Written by Dr. Timothy D. Hudson
Fate had already branded 1874 as a momentous year long before Louisiana residents rang in the New Year. November would bring the fourth major election of the Reconstruction Era, and the Democrats had determined to finally break the Radical Republican’s use of their despised Returning Boards to form a stranglehold on all statewide elected offices. Amidst the political mayhem, after nearly a decade of contending with the dreaded “cottonworms” that repeatedly ravaged their cotton crops, farmers of the Pine Hills had high hopes for a bumper crop when the harvest time arrived. These hopes hinged upon the weather, which ultimately proved utterly uncooperative.
Although the fall and early winter of 1873 proved fairly dry, the new year began with typical north Louisiana January weather: severe thunderstorms, 2.5 inches of snow, temperatures warm enough to plant flowers, followed by more rain and then a dry spell. The lack of water prevented the Ouachita River and bayous from rising until late in the season, and “the cisterns had but little water in them even in February.” The long overdue rains finally arrived in March, but once began, they did not stop. By early April, the river and bayous rose to unprecedented levels, and then the heavy, torrential rains began. By April 10th, the waters had risen high enough to threaten the levees protecting Monroe, and flood waters had inundated towns, cotton fields, and the prairies between the Ouachita and Mississippi Rivers. The Monroe-Vicksburg railroad stopped running on April 11th, with skiffs ferrying passengers all the way from Vicksburg to Monroe. On April 16th, the levees at Pargoud’s plantation above Monroe and Morrison’s plantation below gave way, submerging the entire region outside of the Monroe town limits, with flood waters now encompassing Monroe, turning it into an island 2½ miles long by ½-mile wide, “from which there is no exit, except by boats or swimming.” Long-time Monroe residents stated that, “The water is higher than ever known before…a steamboat could be run down Cotton street.” Thousands of refugees had flocked into the high ground at Monroe, bringing with them their starving livestock. Across the river, the flood waters inundated Trenton (north of modern West Monroe), with the mayor telegraphing for rations for starving people, stating, “The colored population in particular are in distress.” The flood waters even submerged Ouachita City in Union Parish, “except for a small strip of ground on the river front,” apparently the only time the river had flooded that place in recorded memory.
The torrent of incessant rain finally ceased on Friday, April 24th, but the flood waters still continued to rise. The 1874 Ouachita River flood erased distant memories of the previous landmark floods in north Louisiana, those of 1828, 1844, and 1871. Capt. George W. McCranie, editor of Monroe’s “The Ouachita Telegraph,” wrote that “there lives no old inhabitant who ever saw or heard of an overflow like the one of 1874.” He continued “…and when now, we come to chronicle the extent of the overflow and of the destruction, we are simply lost in a wilderness of water, incidents of the flood and afflictions of the people, and know not where to begin, what to say, or where to end. We have no precedents to be guided by, no standard of losses or of floods that will convey an idea to the distant reader, who ever saw this county, of the extent of the ruin brought up on the Ouachita Valley by the late overflow…what the people are to do God alone knows.” A few days after publishing that eloquent lament, at 2:00 p.m., the fifty-foot-wide riverbank behind the “Telegraph” office began caving into the raging river due to erosion from the swift current. Within three hours, the entire riverbank had collapsed into the swollen river, and soon three feet of river water stood in the press room of “The Ouachita Telegraph.”
As one of the hill parishes, Union’s topography allowed its inland residents to experience less deleterious effects from the flooding than those on or to the east of the river. During the warm winter and early spring, Union Parish farmers had begun preparing their fields and planting early crops, and the March rains caused their gardens and fields to become “well advanced” by the time of the April deluge. The continual rains had drenched the hills badly, washing away all their preliminary work and mostly destroying the growing crops. Once the torrential rains ceased on April 24th, no more spring showers fell, causing the replanted corn and cotton, as well as vegetable gardens, to “make a very sorry showing.” Farmerville’s newspaper editor wrote in late May, “The gardens about town are dry and baked, and the prospect is bad for vegetables.” The weather remained oppressively warm and dry, with frequent titillating indications of a break in the drouth. In late May and early June, dark thunderclouds formed daily, followed by thunder, but no rain fell, endangering the early summer vegetables. On June 21st, a Farmerville resident saw “corn so ‘twisted’ that it apparently was ruined,” and he reported that around Farmerville, “Gardens are so completely dried up that vegetables are almost unheard of.” By early July, the extended dry weather had seriously damaged the corn crop upon which farmers depended both for their and their livestock’s sustenance throughout the winter.
On the afternoon of July 2nd, after ten weeks without any substantial showers, a heavy rain drenched Union Parish, followed by a gentle, soaking rain that weekend. Residents across the parish rejoiced at the invaluable rains that “…gave new life and vigor to the growing crops.” The prospect of raising sufficient corn to survive the winter cheered the formerly despondent farmers. However, the euphoria proved premature, as the early July rains did not signal an end to the drought. The rest of month brought excessively hot and dry weather. By mid-August, four weeks had passed without any rainfall in the piney hills, and the daily high temperatures hovered between 100°–105° and only fell to 90°–100° until late at night. These conditions withered crops, completely destroying the year’s corn crop, as well as potatoes and other vegetables. The blistering weather caused the blooms, bolls, and leaves on the cotton plants to dry to a crisp and fall off, with many cotton plants actually dying. Long-time Union Parish farmers who generally raised 50-60 bales per year anticipated less than five bales. The shedding of the small cotton bolls proved fatal to the harvest, leading to a complete failure of the 1874 cotton crop in Union and other hill parishes.
The failure of the corn crop made starvation a significant risk, and officials admonished housewives to conserve corn meal and farmers to save all foliage to help their families and livestock survive the winter. The excessively dry weather continued that fall. After a few showers in September, no rain fell for the next two months. The deluge and inundation the region had endured the previous spring now seemed like a distant memory after a hot summer without rain that caused the woods to turn to tinder. By late October, woods across the parish began catching on fire, and the blazes raged for weeks. By November 13th, patches of woods surrounding Farmerville had burned for three weeks. One Farmerville resident offered his advice, “Until it rains, when the boys go ‘possum hunting we advise them to take no fire along.”
The weather remained exceptionally dry that winter, preventing steamer service on the Ouachita River north of Harrisonburg through January. The rains finally returned in February, together with snow in March, thereby finally breaking the drought.
Dr. Timothy D. Hudson is the mathematics department head at Southeastern Louisiana University and an avid historian on Union Parish. Dr. Hudson is a Union Parish native and graduate of Farmerville High School.