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Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/New Orleans

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NEW ORLEANS, a city of the United States, situated on the left bank of the Mississippi, 107 miles from its mouth, in that portion of the State of Louisiana which constitutes the river's larger delta. This peculiar region is an irregular expanse of densely-wooded swamps, wide prairies, and sea-marshes, interlaced by innumerable lakes, streams, and bays, formed by the periodic overflows of the river upon the alluvium of its own deposit, and by remnants of the sea which this natural process of land-making has not yet conquered. It embraces the whole coast of Louisiana on its southern border, and, narrowing rapidly northward, presents a total area of some 20,000 square miles of land and water. Through this region the Mississippi, as in its southward course it reaches the 30th parallel of latitude, turns and runs tortuously eastward a few miles south of and parallel with a chain of these delta lakes—Lake Pontchartrain being the chief—which marks the course of the same river in prehistoric, but not geologically remote, ages. At the 90th degree of longitude it bends abruptly southward, then as suddenly eastward again, then northward and again eastward, thus portioning off on the low, concave land, which is always highest at the river's margin, a shallow basin rudely square in shape and not unlike the palm of one's hand. This deep three-sided bend, some 9 miles in total length, is the harbour of New Orleans, and on the low tract walled in by the dyke or levée that lines its bank, and by a similar defence where Lake Pontchartrain, some 4 to 6 miles to the northward, shuts in the fourth side, lies New Orleans, the principal seaport of the Mississippi valley, and a city of 216,000 inhabitants.

EB9 New Orleans - environs.jpg
Environs of New Orleans.

The river at this point varies from 1500 to 3000 feet in width, and its broad channel often stretches almost from shore to shore, with a depth varying frequently at short intervals from 60 to more than 200 feet. Around the margins of this fine harbour a line of steamers and shipping extends for 7 miles on either shore, moored, in the busy season, from two to five abreast, to the outer end of short, broad, unsheltered wooden wharves that rest on piles driven firmly into the tenacious clay of the river's bed. The speed of the current reaches, in times of high water, a rate of 5 miles an hour. Along the immediate front of the city's principal commercial quarter, this current, losing some of its force by change of direction, deposits its alluvium in such quantities as to produce a constant encroachment of the shore upon the harbour. At its widest this new land, or batture, with wharves, streets, and warehouses following eagerly after it, has advanced nearly 1500 feet beyond the water-line of a century and a half ago.

New Orleans is emphatically a commercial city. It was its commercial value as the southern gateway of the immense valley behind it, and as the key to the free navigation of that vast natural system of waterways of which the Mississippi is the great main artery that, upon the achievement of American national autonomy, gave a small, poor, and remote Franco-Spanish-American port its political importance, and in 1803 led to its purchase by the United States, and the purchase with it of the entire province of Louisiana, of which it was the capital in embryo; and it is almost solely as the dispenser of the products of this greatest agricultural valley in the world that New Orleans has grown from the wild and indolent little frontier town of 10,000 inhabitants it then was to the dimensions of a great city. Along its winding harbour front one sees, in the season that follows the harvests of the south and west, the energies and activities of an exporting movement not excelled in volume or value on the American continent save by New York. The levée, the wharves, and the contiguous streets teem with strenuous life, and are gorged with the raw staples of the countries far and near that lie about the Mississippi and its greater and lesser tributaries,—sugar, molasses, rice, tobacco, Indian corn, pork, staves, whisky, wheat, oats, flour in immense quantities, and, over and above all else, nearly one-fourth of the world's entire supply of cotton. All other movement is subsidiary or insignificant: the import trade is small; manufactures are inconsiderable; mining interests are almost unknown. There are no fisheries, no naval construction, no large transit of immigrants, no notable Government establishments except a branch mint and the custom house. There are no great educational and scientific institutions or important conservatories of art—only the promising germs of such; no famous galleries or museums; no noted monuments; in short, well-nigh none of that multiplicity of pursuits and opportunities that retains and multiplies rapidly a city's wealth, and makes the inspiring tumult of metropolitan life. On any hand it requires but a step or two aside from the current of commercial movement to carry one into the bowery repose of a huge suburb rather than of a city, or, if of a city, a city of villas and cottages, of umbrageous gardens, intersected by 470 miles of unpaved streets shaded by forest trees, haunted by song birds, fragrant with a wealth of flowers that never fails a day in the year, and abundant, in season, with fruit—the fig, the plum, the pomegranate, the orange. No other large city in America is so laid open to the sunshine and the air. Neither St Louis, nor Chicago, nor Philadelphia, nor New York covers so large a site as New Orleans, whose inhabitants, considerably under a quarter of a million in number, have spread out their town over an area of 155 square miles.[1]

