Jon de Vos: Subterranean homesick blues
By the age of 4, stage and silent screen star, Joseph Jefferson, was already an accomplished actor. Born in 1829, by the time he was 40, he was famous, wealthy, and renowned for his 4,500 performances of Rip Van Winkle, a stage production he loosely adapted from Washington Irving. Sometime in 1870, he purchased a 3,600 acre estate on Orange Island, Louisiana, and built a beautiful mansion on a hill overlooking Lake Peigneur. His estate boasted hundreds of acres of lush tropical gardens.
In 1899, Louisiana’s entire orange crop froze and most of the trees died and he changed the the name of the estate was changed to Jefferson Island.
At 70 feet above sea level, Jefferson’s home sat on one of the highest points around. He died in 1905, and in 1917, heirs sold the estate to J. Lyle Bayless, wealthy friend of E. A. McIlhenny who owned nearby Avery Island, home to America’s most famous tabasco sauce. Avery Island also boasts the magnificent and exotic Jungle Gardens.
Not true islands at all, Jefferson and Avery are two of five inland salt domes in southern Louisiana, primordial fingers of salt thrusting up to the Earth’s surface.
Bayless began to mine the very pure salt that lay twenty feet below his tropical and fertile land. In 1956, heirs sold the mine to Diamond Crystal Company who expanded the operations. By 1980, over 40 million tons of salt had been excavated out of the earth, leaving enormous caverns 1,300 feet below the beautiful gardens surrounding Lake Peigneur.
The caverns extended far under Lake Peigneur, a 1,250 acre body of water with a maximum depth of about eight feet. Grand Lake by comparison, while much deeper, covers only 600 acres. The Delcambre Canal connects Lake Peigneur to the Gulf of Mexico, twelve miles to the south. Oil barges flow along this canal on their way to and from the Gulf. Life was good at this manicured and privileged estate.
Good, that was, until Thursday morning, Nov. 20, 1980, when Texaco Oil drilled a test well through the lake and into the salt mine 1,300 feet below. Later, Texaco officials said they knew there were salt mines in the area, they just never imagined they would be under the lake.
At 1,228 feet, the drill jammed. The dozen men on the drilling platform watched in mounting horror as the lake began to swirl and the derrick took an ominous tilt. No coincidence whatever, 1,300 feet directly below them, 50 salt miners began running for safety when water started showering down on them. The drillers swam to safety, while the miners caught the next elevator heading up. Joining each other on the shore, what a sight they beheld when they looked back at the lake.
Like taking the stopper out of a big sink, a whirlpool quickly grew to 200-feet in diameter sucking down not only the five million dollar Texaco drilling platform, but also a second one nearby, a tugboat, eleven oil barges that were dragged backwards out of the Delcambre Canal, several docks, greenhouses, a seventy acre garden, house trailers, trucks, tractors, three dogs and a parking lot, but not one single person perished in the whole ordeal.
After two days, the lake was completely drained, the lakeshore devastated and forever changed. As disbelieving observers watched in amazement, a two-hundred foot geyser spewed from the hole, spitting back debris that had just been swallowed.
Within a few days, the swirling waters calmed, and the lake filled again. Eventually, nine of the sunken barges bobbed back to the surface. Without admitting guilt, Texaco settled claims of about 50 million dollars.
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