Accidents Mysteries & Misadventures

The Legend of Honey Island Swamp

Bayous

In Southern Louisiana, the bayous are home to people, wildlife (most famously gators), and my favorite part, cooler weather than the city. Since the Cajuns settled in the bayous they’ve been dealing with the loss of their home little by little. By the 1930s the Louisiana coast had lost a significant portion of its marshes and wetlands. Hurricane Katrina’s devastation was a clear sign that the area is still fighting against the erosion of the bayou.

As the bayous shrink the storms grow bigger. They unleash themselves over the cities like New Orleans, faster, harder and further inland. When you see the bayou, you can hardly believe anyone would destroy it. It’s the big corporation of course, particularly the petroleum industry. The one in these photos is one of the most pristine and untouched bayous and so it is now heavily protected, as it should be.

(A little secret: that house in my photos is a fake by the way. It was built to depict what life was like years ago on the bayou, although the structure is still similar today the houses are a tiny bit more modern (well some of them). They were using this one to film a movie or documentary, I never got all the details. When gators surface you tend to get a little distracted.)

TRAIN WRECK

As with most murky waters, there is a legend that you’ll hear around here. I’ll tell you about it in a minute (it’s a little silly, truth be told). But the kernel of truth I took from that story was the train wreck where the legend begins. In 1922, a New Orleans-San Francisco Sunset Express passenger train was involved in an accident with the Wortham Carnival Show’s circus train. The Express train engineer claimed he hadn’t seen the rear end lights of the 25-car circus train until he was nearly on top of the circus train. The circus performers were leaving New Orleans for a show in New Iberia, Louisiana (which as an interesting side note was occupied by Union soldiers during the Civil War; the soldiers foraged for supplies in the swamps).

As the circus performers slept in their Pullman cars, the Express trains had ploughed through the sleeper cars at the end. The force was so great that they train cars virtually exploded. The New York Times reporting on the crash wrote: “One of the passenger coaches used on the rear of the show train as a caboose and four others as sleeping quarters, were reduced to kindling wood.” No one on the passenger train was injured but three died and five were injured on the circus train. With fear of a fire and screaming victims some Express passengers hopped out and began to free the circus performers who had been trapped in the crash.

 

As a side note Wortham Carnival is an interesting story in its own right. Run by Clarence Wortham, a man barely five feet tall but nicknamed “The Little Giant,” he went into the carnival business in his early 20’s and very successfully. Soon his circus couldn’t even play all the shows they were asked to do. He took great pride in his troupe and outbid everyone for the most interesting performers he could find. The train cars for the circus were painted in a rich red and emblazoned with gold lettering “Wortham’s World’s Greatest Shows.” Clarence even worked with the famous conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton (there’s a new documentary out about them right now), when they were young girls. They said he was one of the few people who treated them as normal, sensitive individuals during their show business career and made sure they were tutored alongside his sons.

To steer back to the point, that’s the only circus train wreck I can find connected to New Orleans around that time period and so the retelling of the accident was twisted and later used in the creation of the legend.

Bears, Gators…and Monsters

Honey Island Swamp is part of the Pearl River. While it’s one of the most extensively protected marshes there are still some eco-friendly tours if you’d like to climb into a tin boat and float amongst the gators, which as you can see I did but now that I think rationally back on it I’m going more hmmmmm…. Years ago we used to be able to toss marshmallows in, a real gator decadence, but there are many new reforms now to help protect the gators (and the owls, raccoons, wild boars, snakes, turtles, bald eagles, nutria and black bears there). I mean, no surprise, mountains of marshmallows aren’t good for you 😉

The area isn’t named for its main attraction these days, the gators take a back seat to the bees. Originally this area was named Honey Island Swamp because of all the honeybees (and I can assure you they are still there and they are oh so big!). But according to legend bees and gators aren’t even the scariest creatures out here. Legend has it that a train carrying circus animals crashed into the river in the early twentieth century. Most of the animals perished except the chimpanzees who were able to survive and crossbreed with the gators, creating the Honey Island Swamp monster.

Here’s a visual of what it’s supposed to look like, though one done in a Saturday morning cartoon animation because that’s how much credence I can give this story. Basically a big hairy ape-gator with glowing yellow reptilian eyes. In reality, the tracks found…or used to produce evidence of a monster’s tracks…were most likely gator prints if anything at all. There were only two documented sightings. One from a man who eventually disappeared while on his boat in the swamp which I’m certainly fed the legend even more. It’s more than 10 degrees cooler down on the bayou though so if you’re in New Orleans in the summer you should probably risk running into any creatures because it feels real nice on the water {also they’ll let you hold a tiny, baby gator on the boat 😉 }.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5