The first major east-west road across North Louisiana
In this week's column I'm going to give a little history about the first major east-west road across North Louisiana, the Wire Road, or as it is better known, the Old Wire Road.
Prior to the 1830s, the migration of settlers to North Louisiana was almost entirely in a north-south line and most of the journey on water-borne transportation. In fact for most of 19th century in Louisiana water based commercial transportation was about the only practical mode of travel. The absence of any authority to pay for road construction combined with the moist soil in our state made any road building rare.
There needed to be some overwhelming need for a road, other than simply travel needs of private citizens to spark construction. That is why the Military Road, which ran from Fort Jesup in Sabine Parish to Fort Towson in Arkansas and was built by the U. S. Army for military purposes, was for so long the only maintained road in our area.
In addition to the factors that impeding road construction was another major obstacle to the settling of North Louisiana in an east-west manner. That was the presence of hostile Indians "in the way" of settlers wanting to come directly west from Georgia. During Andrew Jackson's 2nd term as President, the passage of the Indian Removal Acts opened the door for east-west settlement. The last of the Acts was passed in 1835 and if one looks at the founding of many of the significant towns in North Louisiana – including Minden – they date from the time of the Indian removal.
Soon, demand for a good, maintained road across North Louisiana grew, but once again, absent a government agency or company to build such a road it seemed nearly impossible for such a road to be built. Still, some private efforts at an east-west path were attempted. The existing trails that had been used by settlers were improved in places of heavy traffic, forming the basis of the road that would eventually emerge as the Wire Road.
The first road improvements came from the early settler near Vienna, Daniel Colvin. Colvin, who had settled in today's Lincoln Parish shortly after 1810, did much of his business at Trenton on the Ouachita River so he personally paid for improving the road from Vienna to Trenton (known today as West Monroe). The road ran along a path that had actually been used by Bienville when he came across North Louisiana in the early 1700s. Within a few years after Colvin's work, his improved road was linked to old Indian trails to form the first unofficial road across North Louisiana
By 1825 the first stagecoach began to run between first Trenton and later Monroe to Shreveport along this road – the trip took 30 hours from Shreveport to Monroe for a fare of $15.00 (about $280 in today's currency.)
As the road got more use it became easier to pass, simply from the wear and tear of erosion deepening the roadbed and smoothing the way. Still, no system for keeping up the road was in place and some areas were still little more than "pig trails", making the stagecoach ride across our part of the state a very trying experience.
In 1857, this route acquired a name, the Wire Road, and an organization with a vested interest to keep the road clear, when the telegraph line across North Louisiana was completed and it was constructed along the path of the most-used road. Needing the ability to quickly reach and repair breaks in the line, the telegraph company made sure that the road was passable and in good shape. The Wire Road became a reliable, if still not comfortable, route across our region.
Shortly after that time, in 1862, according to a preserved fare schedule of the Trenton-Shreveport stage line this was the official route:
Name of Station/Number of Miles/Cost of Fare
First stand/12/ $1.20
Walnut Creek/47 /$4.70
Fifteen years later, we have another schedule that added the estimated times to the schedule:
11:00 p.m./Walnut Creek /$4.50
3:00 a.m./Mt. Lebanon/ $6.00
The lower charges reflected in this chart may be an economic factor, but also could be caused by changes to the route. During the Civil War both in the Vicksburg and the Red River campaign, the nearness of Union forces necessitated the main road be rerouted along with the telegraph line. In 1885, the telegraph line returned to its 1857 location – earning this route across North Louisiana the name we know today. It became the "Old Wire Road". The source of the "new" name was fairly simple. The name was simply the answer given in response to the question: "Where are they moving the telegraph lines?" – The answer: "back to the old wire road."
