Six square blocks straddled Calle Floridana — Florida Street — 200 years ago, when the sleepy Mississippi River outpost of Baton Rouge was incorporated as a Louisiana city that grew around a downtown now back on the rise.
On Jan. 17, 1817, no traffic snarls piled up on the nonexistent Horace Wilkinson Bridge over the river. The doughy smells from Schlittz & Giggles did not waft around Florida Street at lunchtime. Nor did the tinkering of construction workers signify the next hotel being built.
Only 1,463 people lived in Baton Rouge back then, compared with the 140,000 people who now pass through downtown daily. City limits stretched farther than they were settled, eastward from the Mississippi River to 22nd Street, and from Capitol Lake (then known as Garcia's Bayou) to South Boulevard.
And the roots of racial divisions that linger in modern Baton Rouge were in full force, as that population total included 266 slaves who were estimated to live in the city at the time.
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The vast majority of families who dwell here now came during a postwar boom between 1940 and 1956, said John Sykes, the director of the Magnolia Mound Plantation. The influx of later newcomers made people less in touch with the city's past, and few efforts were made to preserve the city's history.
"So little of the old remains, in fact, that it is easy to forget that the city has had a long and colorful past," wrote Charles East in Mark Carleton's 1981 book "River Capital: an Illustrated History of Baton Rouge."
The bicentennial celebration this year has preservationists like Sykes eager to make more people care about how the capital city became a sprawling hub for the petrochemical industry, government and college campuses.
Its documented history goes back to 1699. Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville wrote in a journal that he met Native Americans and found a "very fine" area with huts, bear hunting and catfish. Legend says he and his fellow travelers saw a red pole, or cypress tree dripping with blood from animals and fish heads, and decided to name the area Baton Rouge, or Red Stick. Other stories say they simply translated the Native American word "Istrouma," which already meant "red stick."
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First, the French took control of the area in 1718 through a land grant. Next, the Treaty of Paris in 1763 gave the English control over "everything East of the Mississippi River except for New Orleans."
Then the Battle of Baton Rouge in 1779 saw the Spanish, under Don Bernardo de Galvez, take control of the city. And finally, an 1810 rebellion of West Florida inhabitants led to Baton Rouge becoming part of the Republic of West Florida.
"By August 4, 1812, tiny Baton Rouge could reflect upon a vivid and colorful past under four flags: Bourbon France, Great Britain, Bourbon Spain, and the West Florida Republic," Carleton wrote in his book. "An equally busy future lay ahead under three more flags — the United States, the Confederate States, and the Republic of Louisiana."
Louisiana became a state in 1812, years after former President Thomas Jefferson purchased the land from Napoleon Bonaparte. And then in 1817, the Legislature incorporated the city of Baton Rouge.
Anglo-Americans mostly lived along North Street, Main Street and Laurel Street, Carleton wrote. The French lived closer to the river along Lafayette Street. And Pennsylvanian German "Highlanders" settled along Highland Road, where they first grew cotton and then switched to sugar cane.
Few places that existed back then are still present today.
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The St. Joseph's Cathedral church parish existed in 1792, but it was under the name Nuestra Señora de Los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows) until 1817. The original church was a few blocks west of Florida Street, slightly northeast of Fort San Carlos, where the Pentagon Barracks were later built, according to a map from 1805.
A group of multilingual priests speaking Spanish, French and English ministered to Baton Rouge's early Christians. Downtown Baton Rouge today features at least 10 churches and five different denominations.
"One interesting fact was that in its earliest years, the parish's priests ministered not just to Catholics but also to Protestants, of all races, since they did not have their own ministers yet," said the Rev. Paul Counce, pastor of St. Joseph's Cathedral. "This may not have been entirely within the scope of the Catholic Church's laws and practices back then (ecumenical relations really didn't "soften up" officially until after Vatican II in the 1960s), but it was the right thing to do. I like to think this was one small way in which the present, good inter-church relations began."
Landmarks that remain from 200 years ago include the Spanish Town and Beauregard Town neighborhoods and the Magnolia Mound Plantation, which wasn't included in the city of Baton Rouge at the time of incorporation. Sykes described Magnolia Mound as "one of the few places you can go to see exactly what it was like" in the early 1800s.
