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A Hundred Thousand People

Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Louisiana | No Comments

What a change! The same Governor Villeré could not but say, “The Louisianian who retraces the condition of his country under the government of kings can never cease to bless the day when the great American confederation received him into its bosom.” It was easy for Louisianians to be Americans; but to let Americans be Louisianians!-there was the rub. Yet it had to be. In ten years, the simple export and import trade of the port had increased fourfold; and in the face of inundations and pestilences, discord of sentiment and tongues, and the saddest of public morals and disorder, the population had nearly doubled.

Nothing could stop the inflow of people and wealth. In the next ten years, 1520-30, trade increased to one and three quarters its already astonishing volume. The inhabitants were nearly 50,000, and the strangers from all parts of America and the commercial world were a small army. Sometimes there would be five or six thousand up-river bargemen in town at once, wild, restless, and unemployed. On the levee especially this new tremendous life and energy heaved and palpitated. Between 1831 and 1S35, the mere foreign exports and imports ran up from twenty, six to nearly fifty-four million dollars. There were no wharves built out into the harbor yet, and all the vast mass of produce and goods lay out under the open slay on the long, wide, unbroken level of time curving harbor-front, where Ohio bargemen, Germans, Mississippi raftsmen, Irishmen, French, English, Creoles, Yankees, and negro and mulatto slaves surged and jostled and filled the air with shouts and imprecations.

Vice put on the same activity that commerce showed. The Creole had never been a strong moral force. The American came in as to gold diggings or diamond fields, to grab and run. The transatlantic immigrant of those days was frequently the offscouring of Europe. The West Indian was a leader in licentiousness, gambling and duelling. The number of billiard-rooms, gaming-houses, and lottery-offices was immense. In the old town they seemed to be every second house. There was the French Evangelical Church Lottery, the Baton Rouge Church Lottery, the Natchitoches Catholic Church Lottery, and a host of others less piously inclined. The cafés of the central town were full of filibusters. In 1819, “General” Long sailed hence against Galveston. In 1822, a hundred and fifty men left New Orleans in the sloop-of-war Eureka, and assisted in the taking of Porto Cabello, Venezuela. The paving movement had been only a flurry or two, and even in the heart of the town, where carriages sometimes sank to their axles in mud, highway robbery and murder lay always in wait for the incautious night wayfarer who ventured out alone. The police was a mounted gendarmerie If the Legislature committed a tenth of the wickedness it was charged with, it was sadly corrupt. The worst day of all the week was Sunday. The stores and shops were open, but toil slackened and license gained headway. Gambling-rooms and ball-rooms were full, weapons were often out, the quadroon masques of the Salle de Condé were thronged with men of high standing, and crowds of barge and raftsmen, as well as Creoles and St. Domingans, gathered at those open-air African dances, carousals, and debaucheries in the rear of the town that have left their monument in the name of “Congo” Square.

Yet still prosperity smiled and commerce roared along the streets of the town and her faubourgs-Ste. Marie on her right, Marigny on her left-with ever-rising volume and value, and in spite of fearful drawbacks. The climate was deadly to Americans, and more deadly to the squalid immigrant. Social life, unattractive at best, received the Creole and shut the door. The main town was without beauty, and the landscape almost without a dry foothold. Schools were scarce and poor, churches few and ill attended, and domestic service squalid, inefficient, and corrupt. Between 1810 and 1837 there were fifteen epidemics of yellow fever. Small-pox was frequent. In 1832, while yellow fever was still epidemic, cholera entered and carried off one person in every six; many of the dead were buried where they died, and many were thrown into the river. Moreover, to get to the town or to leave it was a journey famed for its dangers. On one steamboat, three hundred lives were lost; on another, one hundred and thirty; on another, the same number; on another, one hundred and twenty. The cost of running a steamer was six times as great as on the northern lakes.

