by: Matthew White
Pilottown is the last manned outpost on the Mississippi River, located two miles above Head of Passes, the point where the Mississippi ends and splits off into various smaller channels that empty into the Gulf of Mexico. (See maps: google, yahoo, and/or mapquest.) Accessible only by boat, Pilottown has been the base of operations for the Associated Branch Pilots, who take smaller boats out into the Gulf to meet large ships and guide them into the mouth of the Mississippi at Southwest Pass. Reaching Pilottown, the Crescent City Pilots jump on board and steer the ships up to New Orleans. Although the pilots lived with their families in Pilottown until the the 1960's, they changed to a system of rotating two-week shifts so they do not have to be permanently situated in such a remote location.
Several large buildings make up the pilot headquarters, along with many small camp-homes built on pilings alongside a raised concrete pier that runs the length of the town. Though in the late 19th century Pilottown had a population of near 800 people, the numbers slowly diminished over time, leaving a permanent population of only a dozen or so by the year 2000. The one-room schoolhouse had closed by the 1970's, and though Pilottown still has an official zip code (78001), the post office was closed by the late 1980's when the US Post Office couldn't find anyone willing to live there year-round. Too many hurricanes, including hits from Betsy in 1965 and Camille in 1969, caused many Pilottown families to move upriver; the only remaining residents are those who sought out extreme isolation, or older folks who were born and raised there and couldn't imagine leaving it behind.
I first discovered Pilottown around the age of 12, when I used to read maps as a hobby; I remember trying to imagine what life would be like in such a remote locale, and always said to myself I would visit there some day...if I could ever find a way.
During my first photo shoots of lower Plaquemines Parish, I began stopping by local marinas to ask if anyone would be willing to take me to Pilottown for a small bribe, but plans were usually thwarted due to wind picking up, or other times captains would have their hands full with chartered boatloads of anglers ready to go out and hit deep water.
It wasn't until early January of 2005 that I got lucky on a day when I drove down to the delta with my stepson in tow, determined to find a way to Pilottown.
Stopping at the Venice Marina, I asked at the check-out counter if anyone was around who'd be willing to go to Pilottown for the day. After the requisite stare of suspicion -- (I suppose it's not easy to immediately trust a long-haired punk with two cameras around his neck creeping around a marina) -- the check-out girl made a phone call and told me to wait outside. Within ten minutes I was approached by a man named Brandon who spent his days taking duck hunters out into the marsh or ferrying fishermen down to Port Eads at South Pass. By chance, his charter cancelled and he had the day off. He put his boat in the water, we jumped in, and were off. I remember feeling very anxious; I first thought of doing this in my early teens and now it was all about to happen. "Never done this before," said Brandon with a wry smile, as we scooted out through the Venice Jump and out into the Mississippi.
It was an unusually balmy January day, about 80 degrees as I remember, although when we got out into the river the temperature suddenly dropped about 30 degrees. We headed downriver; it was a very windy and pretty bumpy ride, but I couldn't stop smiling -- I was already in my south Louisiana dream mode. Brandon headed south for seven miles, sticking close to the west bank, then stopping to wait for a northbound oil tanker to pass us. We turned left and shot across the river, jumping the tanker wake. I turned my head right and could see Mile Zero on the Mississippi, and the entrances to three major passes which take ships into the blue water of the Gulf. When I turned back, the temperature suddenly shot up thirty degrees again, and there was Pilottown. We made it.
I remember jumping out of the boat and running down the pier like a kid who had just been cut loose for summer vacation. Now on the concrete walkway, I took a few shots of the Associated Branch Pilot house.
Bar Pilot Headquarters, January 2005
Two men who were talking on the front porch spotted me, so I decided I'd better go introduce myself so as not to appear rude. After all, we weren't invited here. The tall man who reminded me of Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now introduced himself, saying "Welcome to our island," then took us inside and introduced us to the rest of the Bar Pilots, who were sitting around watching TV, waiting for the next boat call. We were offered a free lunch and shown around the headquarters, (where they eat & sleep), and how they get it done in Pilottown. Though I still can't remember the Duvall man's real name, I haven't forgotten what a gracious host he was. He went back to his business, and we headed back out to the walkway, where I spent the rest of our time taking shots along the way.