The plantation was built in 1791 before it was expanded in the early 19th century. Cotton and sugar cane were grown there.
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Slavery was a crucial — and brutal — component of Baton Rouge's early development, as enslaved black people toiled in both industrial and agricultural jobs. They worked in foundries, in sawmills and as carpenters' apprentices, and many were tapped for their expertise gained in Africa for growing indigo and rice, said Charles Vincent, a Southern University history professor. Black women were required to do many kinds of work, including domestic jobs as cooks, nurses, maids and laundresses.
About one-third of white people in Baton Rouge owned slaves, but most of them owned only one slave.
"The vast majority of whites were not slave owners, but they benefited from slavery because they had someone to look down upon," Vincent said.
Baton Rouge's population largely stayed static after incorporation, rising to 1,467 by 1830, but it nearly doubled over the next decade. Cotton and sugar cane became more profitable, with Baton Rouge — including both free and enslaved — expanding along with those industries.
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After the Civil War, Baton Rouge grew even more. "During the fourth and fifth decades of the antebellum era, Baton Rouge was transformed from a sleepy little river town, depending largely on steamboats for its contact with the outside world, to a more active river port and the state capital of Louisiana, with traders and businessmen and legislators from all parts of the state walking up and down its streets," wrote historian Meriel Douglas.
By 1920, Baton Rouge was a completely different city. One major change around the turn of the century was the refinery built by Standard Oil, which Sykes sees as one of the most important markers in Baton Rouge history.
The first refinery, now operated by ExxonMobil, was built in 1909. As the oil industry took off and LSU moved from downtown to south Baton Rouge in 1932, neighborhoods sprouted up around both the university and oil refinery. A strong middle class emerged.
Between 1940 and 1956, Baton Rouge's population boomed by 340 percent, reaching 103,000. Through all of the growth, the downtown birthplace of Baton Rouge was a hub of activity. Sears and Rosenfield's retail stores were on Third Street, along with Stroube's Pharmacy.
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A theater first known as Columbia and then as Paramount attracted many. And former Mayor-President Tom Ed McHugh recalls childhood trips from his home in Zachary, where he was born in 1943, into Baton Rouge.
"I knew what we were doing, we were going to Third Street," McHugh said. "That was Baton Rouge. That was the center of commerce and the center of activity in Baton Rouge."
Downtown also played a key role in Baton Rouge's historic start to the civil rights movement, as pastor T.J. Jemison led the nation's first bus boycott in response to segregated seating from his pulpit at Mt. Zion First Baptist Church on East Boulevard. The 1953 boycott became a road map for Martin Luther King Jr., and the city-parish recently renamed the stretch of East Boulevard by the church to T.J. Jemison Boulevard.
McHugh was one of many who led a huge 300th birthday celebration for Baton Rouge in 1999 to mark the anniversary of d'Iberville's discovery, called Bonne Fête. Coca-Cola made special commemorative bottles that people can still buy on Amazon and eBay.
But the downtown birthplace of Baton Rouge started to decline from the 1960s to the 1980s, said Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District. People moved to different parts of the city as the interstate system and other roadways developed and expanded. In The Advocate's 1999 commemorative edition for Baton Rouge's 300th birthday, Third Street was described as "a quiet row of eateries and offices."
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Rhorer and a number of political backers have worked to revive the area, and he is proud to now have about 65 restaurants downtown — including Stroube's Seafood and Steaks, named after the historical pharmacy — along with many hotels. And Rhorer sees it as a worthwhile investment to keep maintaining the birthplace of the city, along with the hub of political business at the State Capitol.
The celebration of Baton Rouge's bicentennial is set for 11 a.m. Tuesday in downtown's North Boulevard Town Square, and everyone is asked to wear red in honor of the the city. Other events will take place throughout the year.
"There's a new generation of people that are taking ownership of downtown, and that's the best thing that could have ever happened," Rhorer said. "I'm determined to make it better than it ever was."
Editor's note: Story was changed after publication to correct a date.