By Wesley Harris
If any Lincoln Parish road is imbued with mythic legends, it is the White Lightning. The winding road weaves its way over and around hills once populated by moonshine stills, bootleggers, federal revenuers, and family feuds.
The road, now Louisiana Highway 146, from the small village of Vienna in Lincoln Parish to the town of Homer in Claiborne Parish has been called “the Devil’s Backbone” for its roller coaster up-and-down twists and sharp curves through Louisiana’s hilliest terrain.
The road seems to have been laid out by someone with experience designing amusement park rides. Some say white lightning whiskey must have fueled the designer.
As to how the White Lightning Road got its name, a couple of generations ago brewing one’s own liquor was common. Most parishes in North Louisiana between Ouachita and Bossier and south toward Natchitoches were dry. No alcohol could be sold. Making moonshine or “white lightning” was not illegal. But selling the “corn likker” was. That was bootlegging. Bootlegging arrests in dry parishes before the 1970s kept lawmen busy.
But back to how the White Lightning got its name. In the 1920s convicted bootleggers were put to work clearing and laying out the route of the White Lightning Road. So its laborers being mostly convicted bootleggers led to its name, White Lightning Road.
Convicts used shovels, teams of mules, and slips and skids to clear and level the roadway. Leaning right, then left, stepping up, then down LA 146 staggers for 30-something miles between Homer and Vienna. The convict roadbuilders cut down trees, dug out stumps, cleared underbrush, burned debris, leveled dips and rises all without backhoes, graders, or bulldozers. A dirt road at first, following old wagon and stage trails.
Later, some curves were straightened out with heavy equipment and gravel was added to the roadway. Back then, gravel provided a major upgrade.
Of course, it’s been paved now for about 80 years, but the twists and turns and roller coaster hills remain.
The White Lightning Road’s long history includes use as a stagecoach route. There’s compelling evidence Jesse James, Cole Younger, and their gang rode through those hills in the 1870s.
The road served as a major thoroughfare across north Louisiana prior to the arrival of the railroad. The Claiborne Parish end of the road was the center point of the Ramsey-Tuggle Feud, a long-running battle in the 1890s between two local families that resulted in more deaths than the more famous Hatfield & McCoy Feud.
Farmers along the route who grew corn for livestock feed and family food reserved some for use in making corn liquor.
Selling moonshine provided one of the few ways for poor farmers to acquire cash. Without exception they failed to pay the federal excise tax on liquor manufacture. Local ordinances also prohibited the production of alcohol for sale. The abundance of whiskey operations meant U.S. Marshals, federal revenue officers, and deputy sheriffs spent considerable time in the area tracking down stills.
Those caught making or selling moonshine often found themselves on work crews maintaining the White Lightning Road. The sheriff’s departments in Lincoln and Claiborne were still making moonshine cases up into the early 1980s.
Earlier this year, the Claiborne Parish Police Jury approved placing a historical marker on the White Lightning Road at the entrance to Lake Claiborne State Park, one of the region’s primary tourist attractions. The site will offer the most visibility of the marker to tourists and mark its fabled history for years to come.
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