Lake Charles History and Fun Facts
Where did the name “Lake Charles” come from? A little-known fact, even to locals is that our city gets its name from a tragically romantic story involving love, jealousy and pirates. The lives of some of the first settlers, Charles Sallier, Catherine LeBleu and pirate Jean Lafitte, have made huge impacts. Catherine Lebleu’s descendants still live in our area today as owners of the popular restaurant Lebleu’s Landing. Charles Sallier’s memory lives on at the Imperial Calcasieu Museum’s 375-year-old landmark, The Sallier Oak. The tales of Jean Lafitte live on with the annual Contraband Days Louisiana Pirate Festival.
Did you know that Lake Charles started as a sawmill town? Several homes within the Charpentier Historic District and the entire downtown was built with this lumber. A fire destroyed nearly everything in the early 1900s. About 30 blocks of the downtown area including the courthouse, city hall and the Catholic Church were all destroyed. It’s known as The Great Fire of 1910. Today to commemorate this part of history, Chef Andrew Green opened 1910 Restaurant and Wine Bar. The restaurant is located in the Phoenix Building, which is also symbolic of Lake Charles’ rise from the ashes of The Great Fire of 1910.
Lake Charles LA Has a Rich Heritage
Lake Charles is full of interesting and colorful history. The Travel Channel lists The Calcasieu Parish Courthouse as one of the top ten haunted places in America. It is said that the courthouse is haunted by the ghost of Toni Jo Henry who was sentenced to death for murdering Joseph Calloway in a car-jacking that involved a plot to break her husband out of jail in 1940. Toni Jo became the only woman executed in Louisiana’s electric chair. The execution took place in the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse in 1942. Apparently Toni Jo never left! There have been reports of electrical outlets not working, doors locked and even the smell of a woman’s hair burning. Lights flickering and electrical system failures have all been blamed on Toni Jo!
There are also many tales of the famous Pirate Jean Lafitte who is said to have docked in Lake Charles. One story that includes Jean Lafitte has to do with the oldest house in Lake Charles which is the Sallier-Barbe house located on Shell Beach Drive. Charles Sallier and his wife Catherine were quite good friends with Jean Lafitte, but Sallier had become jealous of his wife and Lafitte — As legend tells it, one day Charles Sallier thought that Catherine was having an affair with Jean Laffite. In his rage, he picked up his pistol and shot Catherine. When Catherine fell to the ground, he thought he had killed her, so he jumped on his horse and fled, never to be heard from again. However, Catherine survived the shot by a simple piece of jewelry – her brooch! When the pistol was fired the bullet lodged in the large brooch Catherine was wearing. This brooch is a family heirloom that the Barbe family still treasures.
Along the lakefront on Shell Beach Drive you will find large antebellum family estates. One of these southern family estates was the home of famous country western star, Lynne Anderson when she married Louisiana oilman, Harold Stream III and lived in Lake Charles.
The stretch of Shell Beach that borders the lake is also lined with beautiful 100 year oak trees. One estate in particular along Shell Beach is home to a famous 170 year old Oak tree known as the “Calcasieu Manor Tree”. This oak tree is registered with the Live Oak Society of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation .The “Calcasieu Manor” tree also has a caretaker and seedlings are harvested from the tree and sent to the coastline to be used in conservation preservation. There are three more old established oak trees located in the front of the property that were planted as seedings from this 170+ year old tree!
MARGARET PLACE- THE FIRST STREETCAR SUBDIVISION IN LAKE CHARLES
Margaret Place in Lake Charles, LA is generally considered the oldest recorded subdivision in Calcasieu Parish
HOW WAS MARGARET PLACE NAMED?
In 1885 Allen Perkins purchased approximately 37 acres of land between the Lake Charles lakefront and Ryan Street from the Sallier heirs. Following Perkins’ death in 1985 his wife Margaret received the parcel of land referred to as “Perkins Homestead” and “Margaret’s Pasture”. In 1910 Margaret Perkins died and Hi-Mount Land Company purchased the property from the four Perkins heirs in 1911. Residential lots were advertised and began to sell in Margaret Place the new Lake Charles subdivision served by the South Ryan Streetcar!
A LAKE CHARLES STREETCAR SUBDIVISION
From 1894 to 1926, as many as four steel-rail streetcar lines served Lake Charles, providing, at one time, 24-hour transit service to residents. Three of the lines operated as a city utility and one line (known as the “Dummy line” along Broad Street) was operated by the Watkins and Missouri Pacific Railroad. The three city lines served the densely developed downtown and ran south from Railroad Avenue on Ryan Street, two lines then going east on Kirby Street and with one line proceeding north on Kirkman to Goosport.
The second line ran east on Kirby then south on Hodges Street to the brickyards on the south east edge of town.
The longest line of the three continued south on Ryan then turned west at Miller Avenue (now 7th St) to run along South Ryan Street ending at the Lake Street edge of what would become Shell Beach road. This was the historic South Ryan Streetcar line.
Margaret Place was well positioned to easily access both the downtown business district and recreational areas at the end of town near Shell Beach, Walnut Grove. Earlier streetcar subdivisions included Central Place near Good Shepherd Church and the Common Street neighborhood. in 1926 streetcars were discontinued with the purchase of City Buses. In 2011 a section of the original tracks was uncovered during replacement of the Pithon Coulee Bridge!
For more information about Margaret Place Homes visit a preview of Margaret Place homes here.
LAKE CHARLES HISTORICAL BUILDINGS
THE CALCASIEU PARISH COURTHOUSE circa 1912
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse sits on the southwest corner of Ryan and Kirby Street in Lake Charles. The Calcasieu Parish Courthouse is the centerpoint of Lake Charles executive history. The massive columns in the front distinguish the architecture which was designed by the largest 1912 architecture firm in New Orleans- Favrot and Livadais.
Just across the Street from the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse is the Lake Charles 1911 Historical City Hall located on the Southeast corner of Ryan and Kirby Streets in Lake Charles, LA
Constructed in 1911 by the New Orleans Architect firm of Favrot and Livaudais, the 1911 Historical City Hall features ornate red and white Spanish Baroque features. The most distinctive features of the structure include:
- Red tiled roof
- Italian Church Bell Tower
- Double Faced Clock
The 1911 Historic City Hall served as the seat of Lake Charles city government until 1978 and is now refurbished as the Arts & Cultural Center hosting a gallery of rotating exhibits.
1911 Historic City Hall has recently been incorporated in the Lake Charles Downtown Streetscape. The exterior of the building has been lushly landscaped and front sidewalk areas enhanced with brick pavers flowerbeds and new benches!