled by hurricanes three times, most recently by Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008. And this year, the last 27 families on Louisiana’s Ile de Jean Charles, members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, agreed to become the nation’s first community to relocate due to climate change. The Isles Dernieres—once a single island—are “the canaries in the mine shaft,” argued Abby Sallenger in Island in a Storm, his 2009 book on the disaster, “their demise warning us of what may happen along our coasts in a warmer world.”