That brings the question about where the exact route ran. Traditionally most accounts have said it "followed along Highway 80" -- but clearly that is not true. Vienna miles away from what became Highway 80, as is Mt. Lebanon. I have learned over the past few years that the Old Wire Road approached Minden well north of Highway 80, along what is today called the Old Arcadia Road. In Minden the main stage operator was Christopher Chaffee. Christopher Chaffee's stage station and inn for travelers was well north and east of the future Highway 80. The location of Bellevue on the route also makes it far away from Highway 80. But we do know many places where the wire road closely followed path used by Highway 80 in the 1920s such as at Nine Forks just east of Minden. So, perhaps it is best to say that the Old Wire Road roughly followed a path similar to Highway 80.
Dr. Luther Longino in his book, Thoughts, Visions and Sketches of North Louisiana described a trip he made on this stage in the early 1880s. His outgoing trip was from his home in Claiborne parish to Minden and then on to board a steamboat in Shreveport on his way to medical school in New Orleans. On his next return to North Louisiana he came to Monroe on a riverboat and there caught the stage for a return trip to Minden. Here is his account of that return journey:
"A heavy snow and sleet had fallen, and the whole country was wrapped in winter's icy mantle, but undaunted by weather conditions, the stage left on time with my friend and me as sole passengers. We fared very well until we reached old Vienna, where we had supper and changed horses. As we left that little village the night grew colder and colder, the limbs of the freezing trees began to crack, break and fall and every now and then, the top of a tree would break off and go crashing down to the snow-covered ground with a sickening and weird sound. The pine bushes standing by the narrow roadside were loaded with sleet and snow, many of which had fallen into the road, and lay there like white ghosts threatening our approach, and her and there the taller and slenderer ones bent their long bodies and hung their tops well out into the road, barring our progress, and in some instances requiring a halt while the driver untangled and pushed them aside, so we could pass between them. Ever and anon, we would run into the open country, where the cruel winds swept us from every side. Along about one o'clock, our driver sounded the bugle for the old college town of Mt. Lebanon, and soon our coach was standing in front of a store and a post office, while the postmaster crawled out of his warm bed, to receive and deliver the mail. This attended to, we moved out of the old town, on our last lap of the journey home, which we reached some time the next morning. That was a night of suffering and loneliness, never to be forgotten by those two young men."
Longino had fond memories of his trip and thought it a wonderful story. However, not everyone found the trip such a good memory. Here's an account by someone he found nothing good to tell of his experience.
Thomas Tolbert came to Louisiana after the Civil War from South Carolina to farm, tried it for a year and suffered so much trouble he decided to go back home. Thus he probably was did not have the best attitude toward Louisiana when he wrote home describing his stage trip from Shreveport to Monroe, specifically the leg from Minden to Vienna.
"The stage, or as it is more properly called "mud wagon", upset opposite this place (Vienna) last night at 8:00. Fortunately no one sustained any injury but myself. The joint above the armpit in my left shoulder was dislocated. I suffered great pain for the time and was unable to proceed with the "mud wagon" any further. . . . Our trip for roughness and discomfort has exceeded my worst anticipations. From Minden we had eleven passengers in a very small hack. We were literally wedged in. If I had to choose between a boat and a stage again I would take boat. Decent people ought not patronize the line from Shreveport to Vicksburg. Mrs. P. and baby stood it pretty well. She held the little fellow in her arms while the stage was upsetting. Seemed more anxious about him than herself. It is a wonder there was no more damage done. We were going in a full trot down a long hill. The driver succeeded in stopping the horses immediately. I think some of the rest were scared as bad as I was hurt. Wiley was lying under the seats. John got fastened someway and the stage had to be prised to let him out. He was frightened out of his wits.
Tolbert lived out his life in South Carolina and never returned to the site of his nightmare journey.
So, that's a little bit of the story of the earliest east-road across North Louisiana, and of course, since that basic route of the Old Wire Road is still followed by our modern highways, it is a living Echo of Our Past.
John Agan is a local historian, an instructor at Bossier Parish Community College and a published author. His column appears Fridays in the Minden Press-Herald.