The brow and cheek of this man were darkened by outdoor exposure, but they were not weather-beaten. His shapely, bronzed hand was no harder or rougher than was due to the use of the bridle-rein and the gunstock. His eye was the eye of a steed; his neck-the same. His hair was a little luxuriant. His speech was positive, his manner was military, his sentiments were antique, his clothing was of broadcloth, his boots were neat, and his hat was soft, broad, and slouched a little to show its fineness. Such in his best aspect was the Mississippi River planter. When sugar was his crop and Creole French his native tongue, his polish would sometimes be finer still, with a finish got in Paris, and his hotel would be the St. Louis.
He was growing to be a great power. The enormous agricultural resources of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee were his. The money-lender gyrated around him with sweet smiles and open purse. He was mortgaged to the eyes, and still commanded a credit that courted and importuned him. He caused an immense increase of trade. His extravagant wants and the needs of his armies of slaves kept the city drained of its capital almost or quite the whole year round. Borrower and lender vied with each other in recklessness. Much the larger portion of all the varied products of the West received in New Orleans was reshipped, not to sea, but to the plantations of the interior, often returning along the same route half the distance they had originally come. Millions of capital that would have yielded slower but immensely better final results in other channels went into the planters’ paper, based on the value of slaves and of lands whose value depended on slave labor, -a species of wealth unexchangeable in the great world of commerce, fictitious as paper money, and even more illusory. But, like the paper money that was then inundating the country, this system produced an immense volume of business; and this, in turn, called into the city, to fill the streets and landings and the thousands of humble dwellings that sprang up throughout the old Faubourg Marigny and spread out on the right flank of Faubourg Ste. Marie, the Irish and German emigrant, by tens of thousands.
It was in the midst of these conditions that mad speculations in Western lands and the downfall of the United States Bank rolled the great financial crisis of 1837 across the continent. Where large results had intoxicated enterprise, banks without number, and often without foundation, strewed their notes among the infatuated people. But in New Orleans enterprise had forgotten everything but the factorage of the staple crops. The banks were not so many, but they followed the fashion in having make-believe capital and in crumbling to ashes at a touch. Sixty millions of capital, four of deposits, twelve hundred thousand specie, eighteen hundred thousand real estate, and seventy-two millions receivables, mostly protested, -such was their record when they suspended.
“A whirlwind of ruin,” said one of the newspapers, “prostrated the greater portion of the city.” Everybody’s hands were full of “shin-plasters.” There was no other currency. Banks and banking were execrated, and their true office so ill understood that a law was passed preventing the establishment of any such institution in the State. A few old banks that weathered the long financial stress accepted, with silent modesty, the monopoly thus thrown into their hands, and in 1843, having abandoned the weaker concerns to shipwreck, resumed specie payment. The city’s foreign commerce had dropped to thirty-four and three-quarters million dollars, a loss of nineteen millions; but, for the first time in her history, she sent to sea a million bales of cotton.
The crisis had set only a momentary check upon agriculture. The financiers of New Orleans came out of it more than ever infatuated with the plantation idea. It had become the ruling principle in the social organism of the South, the one tremendous drawback to the best development of country and city; and now the whole lower Mississippi Valley threw all its energies and all its fortune into this seductive mistake.
And still the city grew; grew as the Delta sands on which it stands had grown, by the compulsory tribute of the Mississippi. The great staples of the Valley poured down ever more and more. In 1842, the value of these receipts was $45,700,000 ; in 1844, it was $60,000,000 ; in 1846, it was over $77,000,000 ; in 1547, it was $90,000,000 ; in 1550, it was close to ,$97,000,000. The city lengthened; it broadened; it lifted its head higher. The trowel rang everywhere on home-made brick and imported granite, and houses rose by hundreds. The Irish and Germans thronged down from the decks of emigrant ships at the rate of thirty thousand a year. They even partly crowded out slave service. In 1850, there were 5,330 slaves less in the city than in 1840. The free mulatto also gave way. Unenterprising, despised, persecuted, this caste, once so scant in numbers, had grown, in 1840, to be nearly as numerous as the whites. The “abolition” question brought them double hatred and suspicion; and restrictive, unjust, and intolerant State legislation reduced their numbers-it must have been by exodus-from 19,000 to less than 10,000 souls. Allowing for natural increase, eleven or twelve thousand must have left the city. The proportion or whites rose from fifty-eight to seventy-eight per cent., and the whole population of New Orleans and its environs was 133,650.