New Orleans is exceptionally interesting among cities of the United States for the picturesqueness of its older sections, and the language, tastes, and customs of a large portion of its people. Its history is comparatively short; but it is as sombre and unique as the dark, wet cypress forest draped in long, pendent Spanish moss that once occupied its site, and which still encircles its low horizon. It was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste Lemoyne do Bienville, a French Canadian, governor of the French colony which nineteen years earlier had been planted by his brother D'Iberville on the neighbouring shores of the Gulf, along the eastern margin of the Bay of Biloxi. A few years after its founding, and while it was still but little more than a squalid village of deported galley-slaves, trappers, and gold hunters, it was made the capital of that vast Louisiana which loosely comprised the whole Mississippi valley to Canada on the north and without boundary on the west, under the commercial domain and monopoly of John Law's scheme, so famed in history under the merited nickname of the Mississippi Bubble. The names remaining in vogue in that part of the city still distinguished as the “vieux carré,” or “old French quarter,” continue to preserve an interesting record of these humble beginnings. The memory of French Bourbon dominion is retained in the titles, and in the foreign aspect as well, of Toulouse, and Orleans, and Du Maine, and Conti, and Bourbon, and Dauphiné, and Chartres Streets; while even more distinctly the Bourbon of Spain has superimposed his impress on frequent stuccoed wall and iron lattice, huge locks and hinges, arches and gratings, balconies, jalousies, corrugated roofs of tiles, dim corridors, cool pavements, and inner courts brightened with parterres, urns, and basins, statues half hid in roses and vines, and sound of trickling water. There are streets named from his governors, too:—Unzaga, Galvez, Miro, Salcedo, Casa Calvo, Carondelet, and the Baron Carondelet's Baronne. The moated and palisaded boundaries constructed in wild and unsafe days are indicated by the wide, tree-planted, and grassy avenues named respectively from the Canal, the Rampart, and the Esplanade that lay along their course; and the old parade ground in the midst of the early town's river front, now laid off in flower-beds, white-shelled walks, and shaven shrubbery, and known as Jackson Square, still retains, with that official title, its older name of the Place d'Armes. In this quaint, sunny, and dusty old garden, surrounded by an unconscious picturesqueness of architecture not seen elsewhere in America save in one or two remote nooks, by the old cabildo and calaboza, the court-house (once the presbytery of Capuchin friars), the cathedral of St Louis, and the long row of red shops shaded by broad verandas in the streets of St Peter and St Ann,—in this square is commemorated nearly every event in the colonial history of Louisiana. Here in early days were landed those cargoes of French girls supplied each with a chest of clothing by the king, and proudly famed long afterward by their numerous and prosperous descendants as the “filles à la cassette”—the girls with trunks. Here from 1729 to 1739 rallied these motley gatherings of men—white, red, and black—in the buckskin and feathers of the wilderness, the gay colours, gold braid, and ruffles of royal uniforms, and the black nakedness of slavery, that with varying success made ten years war against Natchez, Yazoo, Choctaw, and Chickasaw savages. Here in 1765 the people welcomed with tears and open arms their exiled brethren from far Acadia, as thirty-six years before on the same spot they had received the women and children of Fort Rosalie (Natchez), recaptured from the hands of the savages who had massacred their husbands and fathers. Here in 1768, the town being then a place of about 3200 souls, the people within the walls and from the farms and plantations of the surrounding delta mustered under arms almost to a man, repudiated the cession of Louisiana to Spain, and compelled the holder of the Spanish king's commission to leave their town and return to Havana. Here again, in the following year, Don Alexandro O'Reilly landed from a fleet of twenty-four vessels with 2600 Spanish troops and fifty pieces of artillery, and restored the Spanish power by mere terror of such an overwhelming force. Here stood under Spanish sentence and fell under a volley of Spanish musketry the leaders in this the first attempt made in America to overthrow by force of arms the dominion of a European sovereign. It was here, again, that in 1779 the brilliant young Spanish governor Galvez, laying before the people the proposal to head them in defence of their homes, and intending to lead them against the neighbouring British posts along the shores of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico east of it, was answered by their acclamations, and was followed to repeated and uninterrupted victory. Here, when in 1788 and 1794 the heart of the frail wooden town was plucked out by fire, the houseless sufferers covered the rank sward with booths and tents until that Spanish-American architecture could rise out of the ashes whose brick and stucco and coloured limewashes, and flowery inner courts seen through covered carriage-ways, and overhanging balconies, and confusion of heights and breadths and shapes, with here and there a palm tree lifting its stately top among them, heavy with yellow dates, still offer to the eye a moss-grown and crumbling picture whose variety and poetry tempts description to repeat itself.

