JEFFERSON ISLAND, Louisiana — My weekend day trips, when I can do them, take me across the Sabine into South Louisiana.
If you’ve never been, this part of the world is a natural wonderland that I’ve only lately come to appreciate though I lived there for many years. I’ve mentioned the flat topography before, how this region essentially is a slowly sinking, eroding mass of land cut off from replenishing silts from natural floods of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya river systems by levees and spillways that make the region dry-ish and habitable. The results are vast areas of marshland being gnawed away by wave action from the Gulf of Mexico.
Appreciable elevation is elusive in this part of the world, but all those heavy layers of sediment deposited over time created several exceptions that are especially appreciable for Tabasco sauce lovers. The weight of the shales and sandstones forced up enormous columns of salt from a deep layer left behind by a vast sea. The areas around these domes are productive traps for oil and gas and have become efficient storage areas and lucrative drilling areas. They also are some of the salt mines that have produced table salt people have used for more than a century. (More on that later.)
In some places, as these salt domes rose toward the surface, they left giant circular mounds of land at least 75 feet high — high enough for hardwoods like oaks and pines to take root. In southwestern and south-central Louisiana, five of these domes have created “islands,” or mounds of high, dry land. They have names: Avery Island (home of Tabasco sauce), Belle Isle, Côte Blanche, Jefferson Island and Weeks Island.
Belle Isle seems to be all-private hunting grounds and accessible to people with a lot of cash. Weeks Island has a Dow Chemical site and also is a strategic oil reserve location. In other words, off-limits, I presume. Côte Blanche has salt mining and looks like it can be reached by a ferry, but I’m not sure how much of it is accessible.
But Avery and Jefferson islands definitely are accessible and are well worth the trip.
Home to the Tabasco sauce factory, Avery Island also has the Jungle Gardens, which are the grounds that were owned by Tabasco founder Edmund McIlhenny and his family.
Between New Iberia and Abbeville, Jefferson Island was once home to Joseph Jefferson, the actor famed for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle. There are botanical gardens bearing this name with friendly peacocks roaming the grounds.
The beautifully sculpted gardens and stately mansion belie one of the most peculiar events in modern history involving Lake Peigneur, which rests atop the dome.
Lake Peigneur was a placid freshwater lake until Nov. 21, 1980, when an oil company drilling a test well accidentally punctured the salt dome. The result was a giant vortex that sucked the lake underground into the salt mines beneath (the largest manmade vortex in human history). That caused the outlet canal to flow backward as the Gulf of Mexico refilled the lake through a temporary waterfall about 150 feet tall — the tallest waterfall ever in Louisiana. No injuries were reported and workers in the salt mine were able to evacuate. When everything was over, the entire oil rig, several barges, the salt factory, buildings on the shoreline, some of the gardens, scores of acres of land and trees were all sucked underground and the lake enlarged with salt water.
A chimney is all that remains of a house that sank scores of feet into the widening lake and is all that remains. The lake reportedly still burps from time to time.