Nottoway Plantation: A Step Back in Time

by Paris Permenter & John Bigley

We stepped from the steamboat, leaving the Mississippi behind us as we climbed the grassy levee which held this powerful river on course. At the top, we stopped to catch our breath and to gaze at Nottoway, the largest remaining plantation house in the country. Its proud columns and white exterior accounted for its nickname -- the White Castle.

Sound like a scene from the days of Mark Twain? It very well could be, but Nottoway Plantation greets modern travelers who come for the chance to step back in time. This 53,000-square-foot mansion, 64 rooms worth, is a world of opulence and excesses not seen since the 19th century. In it, you'll find 365 openings -- either windows or doors -- one for every day of the year.

Nottoway is located outside of White Castle, Louisiana, eighteen miles south of Baton Rouge or about an hour's drive from New Orleans. We arrived at the plantation aboard the Mississippi Queen, stopping at the plantation just as steamboats had done a century ago when they brought needed supplies or stopped to pick up residents of the home for a shopping excursion in New Orleans. Many others had driven to Nottoway on the Great River Road, the winding, wandering highway which follows the Mississippi River from its Yankee origins to the moss draped trees of its delta.

Emily Randolph and her husband John, a wealthy sugar planter from Virginia, built Nottoway in an attempt to "keep up with the Joneses." When a rival businessman named John Andrews built the Belle Grove plantation down the road, John Randolph began plans for an even grander home of his own in 1849. The homes were always competitors, but Randolph won in the end. Like many other Southern mansions, Belle Grove, fell to ruin and burned during the 20th century.

Building a home like Nottoway was no simple matter. From conception to move-in day took 10 years; six years spent in obtaining materials and four years in construction. Of course, getting the materials together meant making all the bricks, cutting the cypress from the plantation, and curing the lumber by soaking it underwater for several years.

That careful construction, and a bit of luck during the Civil War, account for the excellent condition of Nottoway today. It's as lavish a home as it was during the days when hoop skirted women carefully maneuvered its grand staircase.

Standing on the front porch, we thought of Gone with the Wind, almost expecting to see Scarlett and Rhett greeting guests in the entrance hall. It's not just coincidence -- the filmmakers originally wanted Nottoway as the set for the house in Atlanta, but were refused by the owners.

Like Scarlett's Atlanta home, Nottoway is a study in excess. Green velvet draperies fall in a puddle of material on the floor as a symbol of wealth. Hand painted Dresden doorknobs decorate the interior doors. White marble mantles frame the fireplaces.

With eleven children, eight of them girls, John Randolph wanted a large home that would be a showcase to impress his daughters' suitors. It must have worked -- six of the daughters were married in the White Ballroom.

The tour does not cover all of Nottoway's 64 rooms, but it includes many high points: the gentlemen's room, once surely filled with cigar smoke and political talk, the morning sitting room, still decorated with its original wicker furniture, the master bedroom, with walk-in closets that at the time were taxed as rooms, and daughter Cornelia's bedroom, with a spectacular view of the Mississippi River. Cornelia, under the name M. R. Ailenroc (Cornelia Randolph spelled backwards), wrote a fictionalized account of life at Nottoway called The White Castle of Louisiana in "an effort to disclose the good which has been hidden so long, since much has been said against a noble and misunderstood people."

After our tour, we strolled the shady grounds for a look at the beautiful exterior and outbuildings. Behind the home lies the garcionarge, the separate quarters used by the sons as they grew into adolescence, a way to keep their wild teenage ways apart from the genteel atmosphere of the house. Near the boys' quarters, the overseer's cottage dates back 20 years before the construction of Nottoway. The Randolphs owned 7000 acres so to effectively manage the property they divided it into four independent plantations, each with its own work force, overseer, and housing. This cottage was home to the overseer at the quadrant of the plantation called Eureka, once located about three miles away.

Today the overseer's cottage provides four of the thirteen bed and breakfast accommodations at Nottoway. Travelers enjoy a night in antique brass beds, surrounded by all of the opulence which the Randolphs once enjoyed.

Overnight guests might entertain thoughts of ghosts in this mansion, but we were assured that there were none since, after all, the home had primarily been a happy one. Unlike many families of the period, the Randolphs saw their eleven children reach adulthood.

The home was not without its sad times, however, and many of these came during the Civil War. Two of the Randolph sons were killed in battle. Near the end of the war, John went to Texas with 200 slaves. They left in July, 1864, not to return until the war ended over a year later.

Emily Randolph was left to run Nottoway in her husband's absence, even during a three week encampment by Union soldiers. A Union gunboat fired on the house from the river, breaking several windows. We saw the unmatched glass, still in place in the front windows, that was used by the family to make repairs.

Nottoway was spared a much worse fate because an officer on the gunboat soon recognized the home as a place he had visited before the war. He quickly asked for a cease fire, walked to Nottoway's massive front doors, and apologized to Emily Randolph for the damage. According to legend, Emily Randolph indicated to the officer that she was without weapons, so he offered his personal sidearm for protection.

When we walked around the front of the house to view the pillars which once held the small iron balls fired by the gunboat, we heard the call of the steamboat whistle. It was a sound heard often at Nottoway, each whistle unique to the vessel "so that one would know them in the dark ... as you would recognize unseen the step and voice of friends," according to Cornelia Randolph. It was time for us to return to the paddlewheeler and head upriver.

As we climbed the levee, we turned back for a last view of Nottoway. The sun illuminated Cornelia's window, where the young girl once watched the river traffic and where today, at least for a few hours, travelers can take a vacation from the 20th century.

Getting There: Nottoway is located 18 miles from Baton Rouge. Take 1-10 West to the Plaquemine exit and follow Louisiana 1 south for 18 miles. From New Orleans, take 1-10 West to the exit of Louisiana 22. Soon after, you'll take a left on Louisiana 70, cross the Sunshine Bridge, then turn on Louisiana 1 for 14 miles.

Tours: Tours are conducted daily except Christmas Day.

Bed and Breakfast Accommodations: If you'd like to spend the night at Nottoway, there are 13 accommodations available.

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