In 1720, 21 German families from the Rhine region of Germany settled on the West Bank of the Mississippi river. These families had suffered horribly during the Thirty Years War and subsequent French occupation and had fled by the thousands to the New World, enticed by promises of great wealth promoted by John Law. These original German settlers were given small plots of land by Law’s Company of the Indies and a few primitive tools. In return, they found hardships in lieu of the promised great wealth.
In 1721, 330 German immigrants led by a Swedish officer named Karl Friedrich D’Arensbourg, who worked for the Company of the Indies, arrived in Louisiana. D'Arensbourg was to play a vital role in the history of the German Coast as well as that of New Orleans. In 1722, Germans from John Law’s Arkansas Concession arrived in New Orleans demanding passage to Europe. Due to a lack of ships and supplies, Louisiana Gov. Bienville persuaded them to remain, and they eventually joined the other Germans along the banks of the Mississippi.
The census of 1731 – approximately 10-and-a-half years after the establishment of the settlement – shows there were no farm animals in the settlement. This is evidence that the first settlers endured hardships in farming, as the land which was used for farming was cleared by hand and done under the most primitive of conditions. In 1765 and 1766, the first Acadians arrived in the area, and they too were given land along the river. They joined the Germans in raising the fruits and produce that was used to feed the city of New Orleans.
Besides the fruit and vegetables grown for the marketplace in New Orleans, tobacco and indigo were grown on the German Coast. Due to the large amount of swamp area containing many cypress trees and a large number of live oak trees in the area, lumber was also a thriving business venture.
By 1792 – when Destrehan Plantation became the property of Jean Noel Destrehan and his wife Marie Celeste Eleanor Robin deLogny – the German Coast contained a rich mixture of Germans, French Creoles, French Acadians and free blacks. Ormond Plantation on the East Bank and Home Place Plantation on the West Bank were built during this decade.
The lands along the German Coast are flat and slope from approximately 14 feet above natural sea level at the banks of the Mississippi River, to approximately 1 foot above sea level at the shore of Lake Pontchartrain on the East Bank. Because the last 4 to 5 miles of land toward the lake are flat, level swampland that gives way to marsh as it approaches the lake, only 3 to 4 miles of land closest to the banks of the river was suitable for cultivation. As a result, the first serious attempts at levee building began around 1743. Though each landowner was responsible for building and maintaining levees along his property, these levees were usually only about 5 feet high, and the area suffered disastrous floods almost yearly.
In 1928, test pilings were driven, and a controlled outlet for the flooding Mississippi River was created, aptly named the Bonnet Carre Spillway. The spillway was opened just in time. In January 1937 one of the greatest of all recorded floods started its way down the Mississippi River.
In February, the Carrolton gauge at New Orleans registered 20 feet, and the spillway was opened for the first time. The great levee experiment was successful, and the area remained high and dry. Now, thanks to the protection provided by the Bonnet Carre Spillway, river flooding is virtually unknown in St. Charles Parish.
In 1803, Louisiana was sold to the United States in the largest peacetime land acquisition in the history of the world. For only $15 million dollars, the United States purchased most of the land from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, and straddling the continent from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. The present boundaries of the state were set, and Louisiana was admitted to the Union in 1812.
In 1853, a major yellow fever epidemic struck New Orleans, and its effects were felt along the German Coast. During this time, the priest at the Little Red Church (so named for its red roof that served as a distance marker for watermen on their way to the Port of Orleans) was a Frenchman named father Paret.
On the heels of the Yellow Fever Epidemic in 1861, Louisiana seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. During the Civil War, St. Charles Parish was the scene of several skirmishes but no large battles were fought. By 1864, the area had two governors, one Confederate and one Federal. The federal governor was Michael Hahn, who later founded Hahnville, now the seat of St. Charles Parish’s local government.
By the early 1900s, industry started moving into the parish. In 1907 the first sawmill in the parish opened in Taft, the home of the Colonial Dairy Farm, one of the largest dairies in the state. In 1908, the Louisiana Cypress Company began to harvest cypress in the area. The Cousins Canal was dug, and by 1912, more than 100,000 feet of board lumber was floated out of it.
With the discovery of oil at Jennings Field around the turn of the century, a new area of economic opportunity opened up along the German Coast. In 1914, Destrehan Plantation was sold to the Mexican Petroleum Company, and it became the first of the River Road plantations to change from an agricultural to an industrial economic base. Through a series of buyouts and mergers, the house became the property of the American Oil Company, and the "Big House" was deeded by AMOCO to the River Road Historical Society for preservation.
With the coming of the oil refineries, related industries also located in the parish. First was an oil export terminal owned by Cities Service Company, located in St. Rose in 1922, followed in 1925 by General American Transportation Corporation and Coatwise Petroleum in Good Hope.
Oil was discovered in St. Charles Parish in 1938 at Bayou Des Allemands, Paradis in 1939, Lake Salvador in 1940 and Bayou Couba in 1942. The 1950s saw the opening of Monsanto and Lion Oil Co. In Luling, Shell Chemical, Union Carbide (Dow St. Charles Operations), Hooker Chemical (Occidental Chemical), and the Bunge and St. Charles Grain elevators.