New Orleans

Without these drawbacks what would New Orleans have been? For, with them all, and with others which we pass by, leer population between 1530 and 1540 once more doubled its numbers. She was the fourth city of the United States in the number of her people. Cincinnati, which in the previous decade had outgrown her, was surpassed and distanced. Only New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore were larger. Boston was nearly as large; but besides these there was no other city in the Union of half her numbers. Faubourg Ste. Marie had swallowed up the suburbs above her until it comprised the whole expanse of the old Jesuits’ plantations to the line of Felicity Road. The old Marquis Marigny de Mandeville, whose plantation lay on the lower edge of the town just across the Esplanade, had turned it into lots and streets, and the town had run over upon it and covered it with small residences, and here and there a villa. The city boundaries had been extended to take in both these faubourgs; and the three “municipalities,” as they were called, together numbered one hundred and two thousand inhabitants.

The ends of the harbor front were losing sight of each other. In the seasons of high water the tall, broad, frail-looking steamers that crowded in together, “bow on,” at the busy levee, hidden to their hurricane roofs in cargoes of cotton bales, looked down upon not merely a quiet little Spanish-American town of narrow streets, low, heavy, rugged roofs, and Latin richness and variety of color peeping out of a mass of overshadowing greenery. Fort St. Charles, the last fraction of the old fortifications, was gone, and the lofty chimney of a United States mint smoked in its place. The new Bourse, later known as St. Louis Hotel, and yet later as the famed State-house of Reconstruction days, just raised its low, black dome into view above the intervening piles of brick. A huge prison lifted its frowning walls and quaint Spanish twin belfries gloomily over Congo Square. At the white-stuccoed Merchants’ Exchange, just inside the old boundary on the Canal Street side, a stream of men poured in and out, for there was the Post-office. Down in the lower arm of the river’s bend shone the Third Municipality,-which had been Faubourg Marigny. On its front, behind a net-work of shipping, stood the Levee Cotton Press; it had cost half a million dollars. Here on the south, sweeping far around and beyond the view almost to the “Bull’s Head Coffeehouse,” was the Second Municipality, once Faubourg Ste. Marie, with its lines and lines of warehouses, its Orleans Press, that must needs cost a quarter million more than the other, and many a lesser one. The town was full of banks: the Commercial, the Atchafalaya, the Orleans, the Canal, the City, etc. Banks’s Arcade was there, a glassroofed mercantile court in the midst of a large hotel in Magazine Street, now long known as the St. James. Hotels were numerous. In Camp and St. Charles Streets stood two theatres, where the world’s stars deigned to present themselves, and the practical jokers of the upper galleries concocted sham fights and threw straw men over into the pit below, with cries of murder. Here and there a church-the First Presbyterian, the Carondelet Methodist-raised an admonitory finger. The site of old Jean Gravier’s house was hidden behind Poydras Market; the uncanny iron frames of the Gas Works rose beyond. The reservoir of the water-works lay in here to the left near the river, whose muddy water it used. Back yonder in the street named for Julia, the f. w. c.,* a. little bunch of schooner masts and pennons showed where the Canal Dank had dug a “New Basin” and brought the waters of Lake Pontchartrain up into this part of the city also.

It was the period when the American idea of architecture had passed from its untrained innocence to a sophomoric affectation of Greek forms. Banks, hotels, churches, theatres, mansions, cottages, all were Ionic or Corinthian, and the whole American quarter was a gleaming white. But the commercial shadow of this quarter fell darkly upon the First Municipality, the old town. A quiet crept into the Rue Toulouse. The fashionable shops on the Rue Royale slipped away and spread out in Canal Street. The vault of the St. Louis dome still echoed the voice of the double-tongued, French-English auctioneer of town lots and slaves; but in the cabbage-garden of “old Mr. Percy,” in the heart of Faubourg Ste. Marie, a resplendent rival, the palatial St. Charles, lifted its dazzling cupola high above all surroundings and overpeered old town and new, river, plain, and receding forest. Its rotunda was the unofficial guildhall of all the city’s most active elements. Here met the capitalist, the real estate operator, the merchant, the soldier, the tourist, the politician, the filibuster, the convivialist, the steamboat captain, the horse-fancier; and ever conspicuous among the throng -which had a trick of separating suddenly and dodging behind the pillars of the rotunda at the sound of high words-was a man, a type, an index of great wealth to New Orleans, who in this spot was never a stranger and was never quite at home.

* “Free woman of color “-initials used in the Louisiana courts and notarial documents.


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