On the 30th of November 1803, in the council hall of the old cabildo that still overlooks the square, the aged governor Salcedo handed the keys of the city back to the representatives of the French Government, the marquis of Casa Calvo declared the people of Louisiana absolved from their allegiance to the Spanish king, and on the flagstaff in the open plaza the yellow flag of Spain came down and the tricolor of France arose in its place. And here, at length, only twenty days afterward, with similar ceremonies, the keys of the city passed from the hands of the French colonial prefect to those of the commissioners for the United States, and through their tears the Creoles saw the ensign of the French republic sink and the American flag unfurl over what is to-day, as it was then, the least American of all the cities within the bounds of the American States. A bronze equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson stands in the middle of the ground on the spot where, in January 1815, when he had driven back to its ships from the plains just below the city the bleeding remnant of a formidable British invasion, he passed, amid all the evidences of joy that a delivered city could display—cheers and salvos and rolling drums, arms and banners and maidens garlands under an arch of triumph and into the cathedral, and so onward in later years to the highest seat in the nation.

At the time (1803) when New Orleans with its 10,000 inhabitants, mostly French Creoles and their slaves, passed into the political bond of the United States, the prospect of its future commercial greatness was not only appreciated but was exaggerated even by the most sagacious minds; for they regarded it in the light of its remarkable geographical position, and of those stirrings of revolution which were beginning to promise the birth of other republics round about the broad circuit of the Mexican Gulf, with maritime powers and commercial energies that must give the position of New Orleans an inestimable value. But, as the future gradually unfolded, on the one hand the provinces that did throw off the Spanish yoke failed persistently to establish internal peace and stability or obtain the confidence of the commercial world, and on the other hand the invention of railway transit revolutionized commerce itself and turned its courses across the natural highways and barriers of the continent; and when, moreover, the pestilence of yellow fever, the plague of the Gulf, made New Orleans one of its most famous ambuscades, and the provincialism and lethargy of an isolated and indolent civilization allowed this last unfortunate condition to remain uncorrected, the limitations to the city's commercial grandeur were distinctly drawn around it, and a port that had promised to become one of the greatest in the world became, even while it was expanding to metropolitan dimensions, a monument of golden possibilities dwarfed by unforeseen and over powering disadvantages.

New Orleans held its highest place on the comparative scale of cities in the United States when, by the census of 1840, only New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore were greater in population. In the decade that followed, these cities left it far behind and others overtook it and passed it by. In the second decade after the junction of the great west and the Atlantic seaboard by canals and railways many other conditions came in to the great disadvantage of New Orleans. The development of the carrying trade on the lakes of the far north, the adoption by the world's maritime trade of ships and steamers drawing too much water to pass the bars at the mouth of the Mississippi, and in the city the riot made by death, which in three years (1853-55) from a population diminished by flight to barely 145,000 carried off over 35,000 persons,—these things and others combined to impede the town's progress at a period when the growth of American cities was a marvel of the times, and to reduce her comparative importance in population, wealth, enlightenment, and architectural dignity.

