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From Dusk to Dawn: A Depression Era Guide To New Orleans


Mississippi River 1885

The Mississippi River, New Orleans, louisiana
 Uptown l Downtown l Port of New Orleans

ONE of the most interesting outings for the tourist in New Orleans is a trip along the docks and water-front. It is here that an entirely different phase of the city's varied life is to be found, and sweeping panoramic views of city streets and winding river shore may be enjoyed. Early, on a clear morning, the tourist will be treated to a view of the sun rising in the western sky, an illusion explained by the fact that al though New Orleans is, geographically speaking, on the east bank of the river, and Algiers, behind which the sun rises, is on the west bank, the Mississippi runs due north at Canal St. One also has the unique experience of going up to the river. The difference between the street level and the summit of the levee is noticeable at first glance. During periods of high water the level of the river is ten to twenty feet higher than the street level, but this condition is only seasonal, and at normal stages, or during low water, the river is slightly above the level of most of the city. Standing on Eads Plaza at the foot of Canal St. and facing toward the city one has a magnificent view of Canal St., a crowded artery of traffic penetrating the heart of the city in a straight line that finally blurs in the distance. On each side, the crowded buildings of the business section pile up against the sky, while on the right is the Vieux Carre in venerable age, a striking and charming contrast to the new city built on the left by the Americans through decades of enterprise.

The river in front of New Orleans is about half a mile wide. The expanse of muddy water writhes between the yellow clay banks of the levees carrying driftwood, small boats, and oceangoing vessels on its surface. Sea gulls from the Gulf sweep and soar above it searching for fish. Cloud shadows darken its surface, and the wind writes mysterious script in swiftly changing ripples that swirl above eddies and whirlpools. Often, in the winter, fogs cover its surface, and the constant sound of fog horns echoes between its hidden shores. It is a dim place of mystery in the blanketing darkness of night, with only the stars and the diffused lights of the city reflected in its turbulent current. In late spring, swollen with the icy water of its tributaries, it rushes past the city, gnawing at the imprisoning banks it once had the privilege of overflowing each year. Yet, in spite of its hostility to man, it has a fascination, a calming in fluence, and an eloquent silence that tells of the distant and strange places from whence its waters come and go and of the history unfolded on its banks. A trip along the New Orleans waterfront is indeed an experience to be remembered.

The levee at the foot of Canal St. has been made into a riverside plaza with balustrade and steps and concrete platform. The attractive office building of the Board of Port Commissioners, familiarly known as the Dock Board, stands on the left of Canal St., while the high viaduct, which carries the Algiers traffic, cuts off the view on the right-hand side. The wharf-ends are finished in the same design as the office building, but the evident attempt at group architecture is impaired by the viaduct, which divides the plaza into uneven sections and hides the lower wharf- end from view.

A colorful pageant of many changes has been unfolded here for four hundred years. The followers of De Soto passed down the river, after he died in 1543, on their way to Mexico. La Salle and Tonti passed in 1682. Indians and French voyageurs followed in pirogue and canoe; sailing ships from far countries struggled up from the sea; flatboats and keel boats from the upper reaches of the Ohio descended in ever-growing numbers. Then, in 1812, a strange craft, belching smoke and traveling without the aid of oar or sail, arrived from Pittsburgh, after having passed through the terrors of the New Madrid earthquake, to inaugurate steamboat navigation of the Mississippi. By 1820, flatboats and oceangoing ships were piling the levee high with merchandise of every variety, and pouring out streams of passengers and workmen into the narrow lanes between the piles of goods. Sometimes the swollen river, laden with uprooted trees and wreckage, splashed over the levee top into the streets below, chilling the hearts of the citizens with fear of flood. It was here, in 1862, that Federal warships under Farragut covered the city with their guns while wharves and shipping went up in smoke and flame. King Rex used to land here on the day preceding Mardi Gras, arriving from his mythical kingdom to take possession of the city and rule over its gay and noisy crowds.

A walk on the levee was a favorite outing with Orleanians in the early days. After the levee became crowded with wharves and merchandise it was still a favorite Sunday promenade for the poorer classes, and even today it is not an unpopular walking place, especially on open stretches such as the one between Audubon Park and Southport. A word picture of the old levee by Pere Rouquette, one of the most gifted of the Creole poets, describes it as it was in 1837:

Promenade du Soir sur La Levee
Me voila cheminant, le soir sur la Levee,
L oeil a terre baisse, Tame au ciel elevee!
Plus de have Irlandais, de rouge matelot,
Qui roule le baril, ou pousse le ballot;

Plus de ces drays pesants, a la chaine bruyante,

Qui voilent le soleil de poussiere etouffante;

Mais la foule, au bruit sourd, ce flot calme et mouvant,

Qui cause et qui regarde un navire arrivant;

La gros negotiant, Fame tout inquiete,

Qui cherche a lire au loin; Salem, ou Lafayette;

La mere, qui vient voir s il arrive un enfant;

L ami, s il vient a bord un ami qu il pressent;

Le marchand qui, cupide, attend ses modes neuves,

Modes de jeune fille et d oublieuses veuves;

Et tandis que groupes, et dans Panxiete,

Ceux-ci pleins de tristesse, et ceux-la de gaite,

Us causent, moi, je passe; et, poursuivant mon reve,

Je m en vais, parcourant la longue et blanche greve;

Contemplant, tour a tour, les bois et le ciel bleu;

Jetant mes vers au fleuve, et ma priere a Dieu!

An Evening's Promenade on the Levee
Here, tonight, I wander on the levee;
My eye to earth cast down, my soul to Heaven lifted!
No more pale Irishmen, no more ruddy sailors,
To roll the barrel or wheel the bale;
No ponderous drays with clanking chains,
To veil the sun with stifling dust;
Only the rumbling crowd, a slow, surging wave,
Glibly prating and watching a distant packet;
The portly executive, anxiously
Squinting to discover what cargo she brings;
The anxious mother, ever hoping, half despairing,
Hoping to greet a son; the friend a friend expecting;
The greedy merchant, nervously awaiting
Latest styles for young maidens and forgetful gay widows.
Whereas, in anxious small groups they huddle,
Some filled with sorrow, some with joy;
While they chatter, I pass, pursuing my revery,
And wander along the endless white strand;
Distracted anon by the woods and the heavens,
I fling my verses to the River and my prayer to God!

Although differing slightly in outline and minor structural features, the wharves are, for the most part, all built on the same plan. The floor is usually of concrete on the levee top, and of heavy timber construction on the riverside extension. A high steel shed covers the entire area, with the exception of the loading platforms on each side. Railroad tracks parallel the platform on the city side so that merchandise can be handled directly from ship to car or vice versa. Occasionally, as at the banana wharves, the Stuyvesant Docks, and the Cotton Warehouse, the railroad tracks are built out on the shipside or riverside platform for greater convenience. It may also be noticed that none of these large wharves is built on solid foundations. The superstructure rests upon a series of posts, usually wood, but sometimes concrete, which in turn are based on piling driven deep into the levee side. A foundation of heavy material would slide into the river.


From Dusk to Dawn: A Depression Era Guide To New Orleans
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