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Four Months in a Sneak-Box

By Nathaniel H. Bishop (1837-1902), 1879

Chapter 8

New Orleans


THIS was my fifth visit to New Orleans, and walking through its quaint streets I observed many changes of an undesirable nature, the inevitable consequences of political misrule. As the past of the city loomed up before me, the various scenes of bloodshed, crime, and misery enacted, shifted like pictures in a panorama before my mind's eye. I saw far back in the distance an indomitable man, faint and discouraged, after the terrible sufferings of a winter at a bleak fort in the wilderness, drag his weary limbs to the spot where New Orleans now stands, and defiantly unfurling the flag of France, determined to establish the capital of Louisiana on the treacherous banks of the Mississippi. Such was Bienville, the hardy son of a Canadian father.

A little later we have the New Orleans of 1723. It is a low swamp, overgrown with ragged forests, and cut up into a thousand islands by ruts and pools of stagnant water. There is a small cleared space along the river's channel but even this being only partly reclaimed from the surrounding marsh, is often inundated. It is cut up into square patches, round each of which runs a ditch of black mud and refuse, which, lying exposed to the rays of an almost tropical sun, sends forth unwholesome odors, and invites pestilence.

There is a palisade around the city, and a great moat; and here, with the tall, green grasses growing up to their humble doors, live graceful ladies and noble gentlemen, representatives of that nation so famed for finesse of manner and stately grace. It is an odd picture this rough doorway, surrounded with reeds and swamps, mud and misery, and crowned with the beauty of a fair French maiden, who steps daintily, with Parisian ease, upon the highway of the new world.

She is not, however, alone in her exile. Along the banks of the Mississippi, for miles beyond the city, stretch the fertile plantations of the representatives of aristocratic French families. The rich lands are worked by negro slaves, who, fresh from the African coast, walk erect before their masters, being strangers to the abject, crouching gait which a century of slavery afterwards imposes upon them. No worship save the Catholic is allowed, and to remind the people of their duty wooden crosses are erected on every side.

The next picture of New Orleans is in 1792. It has passed into other hands now, for the king of France has ceded it, with the territory of Louisiana, to his cousin of Spain, and has in fact, with a single stroke of the pen, stripped himself of possessions extending from the mouth of the Mississippi to the St. Lawrence. The type of civilization is now changed, and we see things moving in the iron groove of Spanish bigotry. The very architecture changes with the new rule, and the houses seem grim and fortress-like, while the cadaverous-cheeked Spaniard stands in the gloom with his hand upon his sword, one of the six thousand souls now within this ill-drained city. Successive Spanish governors hold their sway under the Spanish king; and then the Spaniard goes his way.

Spanish civilization cannot take so firm a hold in New Orleans as the French, and many privately pray for the old banner, until at last France herself determines to again possess her old territory. Spain, knowing opposition to be useless, and heartily sick of this distant colony, so hard to govern and so near the quarrelsome Americans, who seem ready to fulfil their threat of taking New Orleans by force if their commercial interests are interfered with, yields a ready assent. The city becomes the property of Napoleon the Great; but hardly have the papers been signed, when, in 1803, it is ceded to the United States. Half a generation later the conflicting national elements are settled into something like harmony, and the state of Louisiana has a population of fifty thousand souls.

In 1812 war is declared between Great Britain and the United States. Soon after, General Andrew Jackson wins a victory over the English on the lowlands near New Orleans, when, with the raw troops of the river states, he drives off; and sends home, fifteen thousand skilled British soldiers. Bowing his laurel-crowned head before the crowd assembled to do him honor, the brave American general receives the benediction of the venerable abbé, while his memory is kept ever fresh in the public mind by the grand equestrian statue which now stands a monument to his prowess.

But the New Orleans of to-day is not like any of these we have seen. The Crescent City has passed beyond the knowledge of even Jackson himself, and most startled would the old general be could he now walk its busy streets. Rising steadily, though slowly, from the effects of the civil war, her position as a port insures a glorious future. Much, of course, depends upon the success of Captain Eads in keeping open a deep channel from the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. This great river deposits a large amount of alluvium at its North-east, South-east, South, and South-west Passes, which are the principal mouths of the Mississippi. When the light alluvium held in suspension in the fresh water of the river meets the denser briny water of the Gulf, it is precipitated to the bottom, and builds up a shoal, or bar, upon which vessels drawing sixteen feet of water, in the deepest channel, frequently stick fast for weeks at a time. In consequence of these bars, so frequently forming, deep sea-going vessels run the risk of most unprofitable delay in ascending the river to New Orleans.