However, turning from these comparisons and contrasting the city only with itself, we see the trading post described by the priest-chronicler Charlevoix in 1721 as a place of a hundred wretched hovels in a malarious wet thicket of willows and dwarf palmettos, infested by serpents and alligators, changed in 1860 to a metropolis whose exports, imports, and domestic receipts aggregated $324,000,000. In that year the election of a president from the Republican party was made the occasion of acts that led to war between the Northern and Southern States of the Union. The commerce of New Orleans experienced an early paralysis: the port was soon blockaded by the United States navy; the city fell into the hands of the Federal forces; and its aggrandizement suffered a recoil from which it has taken nearly a quarter of a century to recover. Only in the present year (1883) will its total commerce again distinctly reach the magnitude it enjoyed in 1860. Its wealth in 1882 was $112,000,000. In the present year it is closely estimated that 2,000,000 bales of cotton will be received across its levee for shipment to the world's markets. It appears highly probable that those drawbacks which have been enumerated have at length expended their power, and that New Orleans now looks out upon a future of more genuine promise than ever before. A system of jetties at the mouth of the Mississippi, built by the distinguished engineer Eads in 1879, has opened the city's deep and spacious harbour to the largest ocean craft. Lines of steamers to the great ports of Europe are replacing with their great carrying capacity the light tonnage of other days. An active sanitary system, which grows every year better, gives reasonable promise of immunity from the deadly epidemics of former years; street paving has recommenced; the inadequate and superficial drainage is being improved, under the direction of a sanitary association auxiliary to the board of health, a diligent house-to-house inspection is being performed, and the open gutters that are in all the streets are daily flushed during the warm months with water thrown into them by powerful pumps at the river front. The annual mortality-rate of the three years 1879 to 1881 averaged 26.52 per 1000. The old spirit of dependence upon natural advantages which once deluded the people of the city is yielding to a more energetic acceptance of the principles of modern commerce, and railway connexions, near and remote, are increasing year by year. The immense increase of population and products in that wide south-west that stretches out beyond to the Mexican border offers new accessions of commercial tribute. Mexico holds out fair assurance of a new era of political order and material development; and within the city's immediate bounds both the convictions of her citizens and the movement of capital are recognizing theoretically and practically the necessity and advantage of manufactures. About ten million dollars are at present invested in this direction, and the aggregate is steadily growing.

Within the last two years (1882-83) a new impulse towards architectural improvement has shown itself, and several edifices of comparatively imposing character have been erected. Chief among them is the new Cotton Exchange. The small public squares here and there in the city have been laid out in lawns and adorned with fountains; but, as long as the great body of the people is not subjected to the discomforts of pent-up living, the larger reservations of ground intended for public parks are likely to remain as they are, unimproved. Suburban pleasure resorts are few, the principal being two waterside gardens of moderate pretension on the neighbouring margin of Lake Ponchartrain.

The creoles of New Orleans and the surrounding delta are a handsome, graceful, intelligent race, of a decidedly Gallic type, though softened in features, speech, and carriage, and somewhat relaxed in physical and mental energies by the enervating influences that blow from the West Indies and the Spanish Main. Their better class does not offer to the eye that unpleasing evidence of gross admixture of race which distinguishes those Latin-American communities around the borders of the adjacent seas; and the name they have borrowed from those regions does not necessarily imply, any more than it excludes, a departure from a pure double line of Latin descent. They are brave, proud, courteous, slow to offend, quick to resent, gay, fond of pomp, and display an ardent relish for pageantries of such childish sort as offers a strong hint of their Spanish-American relationship. They are very musical, yet not, as a class, highly trained in music, have some love of the fine arts, but are little acquainted with or interested in its modern developments, and are comparatively unproductive of art work. The famous carnival displays of New Orleans are participated in largely by the “Americain,” i.e., the Anglo-American; but they mark one of the victories of Spanish-American over North-American tastes, and probably owe mainly to the “Americain” their pretentious dignity and to the Creole their more legitimate harlequin frivolity. Out of the simple idea of masked revelry in the open streets, as borrowed from the great Italian cities, the American bent for organization appears to have developed, by a natural growth, the costly fashion of gorgeous torch-lighted processions of elaborately equipped masques in tableaux drawn on immense cars by teams of caparisoned mules, and combining to illustrate in a symmetrical whole some theme chosen from the great faiths or literatures of history. This carnival has grown to last two or three days, during which time its extravagances quite engross public attention with an elaborate mock-restoration of the gaudiest Oriental and feudal European life and times; the daily press shows long lists of names of citizens knighted or invested with imaginary dukedoms (at a fixed price); and many thousands of visitors from all parts of America come, or tarry, yearly to see these laborious pomps.

