Titled "Pilottown: Then and Now," my photos from 2005-2010 are seen alongside photos from 1938 by Russell Lee, on assignment from the Farm Security Administration - one of Roosevelt's many New Deal programs. I'm very happy to be in Mr. Lee's company for this photo essay.
Pilottown: Then and Now
When I visited Pilottown in January of 2005, I had no idea I'd be most likely the last person to make any photographic record of the location before Hurricane Katrina wiped it out later that year. At the time of my visit, both the Associated Branch Pilots and Crescent River Port Pilots operated out of Pilottown, and I was told there were four or five permanent residents left, who mostly earned their keep by assisting the river pilots with various errands and small construction needs. (At its peak in the 1950s, there were over 200 permanent residents including families with children; there also was a one-room schoolhouse and a post office.) There were about 30 active dwellings along the concrete pier, and around 20 derelict structures -- some of the former full-time homes for river pilots and their families, along with trappers and fishermen. The active structures had over time become weekend fishing camps for those who maintained them, but I did meet one permanent resident who lived in a very run-down and shabby-looking camp. He was burning his trash off the pier, and when I asked "Would you mind if I took your picture?" he replied angrily "Yes, I would." I remember saying "OK, asshole," as I continued walking past him. Although I am sure he had some claim to the property he was staying in, he certainly wasn't taking very good care of it, and I suspect he was more or less hiding out there, living without electricity or running water, and my reply to him was borne of the fact that although I respect other people's privacy when photographing, and though I enjoy periods of solitude as much as any other man, I'm often annoyed by people whose need for privacy is so great that it borders on insanity; in their view, it seems everyone is out to get them. I don't know what happened to this man, if he's still alive, or if he made it out of Pilottown before Katrina hit.
I had a much better time with the Associated Branch Pilots. As I approached the their headquarters, a pilot sitting on the front porch stood up and shook my hand, saying "I'm Buddy. Welcome to our island." He invited me and my stepson in, where the pilots offered us a good lunch and told us about how they've operated on the river for over 100 years. Walking along the mile-long pier, shooting three rolls of black-and-white film that day, I was overjoyed, absolutely in a dream. Palm trees lined portions of the pier, the railings strung with Christmas lights. As I walked along taking photos, I imagined what a simple, care-free existence living here must have been in the early 20th century, in a place that once boasted of having no cars, and no crime.
None of the remaining permanent residents returned to Pilottown after Katrina. With the exception of the Crescent Pilots station and the miraculous sparing of the remnants of the old general store, nearly every structure on the island completely vanished in the storm. Some of the pilots rode out Katrina in their headquarters, seen in the photo above. Although this structure survived hurricanes Betsy (1965) and Camille (1969) without a hitch, Katrina's surge actually lifted it up off its pilings and pushed it back about five yards from where it normally sat. I was told that the pilots riding the storm out on the top floor were terrified by being able to feel the house floating up and slamming down on the pilings during the storm's peak. Though it was apparently a very hard decision, the Associated Branch Pilots decided to relocate upriver to Venice, ending their 100-plus year residence at Pilottown, citing constant problems with communications and the logistical difficulties of being in such a remote location, along with the increase in hurricanes hitting the mouth of the river. The Crescent Port River Pilots still remain in Pilottown, along with one solitary camp that was rebuilt after the storm. No others have been built since. Hurricane Katrina forever changed the traditions of pilotage on the Mississippi River, and erased one of the most beautiful, mysterious, and intriguing places I've ever visited. Pilottown will never be the same.