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No roads lead to Pilottown, but nary a ship passes it by

By Stewart McBrideStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 1982



Pilottown, La.

In days past, Pilottown might have been Old Man River's swan song.

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One of the last outposts on the soggy banks of the Mississippi before it gurgles into the Gulf of Mexico, Pilottown was inhabited by a family dynasty of river pilots who made their living threading foreign freighters through the narrow channel between New Orleans and the ocean. Every so often, hurricanes would wash their houses downriver. And every so often the townspeople would rebuild. Destructive winds and waves became a fact of life.

During the last few decades, however, particularly after hurricanes Betsy and Camille successively razed the town, many of the old families threw in the towel. They headed toward New Orleans and settled on higher ground. The river pilots' work, however, kept them close to the mouth of the Mississippi. They stayed behind in Pilottown, along with a few dozen other hardy souls who had become part of the pilot fraternity.

Today some might argue that the term ''town'' is too loosely applied to this settlement so lacking in the accouterments associated with cosmopolitan life. It is true that Pilottown has no garbage trucks, no stop signs, no gas stations -- no streets, for that matter. No barbershop, no grocery store, no police station or crime to speak of. Among its modest possessions are a small post office and ZIP code (70081), a handful of houses on stilts, and rather comfortable digs for about 145 commuting pilots. In addition, Pilottown harbors the enviable indolence of a Huck Finn dangling his feet in a fishing hole. And beneath this tranquillity is a fierce community pride.

No roads lead to Pilottown, which rests on the southwest tip of one of the Delta's islands. It can only be approached by boat. Two hours south of New Orleans, Highway 23 ends in Venice, a tiny burg that sells groceries, crawfish bait, and helicopter services to oil companies ferrying roughnecks to and from offshore drilling rigs. From there the ride downriver to the town takes another half hour. Everything -- food, mail, drinking water -- must be imported. Up until a dozen or so years ago, it had to run its own gasoline generator for electricity.

Pilottown was meant as a destination; it is not on the way to anywhere else. Rarely does someone just happen by. Strangers stand out like ticks in a milk pail; journalists are downright declasse. Curiosity got the best of this journalist, however, and at first blush of day, I drove to Venice and caught a lift downriver on a pilot boat leaving the Texaco dock. The Mississippi was blanketed with a thick Scotch mist. For the next 35 minutes, we ran a gantlet of looming shadows that our radar told us were oncoming ships. But dodging freighters was child's play compared with tangling with the Pilottown postmistress. ''No, you reporters aren't too popular around here,'' said Postmistress Edna Smith, who announced when I stepped ashore that she didn't care to talk. As determined as she might have been, there was no holding back her cracker-barrel gift for gab. ''We don't get many journalists in here, but I'll tell you about one reporter who hitched in on the mailboat. He was a fast-talking wild man who didn't seem to listen at all. In his report all he did was knock Pilottown about its weeds, and the houses on stilts. From reading his story you would have thought if you fell off the boardwalk the alligators would eat you. I suppose people like you who read that stuff actually believed it.''

The postmistress doesn't take kindly to outsiders right off, yet she is probably as amiable a woman as you'll find on the Mississippi. Like the town she lives in, she is prouder than a peacock. In her burgundy pants and floral-print blouse, she wouldn't stop fuming about ''the last newspaper photographer who took my picture and made me look like a breadbox.''

Edna Smith is born-and-bred Pilottown. ''Growing up as children we were always playing in boats and going after crawfish,'' she recalled. ''It's hard to believe but there used to be 200 people here. My cousin had 12 children. There was a wooden boardwalk and a grocery store where I used to work. There was a regular freighter boat from New Orleans. It was a real lively place. . . .

''But that's what I like most about Pilottown; it's nice and quiet. Me, I'm scared of going into New Orleans. I hear they shoot people on the street like blackbirds. In Pilottown we sleep with the doors open. There's no crime here and it's all white. We're just like one big happy family. In fact, we're all related somehow.''