The first settlers of New Orleans were such men as colonies in America were generally made of when planted by royal commercial enterprise, and such wives as could be gathered hap-hazard from the ranks of Indian allies, African slave cargoes, and the inmates of French houses of correction. As time passed, gentler and often better blood was infused by the advent of the filles à la cassette, by victims of lettres-de-cachet, by the cadets of noble families, holding land grants or military commissions, by Spanish officials glad to strengthen their influence in the colony through matrimonial alliances, and by royalists fleeing the terrors of the French Revolution. The creole civilization that grew from these sources acquired two of its strongest characteristics from the facts, first that it developed under the evil reigns of French and Spanish Bourbons, and second that it was founded on the system of African slavery. The influences of the climate and landscape were such as to emphasize rather than counteract the effects of these conditions; and, when in the year 1809 Napoleon's wars caused an exodus of West Indian creoles into New Orleans that immediately doubled the town's population, the place naturally and easily became the one stronghold of Latin-American ideas in the United States, a harbour of contrabandists, Guadeloupian pirates, and Spanish-American revolutionists and filibusters. Under the glacier-like pressure of Anglo-American immigration, capital, enterprise, and education, this Creole civilization has slowly and with stubborn reluctance yielded ground, and is at length fairly beginning to amalgamate with the better social system of the American nation. And yet the Creole has stamped his initials upon well-nigh every aspect in the life of the city that has broadened out so widely on every side of his antique town. Some effect, of course, is attributable to those natural surroundings that have so qualified the creole's own Gallic energies. Between the two influences the whole life of the place shows an apathy of desire, a langour of performance, and an intolerance of all sorts of rigour, that makes it unlike those sister cities from which it is separated both by the entire breadth and by the peculiar sentiment of that great belt of States which still distinguishes itself, more proudly than profitably, as the South.

Churches, both Catholic and Protestant, are very numerous in New Orleans, though not generally fine or imposing. St Patrick's, however, has a majestic tower; the First Presbyterian church, in Lafayette Square, is a tasteful Gothic structure; and the cathedral of St Louis, the church of the Immaculate Conception, in Baronne Street, and some others have handsome interiors. The number of private charitable institutions is also large, and their management excellent. Those under municipal control are not nearly so good, but are improving. The system of public education is a large and excellent one deserving much praise. It embraces the youth both of the white and of the black and mulatto populations, is carried up through a full high-school grade, and is steadily improving. The police force is small, ill-paid, and inefficient, and the whole police system dilapidated and bad. The coloured population, notwithstanding the presence among it of that noted free quadroon class which has enjoyed a certain legal freedom for many generations, has not greatly improved since the date of emancipation. A conventional system of caste cuts them off from the stimulating hope of attaining social rank, and confines them closely to servile employments. The probability seems to be that their decided elevation must wait upon their acquisition of material wealth, an achievement which the conditions mentioned and some inherent deficiencies of the race tend to make extremely difficult. Besides the large Anglo-American and creole populations, there are in New Orleans weighty fractions of Irish and Germans and an appreciable number of Italians, Sicilians, and Spaniards. The Babel of tongues in the “French Market” immediately below Jackson Square and at the “Picayune Tier” just adjacent is famed as far as the city of which it is a feature. Another noted feature of New Orleans is its cemeteries. Owing to the undrained condition of the subsoil, burials are made entirely above ground, in tombs of stuccoed brick and of granite and marble. Some of these are very elegant and costly, and many of the burial-grounds, with their long alleys of these tombs of diverse designs deeply shaded by avenues of cedars and the Magnolia grandiflora, possess a severe but emphatic beauty.

The climate is not marked by extremes of heat or cold. The wide reaches of water and wet lands that lie about the city on every side temper all airs, and the thermometer rarely passes above 95° or below 27° F. The consequent humidity of the atmosphere, however, gives the climate an enervating quality and an apparent warmth and cold beyond the actual temperature. It is rarely invigorating, and during the long summer between June and October is distinctly though not severely debilitating; but in the absence of epidemic yellow fever, whose visitations are becoming more and more infrequent, there is no “sickly season”; and those who visit the city between the months of November and June, the term in which the commercial movement is at its height, may enjoy from its beginning to its end the delights and beauties of a redundant spring time, and find easy entrance into the social gaieties of a high-spirited pleasure-loving people. (G. W. C.)


EB9 New Orleans - plan.jpg
Plan of New Orleans.
  1. This has not been entirely within the boundaries already described. A modern part of the city, of some extent, lies on the right bank of the harbour, opposite these older portions that occupy the river front where it turns from north to east.