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The nameless Louisiana hurricane that wiped out an island resort before the Civil War

The United States Coast Guard on Aug. 30 surveyed Hurricane Ida damage in Grand Isle, La. (Video: USCG Heartland via Storyful)

Some 165 years before Hurricane Ida smashed into Louisiana, one of the deadliest hurricanes in the state’s history roared through Last Island, a summer resort community on the Gulf of Mexico about 75 miles southwest of New Orleans.

“All the houses on the island were swept away” and “most of those staying at the hotel were drowned,” the Daily Picayune reported. “No words could depict the awful scene.”

Last Island was destroyed. At least 200 of the 400 people on the island perished.

In Louisiana, only Hurricane Ida has matched the 1856 tropical cyclone’s wind speed, which some meteorologists believe reached up to 150 miles per hour.

Desperation grows as New Orleans residents struggle to recover from Ida

Ida has caused major damage in Louisiana, but relatively few deaths. Flooding in New York and New Jersey from the hurricane’s remnants has proven more deadly.

Video shows a Manhattan subway station flooding from Ida's heavy rainfall on Sept. 1. (Video: ICONI3 via Storyful)

Last Island (officially named Isle Dernière) was the summer playground of wealthy sugar planters, members of New Orleans high society and prominent state politicians — many of whom brought their enslaved servants with them. Gov. Paul Octave Hébert had a house there. Many visitors stayed at John Muggah’s Ocean House Hotel, where there was a restaurant, a casino, a bowling alley and billiards.

The island was 25 miles long and less than a mile wide. It also was only about four feet above sea level.

On the evening of Saturday, Aug. 9, 1856, scores of people were at Muggah’s Hotel joyfully dancing the Virginia reel to the music of a German fiddler, Abby Sallenger wrote in the book “Island in a Storm.” Outside, the winds were beginning to howl, raising concerns among some about a possible storm.

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By 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, “there existed no longer any doubt that they were threatened with imminent danger,” Dr. Alfred Duperier, who was staying on the island, wrote in a letter published by the Picayune. “From that time the wind blew a perfect hurricane; every building upon the island giving away one after another until nothing remained … at this moment, everyone sought the most elevated point on the island.”

By 2 p.m. the water was rising so rapidly, “there could be no longer any doubt that the island would be submerged,” Duperier wrote. “Men, women and children were seen running in every direction in search of some means of salvation.”

At about 4 p.m., “the Bay and Gulf currents met, and the seas washed over the whole island,” Duperier said. The hotel collapsed, crushing men, women and children there or sweeping them out to sea, Bill Dixon wrote in his book “Last Days of Last Island: The Hurricane of 1856, Louisiana’s First Great Storm.”

The owner of one summer home reported that on Sunday afternoon “his back gallery was torn from the house and whirled over the roof amidst the whizzing shingles that were flying about in every direction. The roof followed next,” the Picayune said.

At about 6 p.m. the surging water lifted the house from its foundation and moved it 20 feet. The family clung to trees and hid behind a newly created sand dune. “In the morning, not even the remains of the house could be seen,” the Picayune reported.

All on the island were trapped. The steamer ship the Star, which made daily trips to and from the mainland 25 miles away, had tried to reach the island in the storm. But the vessel wrecked on the shore in front of the hotel. Many people clambered aboard to try to survive the hurricane.

As skies cleared, dead bodies could be seen everywhere. “On this day higher classes were no more favored over the lower; slaves and planters lay side by side and sprawled on top of one another,” Sallenger wrote in “Island in a Storm.”

One survivor said: “Both white and black in great numbers had been hurried to a sudden death.”

Pirates also were on the scene. One woman aboard the wrecked Star observed that pirates in boats came in “to drag the corpses from the water to rob them, even tearing their studs from shut shirt bosoms of the men and pulling the earrings from the ears of the ladies,” the Picayune reported.

Some people survived by clinging to building foundations and trees. Others buried their feet in the sand and held hands. A week later, a half dozen survivors were rescued from a marsh six miles away. They had lived on crabs, crawfish and rain water.

Some were saved by the heroics of others, including the people they enslaved. “Many servants are known to have been instruments in saving children,” the Picayune recounted.

One instance occurred at the summer home of Gov. Hébert, where several families had taken refuge. During the storm, the winds tore the governor’s house “to pieces, and portions were blown away,” the Plaquemine Southern Sentinel reported. “A small child was blown out into the yard and covered with several feet of water.” The boy’s mother and her sister ran after him.

One of the people the governor enslaved “with a soul truly noble then came to the assistance of the ladies,” the Sentinel wrote, leading them to one of the men in the house, “who threw a blanket over them to screen them from the weather. They thus stood in this terrible situation all night, their breath being taken away by the rain and by the waves dashing over their heads.”

Some children couldn’t be saved. One enslaved woman said that during the storm she had asked her enslaver, the wife of a prominent sugar planter, if she could save one of her children, “which should she take?” the Picayune reported. “Her mistress was sitting on the bed at the time beside her little girl who’s back had been injured in some manner. She replied, ’Oh, how can I say which shall live?’ This was the last the servant saw of her mistress. Immediately afterwards the house was blown to pieces and their wreck driven into the Gulf.”

The final death toll was more than 300 people: the 200 or so on Last Island and another 100 who were thrown from boats and drowned.

Last Island split into two pieces and sank into the water. It emerged days later as sandbars.

“Only one terrified cow survived on the Isle,” according to a National Weather Service report quoted by Newsweek. “Last Island is now only a haven for pelicans and other sea birds.”

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