Overgrown and green even in January, the grass and vines line the raised walkway that stretches about a mile along the riverbank. Secluded camps, some owned by the Bar Pilots, were all along the path. A good third of them were abandoned by families who used to live in Pilottown generations ago, and some were completely overtaken by weeds.
abandoned Pilottown home, January 2005
I did encounter two people who had lived their whole lives there -- the first was a woman in her late 70's who ran occasional errands for the Bar Pilots and was the last of her family still living on the island; the second was a disheveled man, obsessed with his need for privacy and isolation, who had a few rude comments of the you-don't-belong-here variety after he saw me taking pictures near his house. Good riddance said I, and moved on to get some more shots of the old schoolhouse, which had been purchased and carefully preserved by a former full- time resident who made occasional trips there for recreation. I didn't want to leave, but we'd left Brandon sitting on the pier for quite some time now, and we had to get back. As we slowly left Pilottown, I snapped away the rest of my film, figuring it might be a long time before I got back here.
View of Pilottown village, January 2005
Brandon took a more scenic route back as we headed north, diverting into the wetlands off Main Pass, which although being an indescribably complex expanse of criss-cross canals, Brandon seemed to know like the back of his hand. Here were more "secret" camps built out in the marshes, tucked away around some corner somewhere, a good place to be if you didn't want anyone to ever find you. After making what seemed like a giant U-turn, we entered what I am fairly certain was Emeline Pass, which took us back to the Mississippi, directly across the river from Venice. Brandon gave me his card; perhaps, he said, he could take me back again, when the Bar Pilots might let me spend a few nights if I helped out in the kitchen a little bit.
Head of Passes, mouth of the Mississippi River - January, 2005
Seven months later, the right front quadrant of Hurricane Katrina passed over Pilottown, vaporizing all but three or four of the camp homes; the large house which served as Bar Pilot headquarters, that survived Betsy and Camille, was hit badly by Katrina, being pushed backward off of its foundation several yards or so. The water had gotten up to the first foor ceiling, perhaps 20 feet off of the ground. The Crescent City Pilots house stood still, but was flooded out and wind-damaged. ( View "After Katrina" at barpilots.com.) Although the Bar Pilots were able to resume operations only a few days after the storm, allowing ships to enter the Mississippi, bringing aid to Louisiana, they had now set up temporary headquarters in Venice, as Pilottown was in ruins.
It wasn't until July of 2006 that I was able to meet up with them again, knocking on their door in Venice to give them a few prints of the January 2005 visit. Duvall-Man was there again, and he told me that although it was the toughest decision the Bar Pilots ever had to make, they had chosen to rebuild in Venice, abandoning Pilottown and leaving behind a tradition which lasted over 100 years. It was getting harder to maintain phone and internet service down there, he said. Since there was no more general store and tavern in Pilottown, someone was always having to head upriver to Venice to get something. And there were just too many hurricanes; Katrina was the final straw. Again, he was his usual engaging self -- polite and confident. I had to admire this man; you try jumping off of a moving vessel onto a rope ladder hanging over the side of an oil tanker some time.
Although I've heard that the Crescent City Pilots are looking into keeping their house at Pilottown, the future is still at this point uncertain. (see this article.) I have no idea where the few permanent residents of Pilottown are now, but I doubt they will ever make it home again. Pilottown now sits alone and abandoned on the lower Mississippi, torn to pieces by Katrina, the weeds growing over where the camps used to be, alongside the concrete pier that now leads to nowhere.
To view more of Matthew White's photo-essays at Beyond Katrina, go here.
Matthew White is a native New Yorker who made Louisiana his home and his artistic focus in 2000. For five years he photographed nearly every notable location on the Louisiana coast. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita changed the landscape, but not Matthew’s vision and desire to show Louisiana’s unique beauty. While hundreds of others have documented the tragedy wrought by the storms, Matthew’s body of work captures the beauty that the storms of 2005 could not erase. Rather than clichéd incongruity and depressing devastation, Matthew’s photos capture a landscape touched by and triumphing over catastrophe. Matthew shares the same vision as blogger Margaret Saizan, looking “Beyond Katrina,” and lending a silent voice to disaster and recovery.
All Images are property of M.W. and may not be linked to another website, copied, or reproduced without permission. To see more photographs visit his website at http://rigolets.blogspot.com/. Matthew White’s fine prints are available through email@example.com.