Captain Eads, the projector of the great St. Louis bridge, which cost some seven or more millions of dollars, has succeeded, by narrowing and confining the river's current at the South Pass by means of artificial jetties, in scouring out the channel from a depth of about seven feet to one of more than twenty feet. Thus the most shoal pass has already become the deepest entrance to the Mississippi. If the results of Captain Eads's most wonderful success can be maintained, New Orleans will be able to support a fleet of European steamers, while the cereals and cotton of the river basins tributary to New Orleans will be exported from that city directly to Europe, instead of being subjected to a costly transportation by rail across the country to New York, Baltimore, and other Atlantic ports. Limited space forbids my presenting figures to support the theories of the people of New Orleans, but they are of the most interesting nature. A few words from an intelligent Kentuckian will express the views of many of the people of that state in regard to the system of transportation. He says:

"Nearly all the products of Kentucky have their prices determined by the cost of transportation to the great centres of population along the Atlantic seaboard, or beyond the sea. Its tobacco, pork, grain, and some of the costlier woods, with other products, find their principal markets in Europe, while cattle, and to a certain extent the other agricultural products of the state, have their values determined by the cost of transportation to the American Atlantic markets. Hitherto this access to the domestic and foreign markets of the Atlantic shores has been had by way of the railway systems which traverse the region north of Kentucky, and from which the state has been divided by opposing interests and the physical barrier of the Ohio River. All the development of the state has taken place under these disadvantages.

"A comparison of the tables of cost, given below, will show that the complete opening of the mouth of the Mississippi to ocean ships will result in the enfranchisement of the productions of Kentucky in an extraordinary way. They are taken from published freight rates, and give time and cost of transit from St. Paul, on the Mississippi, about two thousand miles from New Orleans, to Liverpool by the two routes: one being by rail, lake, canal, and ocean; the other by river and ocean:

                                          Cost per
                                          bushel.   Time.
                                           CENTS.   DAYS.

From St. Paul to Chicago (by rail),.           18   4
 do. Chicago to Buffalo (by lake),              8   6
 do. Buffalo to New York (by canal),.          14  24
 do. N. York to Liverpool (by ocean),          16  12
Elevator, or transshipment charges:
 Chicago . .  .  .  .                           2   2
 Buffalo .  . .  .  .                           2   2
 New York, .  . .  .  . . .  .  .               4   2
                                              ____ __
Total,  . .  .  .  .  .                        64  52

                                          Cost per 
                                          bushel.   Time.
                                           CENTS.   DAYS.

From St. Paul to New Orleans (via
  river), 1993 miles                           18  10
 do. New Orleans to Liverpool, .  .            20  20
Elevator charges, New Orleans,                  2   1
                                              ___  __
Total                                          40  31

"Here is a saving by direct trade of twenty-four cents per bushel, or eight shillings per quarter, and a saving of twenty-one days in time. To be fair, I have taken the extreme point; but the nearer the grain is to the Gulf, the cheaper the transportation. At the present time the freight rates from the lower Ohio to Liverpool would permit the profitable shipment of the canal coal, and native woods of different species, to Europe with one transshipment at New Orleans."

The gross receipts of cotton in New Orleans amount to thirty-three and one-third per cent. of the production of the entire country. In 1859-60 the receipts and exports of cotton from New Orleans exceeded two and a quarter millions of bales, the value of which was over one hundred millions of dollars. In the season of 1871-72 the cotton crop amounted to two million nine hundred and seventy-four thousand bales, one-third of which passed through New Orleans. A vast amount of other products, such as sugar, tobacco, flour, pork, &c. is received at New Orleans and sent abroad. Besides this export trade, New Orleans imports coffee, salt, sugar, iron, dry-goods, and liquors, to the average yearly value of seventeen millions of dollars.

In 1878 two hundred and forty-seven million four hundred and twenty-four thousand bushels of grain were received at the Atlantic ports of the United States from the interior. This great bulk of grain represented a portion only of the cereals actually raised in the whole country. The largest portion of it was produced in the states tributary to the Mississippi River and its branches. This statement will give an idea of what might be saved to foreign consumers if a part of this great crop went down the natural water-way to New Orleans. In the same year, steamboats were freighting barrels of merchandise at fifty cents per barrel for fifteen hundred miles from New Orleans to up-river ports. This shows at what low rates freights can be transported on western rivers.

Each city has its representative men, and New Orleans has one who has done much to build up the great commercial and transportation interests of the Southwest. An unassuming man, destitute of means, went to the South many years ago. Uprightness in dealing with his fellow-man, industry in business, and large and comprehensive views, marked his career. Step by step he fought his way up from a humble station in life to one of the grandest positions that has ever been attained by a self-made man. More than one state feels the results of his tireless energy and successful commercial schemes. He is now the sole proprietor of two railroads, and the owner of a magnificent fleet of steamers which unite the ports of New York and New Orleans with the long seaboard of Texas.

So skilfully has this man conducted the details of the great enterprises he has created, that during a term of many years not one human life has been lost upon sea or land by the mismanagement of any of his numerous agents. He is now past eighty; but this remarkable man, with his tireless brain, goes persistently on, and within fourteen months past contracted for the building of two fine iron steamers, and nearly completed two more for ocean trade. A New Orleans paper asserts that within the same period "he has elevated his Louisiana Railroad bed, along its route for twenty miles, above the highest water-mark of overflows, and has converted a shallow bayou between Galveston and Houston, Texas, into a deep stream, navigable for his largest vessels. On these works he expended over two millions of dollars."

