Louisiana was trouble to the Old Spanish Trail Association. Its swampy terrain, high ferry rates and homebred corruption delayed the completion of the highway for many years. A political furor over the spanning of Lake Pontchartrain sent Managing Director Harral Ayres to New Orleans several times to push for the construction of the free Chef Menteur and Rigolets bridges rather than the private Lake Pontchartrain toll bridge. After the Old Spanish Trail opened in 1929, Louisiana got with the program and hard surfaced the entire length of the route. The state later financed the important Huey P. Long Bridge, closing one of the last water gaps on the route. Although much of current US 90 feels like an interstate, many sections of the old highway are intact, meandering lazily through scenic Cajun Country.
Huey P. Long Bridge, New Orleans
When the Old Spanish Trail officially opened in 1929, there were still two major water gaps along its route. Both were in Louisiana: Berwick Bay and the mighty Mississippi.
Although he did not conceive of the bridge, Governor Huey Long saw its necessity and contributed $7 million dollars to construction. Completed in 1935, the year of Long’s assassination, the $13 million dollar combined-vehicular-and-railroad bridge covers 4.4 miles, with its center span stretching 790 feet, providing 135 feet of vertical clearance between the river and the bridge. The bridge is a true engineering marvel of the Old Spanish Trail and is currently being widened for a century’s worth of new use.
Shadows-on-the-Teche, New Iberia
Just west of the Huey P. Long Bridge, the adventurous traveler can take a break from hectic US 90 and follow the old highway. However, the impatient driver may want to wait and exit at Raceland, 35 miles southwest of New Orleans, to pickup up the Old Spanish Trail Scenic Byway.
This scenic road essentially follows the route of the Old Spanish Trail through Sugar Cane and Cajun Country all the way to Lafayette. The moss-draped byway provides numerous opportunities to tour museums and historic plantations and explore cypress swamps by boat.
Shadows-on-the Teche, right on the Old Spanish Trail in New Iberia, is a 1834 hybrid Georgian Revival and Creole “town” mansion built by sugar planter David Weeks. Nearly one hundred years later, with the mansion in a great state of decay, the builder’s great-grandson William Weeks Hall engaged in a project to return the grand home to its 19th century appearance. Docents on the tour tell colorful stories of Weeks Hall, an aesthete and a probable schizophrenic, and his celebrity guests.
West of Lafayette, the highway moves away from the bayous of Cajun Country and onto Cajun Prairie and Rice Country. Here, Louisiana produces nearly three billion pounds of rice annually.
The tiny burg of Rayne is the self-proclaimed “Frog Capital of the World” and host of the annual Rayne Frog Festival in September.
Crowley is the seat of Acadia Parish and the “Rice Capital of America," hosting the Annual International Rice Festival. Look for the neon sign announcing the 1940 Rice Theatre downtown.
The Riviana rice elevator sits west of town. Farther west in Jennings, another rice city, is a rare artifact of the Old Spanish Trail — the More Mileage Service Station on Main Street. At one time a day and night service station, the vacant building’s fate is now unknown.
Movie star Jayne Mansfield died tragically on the Old Spanish Trail in 1967 on the way to a nightclub appearance when her car slammed into the back of a truck just past the Rigolets Bridge at 2:25 am. Mansfield was killed instantly, as was lawyer Sam Brody and her driver, but three kids asleep in the back of the car all lived. The exact location of the accident is debated.
Louisiana is the only state that markets its Old Spanish Trail highway — sort of. Off and on again over the past decade, a coalition of towns between Raceland and Lafayette have promoted old US 90 and LA 182 as a scenic byway.
Scenic it is, spanning prairies and swamps, Creoles and Cajuns, alligators and crawfish, sugarcane and peppers, Zydeco and Cajun and the annual blessing of the shrimp fleets.