Another city had sprang up on the city’s upper boundary. In 1833, three suburbs, Lafayette, Livaudais, and Religeuses, the last occupying an old plantation of the Ursuline nuns, combined into a town. About 1840, the wealthy Americans began to move up here into “large, commodious, one-story houses, full of windows on all sides, and surrounded by broad and shady gardens.” Here, but nearer the river, Germans and Irish-especially the former-filed in continually, and by 1850 the town of Lafayette contained over fourteen thousand residents, nearly all white.
First Street Pavement
It was a red-letter year. The first street pavement of large, square granite blocks was laid. Wharf building set in strongly. The wires of the electro-magnetic telegraph drew the city into closer connection with civilization. The mind of the financier was aroused, and he turned his eye toward railroads. The “Tehuantepec route” received its first decided impulse. Mexican grants were bought; surveys were procured; much effort was made-and lost. The Mexican Government was too unstable and too fickle to be bargained with. But in 1851, meantime, two great improvements were actually set on foot; to wit, the two railways that eventually united the city with the great central system of the Union in the Mississippi-Ohio galley, and with the vast Southwest, Mexico, and California. These two works moved slowly, but by 1855 and 1857 the railway trains were slamming out across the flowery prairies tremblantes eighty miles westward toward Texas, and the same distance northward toward the centre of the continent. In 1852, Lafayette and the municipalities were consolidated into one city government. Sixteen years of subdivision under separate municipal councils, and similar expensive and obstructive nonsense, had taught Creole, American, and immigrant the value of unity and of the American principles of growth better than unity could have done it. Algiers, a suburb of machine shops and nautical repair yards, began to grow conspicuous on the farther side of the river.
The consolidation was a great step. The American quarter became the centre and core of the whole city. Its new and excessively classic marble municipality Ball became the city hall. Its public grounds became the chosen rendezvous of all popular assemblies. All the great trades sought domicile in its streets; and the St. Charles, at whose memorable burning, in 1850, the people wept, being restored in 1852-53, made final eclipse of the old St. Louis.
A small steel-engraved picture of New Orleans, made just before this period, is obviously the inspiration of the commercial and self-important American. The ancient plaza, the cathedral, the old hall of the cabildo, the calaboza, the old Spanish barracks, the emptied convent of the Ursulines, the antiquated and decayed Rue Toulouse, the still quietly busy Chartres and Old Levee Streets-all that was time-honored and venerable, are pushed out of view, and the lately humble Faubourg Ste. Marie fills the picture almost from side to side. Long ranks of huge, lofty-chimneyed Mississippi steamers smoke at the levee; and high above the deep and solid phalanxes of brick and stone rise the majestic dome of the first St. Charles and the stately tower of St. Patrick’s Church, queen and bishop of the board.
But the ancient landmarks trembled to a worse fate than being left out of a picture. Renovation came in. In 1850, the cathedral was torn down to its foundations, and began to rise again with all of its Spanish picturesqueness lost and little or nothing gained in beauty. On its right and left absurd French roofs were clapped upon the cabildo and the court-house. Old Don Andreas’s daughter, the Baroness Pontalba, replaced the quaint tile-roofed store buildings that her father had built on either side of the square with large, new rows of red brick. The city laid out the Place d’Armes, once her grassy play-ground, in blinding white-shell walks, trimmed shrubbery, and dusty flower-beds, and later, in 1855, placed in its centre the bronze equestrian figure of the deliverer of New Orleans, and called the classic spot Jackson Square. Yet, even so, it remains to the present the last lurking-place of the romance of primitive New Orleans.
It was not a time to look: for very good taste. All thoughts were led away by the golden charms of commerce. In 1851, the value of receipts from the interior was nearly $107,000,000. The mint coined $10,000,000, mostly the product of California’s new-found treasure-fields. The year 1853 brought still greater increase. Of cotton alone, there came sixty-eight and a quarter million dollars’ worth. The sugar crop was tens of thousands of hogsheads larger than ever before. Over a tenth of all the arrivals from sea were of steamships. There was another inflation. Leaving out the immense unascertained amounts of shipments into the interior, the city’s business, in 1856, rose to two hundred and seventy-one and a quarter millions. In 1857 it was three hundred and two millions. In this year came a crash, which the whole country felt. New Orleans felt it rather less than other cities, and quickly recovered.
We pause at 1860. In that year New Orleans rose to a prouder commercial exaltation than she had ever before enjoyed, and at its close began that sudden and swift descent which is not the least pathetic episode of our unfortunate civil war. In that year, the city that a hundred and forty years before had consisted of a hundred bark and palmetto-thatched huts in a noisome swamp counted, as the fraction of its commerce comprised in its exports, imports, and domestic receipts, the value of three hundred and twenty-four million dollars.