His shops for the construction of railroad stock, and for the repairing of his steamships, are in Louisiana, where he employs over one thousand workmen. In compliment to the virtues of this modest, energetic man, to whom the people of the Southwest owe so much, the citizens of Brashear, in the southwestern part of Louisiana, have changed the name of their town to Morgan City. May the last days of Charles Morgan be blessed with the happy consciousness that he deserves the reward of a well-spent life!

The winter climate of New Orleans is delightful, and many persons leave New England's cruel east winds to breathe its soft air and rejoice in its sunshine. These pale-faced invalids are strangely grouped in the quaint old streets with the peculiar people of the city, and add another to the many types already there. The New Orleans market furnishes, perhaps, the best opportunity for the ethnological student, for there strange motley groups are always to be found. Even the cries are in the quaint voices of a foreign city, and it seems almost impossible to imagine that one is in America.

We see the Sicilian fruit-seller with his native dialect; the brisk French madame with her dainty stall; the mild-eyed Louisiana Indian woman with her sack of gumbo spread out before her; the fish-dealer with his wooden bench and odd patois; the dark-haired creole lady with her servant gliding here and there; the old Spanish gentleman with the blood of Castile tingling in his veins; the graceful French dame in her becoming toilet; the Hebrew woman with her dark eyes and rich olive complexion; the pure Anglo-Saxon type, ever distinguishable from all others; and, swarming among them all, the irrepressible negro,--him you find in every size, shape, and shade, from the tiny yellow pickaninny to his rotund and inky grandmother, from the lazy wharf-darky, half clad in both mind and body, to the dignified colored policeman, who patrols with officious gravity the city streets,--in freedom or slavery, north or south, in sunshine or out of it, ever the same easy, improvident race; ever the same gleaming teeth and ready "Yes, sah! 'pon my word, sah!" and ever the same tardiness to DO.

Leaving the busy, surging mass of humanity, each so eager to buy or sell, the visitor to New Orleans will find a great contrast of scene in the quiet cemeteries with their high walls of shelves, where the dead are laid away in closely cemented tombs built one over the other, and all above the ground, to be safe from the encroachment of water, the ever-pervading foe of New Orleans. Not only must the dead be stowed away above-ground, but the living must wage a daily war against this insidious foe, and watch with vigilance their levees.

Notwithstanding all that has been said in regard to the enervating effects of a southern climate, the inhabitants of the state of Louisiana have shown a pertinacity in maintaining their levee system which is almost unexampled. They have always asserted their rights to the lowlands in which they live, and have under the most trying circumstances braved inundation. They have built more than one thousand five hundred miles of levees within the state limits. The state engineer corps is always at work along the banks of the Mississippi and its important bayous.

The work of levee-building has been pushed ahead when a thousand evils beset the community. Accurate and detailed surveys are a constant necessity to prevent inundation. The cost-value of the present system is seven millions of dollars, and as much more is needed to make it perfect. During the civil war millions of cubic feet of levees were destroyed; but the state in her impoverished condition has not only rebuilt the old levees, but added new ones in the intervening years, showing an industry and energy we must all appreciate.

The water has an assistant in its cruel inroads, and the peace of mind of the property-holders along the lower Mississippi is constantly disturbed by the presence of a burrowing pest which lives in the artificial dikes, and is always working for their destruction. This little animal is the crawfish (Astacus Mississippiensis) of the western states, and bores its way both vertically and laterally into the levees. This species of crawfish builds a habitation nearly a foot in height on the surface of the ground, to which it retreats, at times, during high water. The Mississippi crawfish is about four inches in length, and has all the appearance of a lobster; its breeding habits being also similar. The female crawfish, like the lobster, travels about with her eggs held in peculiar arm-like organs under her jointed tail where they are protected from being devoured by other animals. There they remain until hatched; but the young crawfish does not experience the metamorphosis peculiar to most decapods.

These animals open permanent drains in the levees, through which the water finds its way, slowly at first, then rapidly, until it undermines the bank, when a crevasse occurs, and many square miles of arable and forest lands are submerged for weeks at a time. The extermination of these mischievous pests seems an impossibility, and they have cost the Mississippi property-owners immense sums of money since the levee system was first introduced upon the river.

The city of New Orleans is built upon land about four feet below the level of the Mississippi River at high-water mark, and, running along the great bend in the river, forms a semicircle; and it is from this peculiar site it has gained the appellation of "Crescent City." The buildings stretch back to the borders of Lake Pontchartrain, which empties its waters into the Gulf of Mexico. All the drainage of the city is carried by means of canals into the lake, while the two largest of these canals are navigable for steamers of considerable size. Large cargoes are transported through these artificial waterways to the lake, and from it into the Gulf of Mexico, and so on along the southern coast to Florida.

[Map from New Orleans to Mobile Bay.] [70KB]

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