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Calcasieu Historical Preservation Society

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A little boy's aquatic wonderland!

Margaret Place was once a little boy’s aquatic wonderland, many years ago.

Correspondingly, for the homeowners on the Griffith Coulee curve and much of Lake Charles, it was a post-torrential, insidious nightmare.

In May, 1953, I was seven years old and in Miss Fern Hebert’s class at Fourth Ward School. My parents had purchased 109 Pithon St., in December, 1952.

On about May 21, 1953, the areas north of Calcasieu Parish were inundated with heavy, tropical rains. By comparison, Lake Charles had some rain but only light showers.

My parents left Lake Charles on about that date to cruise to Galveston with three other couples, leaving my siblings John, Nancy and myself with our trusted nanny, Vine.

But, as the late comedian Richard Pryor once said, “All that water gotta go somewhere.”

 

Where all that water went was into the Calcasieu River, east and west fork, slamming out of the river’s banks in a maelstrom of millions of gallons of water roaring downstream.

The water hit first at the area around Old Town Bay when the first warnings were sounded. It surged south and overran Kayouchee Coulee and began descending on the Chennault Air Base, at the time a key Strategic Air Command facility, bustling with B-29s fresh from the Korean War.

There was no warning! Lake Charles rose to record heights and the Griffith Coulee went well out of its narrow banks. It crested onto Pithon, Harrison and Grove streets and into people’s homes, accompanied by a small ocean of filthy residue.

The Morrow’s newly-constructed home (now Bordelon) was the first victim with at last five feet of water throughout. Hightman Knapp (108 Pithon, now Todd) had recently completed their home and Hightman decided to fight.

A contractor, he and his crew built a sandbag seawall around the home and ran pumps around the clock. Across the street, Arthur Shepherd (117 Pithon) decided to fight also. He and much of the Lake Charles High football team built another sandbag barricade in an effort to save his five-year-old home.

Nancy Shepherd Draughn remembers the imbroglio well. “I was in the ninth grade at Lake Charles High and there were all these football players around our house filling and stacking the sandbags. “We stayed in the house and listened on the car radio. But we never got any water in our home,” said Draughn recently.

Not everyone was so lucky. Fifteen thousand people were homeless and began evacuating all of East Lake Charles. The American Press reported that people were being saved from their homes by motor boats and there is a picture from those editions of boats running down Broad Street.

Sue Cagle Shearman, my wife, remembers being rescued from their Tenth St. home by boat and taken to her aunt’s house.

An airman, who unfortunately could not swim, was drowned on the runway at Chennault. That fatality was not lost on the base commander but more on that later.

As for me, I was a free agent, at home, no school, no parents and with the Calcasieu River lapping – and finally cresting - at the top of our driveway. In the confusion, Hal Morrow, also a freshman at Lake Charles High, left his canoe with me for safekeeping.

For the days until my parents came home and stopped all the excitement, I would bring sandwiches and drinks to the men at the Knapp’s house, dodging very agitated water moccasins. I could go into the Morrow’s house by canoe and made several trips – my slight size was an advantage – trying to rescue anything of value inside.

The Red Cross set up a field unit in our garage because of the threat of meningitis and typhoid, particularly from the leeches who roamed the high ground on anything that could float. I thought it was terrific! It was kind of like being Ben in Treasure Island – I knew there was danger inherent but it was all so exciting, I didn’t care.

The water began receding very slowly and when my father got home, the canoe got tied to a tree where it stayed.

The Chennault commander told the Lake Charles leadership that unless the city built flood prevention facilities on the Calcasieu, that he would urge the Air Force to close Chennault.

That bond issue passed – on the second try – and those huge pumps at Kayouchee Coulee on the south side of I-10 are the results of that flood.

I didn’t catch typhoid or meningitis, I DID have to get a damn shot (Dr. Conway MaGee insisted) and I loved being around all those football players who thought I was keen – for a kid.

That’s a Margaret Place memory, one which, unfortunately was repeated again in the hurricanes.My family kept 109 Pithon for nearly 47 years and that home never flooded.

What a wonderful place to live!