BREAUX BRIDGE – The world was on the brink of some big changes when this city was officially incorporated in 1859.
Foremost in many minds is the War Between the States, which ripped the lace curtains from the Antebellum South and revealed a charred landscape of deprivation, corruption and deepening hate that has yet to completely green over. And the harbinger of it occurred on Oct. 16, 1859, when abolitionist John Brown raided the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., for weapons to foment a slave rebellion.
Probably a bigger event that occurred in 1859 – although folks back then could not possibly have appreciated it – was the completion of the first commercially successful oil well, by Col. Edwin L. Drake, just south of Titusville, Pa., on Aug. 27. Kerosene quickly became a cheap substitute for whale oil for lamps and gasoline was used in dry-cleaning and to treat head lice. Drake and his ilk could hardly have foreseen drive-in restaurants and theaters, interstate highways, self-service gas stations, supertankers, OPEC and modern Kuwait.
Another big event: On Nov. 24, 1859, Charles Darwin published “On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” Darwin’s theory put a crack in mankind’s comfortable view of the world which has since widened into an immense gulf between, arguably not only “creationists” and “evolutionists,” but also “traditionalists” and “secularists,” conservative and liberal, red precincts and blue precincts.
A little less monumental was the installation, in March 1859, of the “Melpomene Machine,” the first pump set up to drain New Orleans – this back when Katrina was merely an exotic-sounding girl’s name.
There was also that year a major solar storm, what some have called a “cosmic Katrina,” that spread the northern lights all the way down to the Caribbean. But as there were no cell phones or satellites (Marconi’s signal wouldn’t spark for another 36 years) the gigantic flare-up didn’t have nearly the impact it would of course today.
And, to cover the mundane along with the celestial, the year 1859 saw general acceptance of the sack coat as everyday apparel for gentlemen. Combined with a new trend in matching trousers and waistcoats, or vests, you have the dawn of the modern business suit de rigueur on Main Street until only recently, at least in the South – and now a victim of global warming, which people on one side of Darwin’s gulf blame on the fossil fuel era ushered in by Drake’s oil well.
And all of it stemming back to 1859, the year Breaux Bridge became an official dot on the map of Louisiana.