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Inaugural Address
President John F. Kennedy

Melville, Louisiana
May 20, 1927

 

     From the corner of Church and Havard streets, W.G. McNeil pointed to the second level of rooms at the long closed Wyble Hotel.

Where the bricks on the columns stop, just below the balcony floor, that's how high the 1927 water rose, he noted.

McNeil held in his other hand a recent copy of the Avoyelles Heritage newspaper. The Marksville weekly contained a photo taken during the flood. It showed Church Street under 15 feet of water. Visible only were the tops of walkway coverings, attics and second floors of businesses then lining the street.

McNeil said he was 6 years old when the levee along the Atchafalaya River broke just south of the downtown area. "It was 5 or 6 in the morning. We thought it was a cattle stampede with all the people moving and the shooting going on to wake people up.

"I remember I took my marbles with me," McNeil said, adding that he can remember the feel of them in his hand.

McNeil and his mother left Melville by ferry that morning for Baton Rouge. "They had two tugs on that ferry. The river was so strong. It took forever to get across," he recalled.

Ruth Thomasson Hebert, also 6 years old at the time of the 1927 flood, had left Melville for New Orleans with her mother and siblings just days before the levee broke. "We stayed away five-and-a-half months," she said.

When they returned their rental home had been sanitized and painted by Red Cross workers, Hebert said. "We lost everything," she commented.

Prior to the May 17 break at Melville, water was already pouring into Central Louisiana from Bayou Des Glaizes in Avoyelles Parish. Levees there had crumbled five day before the Melville break.

People were leaving Melville days before the May 17 disaster, Hebert said. "The train station was full of people," she stated.

Seven states encountered flooding from September 1926 through July 1927. Heavy rains and snow in the North and Midwest dumped water into the Mississippi River and the numerous tributaries that fed into and from it.

By the end of December 1926, every river gauge on the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri rivers showed record high levels.

In March 1927, St. Landry Parish was inundated with rain. By March 29, guards walked levee lines from Avoyelles Parish to Krotz Springs. A month later plans were being made to accept evacuees in Opelousas.

On June 3, the Red Cross reported 14,210 refugees housed in Opelousas.

During the 1920s and into the 1930s, Melville was a booming town with a population topping 2,000, McNeil reported. A total of four hotels, a movie theater, and numerous businesses profited during those days.

Melville was a main crossing along the Atchafalaya River and anyone traveling from Shreveport to New Orleans crossed there, McNeil said.

Hebert said Melville's demise is calculated from the time of construction of the Atchafalaya river bridge in Krotz Springs. The story goes, that the bridge was intentionally placed so highway traffic would bypass the town, she said.

When Huey P. Long was running for governor, he came to Melville and supposedly was given some kind of old box on which to stand while speaking. The story goes that Long was laughed at, and the Melville voters didn't support him. As punishment Long intentionally placed the new river bridge south of the town, Hebert said.

Whatever motivated Long to chose Krotz Springs as the site for a bridge, the result was devastating for Melville. Traffic was diverted away from the town and with that the commerce that helped to built it up.

Water covered Melville streets for 65 days.

Both McNeil's and Hebert's fathers stayed to help others get out.

The now gone Able Hotel, also located on Church Street, was alive with activity that first day of the flood. In front of it a platform was hurriedly construction so the town's telephone operator could keep lines operating.

Also, as water rushed in, a failed attempt was made to move the safe from the Merchants and Farmers Bank to the second floor of the hotel. At the foot of the stairwell the safe was left until late July.

When waters finally receded enough so the safe could be opened, small amounts of money were removed daily and laid out in room 28 to dry. It took 15 days to dry all the money held captive for two months.

After the flood, the levee was rebuilt a third greater in size and curved west to alleviate pressure in the area of the 1927 break. That curved levee is located directly across from the Melville Elementary School on La. 105
.


John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library - Columbia Point - Boston, Massachusetts 02125
Tel: 1-877-616-4599
Fax: 617-929-4538
Email: kennedy.library@nara.gov

John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library Foundation - Columbia Point - Boston, Massachusetts 02125
Tel: 617-929-1200
Fax: 617-436-3395

Email:
kennedy.foundation@nara.gov

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Page created June 6, 1996 / updated: September 02, 2002

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