If one will stand to-day on the broad levee at New Orleans, with his back to the Mississippi, a short way out to the left and riverward from the spot where the longvanished little fort St. Louis once made pretence of guarding the town’s upper river corner, he will look down two streets at once. They are Canal and Common, which gently diverge from their starting-point at his feet and narrow away before his eye as they run down toward the low, unsettled lots and commons behind the city.
Canal Street, the centre and pride of New Orleans, takes its name from the slimy old moat that once festered under the palisade wall of the Spanish town, where it ran back from river to swamp and turned northward on the line now marked by the beautiful tree-planted Rampart Street.
Common Street marks the ancient boundary of the estates wrested from the exiled Jesuit fathers by confiscation. In the beginning of the present century, the long wedge-shaped tract between these two lines was a Government reservation, kept for the better efficiency of the fortifications that overlooked its lower border and for a public road to No-man’s land. It was called the Terre Commune.
That part of the Jesuits’ former plantations that lay next to the Terre Commune was mainly the property of a singular personage named Jean Gravier. Its farther-side boundary was on a line now indicated by Delord Street. When the fire of 1788 laid nearly the half of New Orleans in ashes, his father, Bertrand, and his mother, Marie, had laid off this tract into lots and streets, to the depth of three squares backward from the river, and called it Villa Gravier. On her death, the name was changed in her honor, and so became the Faubourg Ste. Marie.
Capitalists had smiled upon the adventure. Julian Poydras, Claude Girod, Julia a free woman of color, and others had given names to its cross-streets by buying corner-lots on its river-front. Along this front, under the breezy levee, ran the sunny and dusty Tchoupitoulas road, entering the town’s southern river-side gate, where a sentry-box and Spanish corporal’s guard drowsed in the scant shadow of Fort St. Louis. Outside the levee the deep Mississippi glided, turbid, silent, often overbrimming, with many a swirl and upward heave of its boiling depths, and turning, sent a long smooth eddy back along this “making bank,” while its main current hurried onward, townward, northward, as if it would double on invisible pursuers before it swept to the east and southeast from the Place d’Armes and disappeared behind the low groves of Slaughterhouse Point.
In the opening years of the century only an occasional villa and an isolated roadside shop or two had arisen along the front of Faubourg Ste. Marie and in the first street behind. Calle del Almazen, the Spanish notary wrote this street’s name, for its lower (northern) end looked across the Terre Commune upon the large Almazen or store-house of Kentucky tobacco which Don Estevan Miró thought it wise to keep filled with purchases from the perfidious Wilkinson. Rue du Magasin, Storehouse Street, the Creoles translated it, and the Americans made it Magazine Street; but it was still only a straight road. Truck-gardens covered the fertile arpents between and beyond. Here and there was a grove of wide-spreading live-oaks, here and there a clump of persimmon trees, here and there an orchard of figs, here and there an avenue of bitter oranges or of towering pecans. The present site of the “St. Charles” was a cabbage-garden. Midway between Poydras and Girod Streets, behind Magazine, lay a campo de negros, a slave camp, probably of cargoes of Guinea or Congo slaves. The street that cut through it became Calle del Campo-Camp Street.
Far back in the rear of these lands, on the old Poydras draining canal, long since filled up and built upon-in a lonely, dreary waste of weeds and bushes dotted thick with cypress stumps and dwarf palmetto, full of rankling ponds choked with bulrushes, flags, and pickerel-weed, fringed by willows and reeds, and haunted by frogs, snakes, crawfish, rats, and mosquitoes, on the edge of the tangled swamp forest-stood the dilapidated home of “Doctor” Gravier. It stood on high pillars. Its windows and doors were lofty and wide, its verandas were broad, its roof was steep, its chimneys were tall, and its occupant was a childless, wifeless, companionless old man, whose kindness and medical attention to negroes had won him his professional title. He claims mention as a type of that strange group of men which at this early period figured here as the shrewd acquirers of wide suburban tracts, leaders of lonely lives, and leavers of great fortunes.
John McDonough, who at this time was a young man, a thrifty trader in Guinea negroes, and a suitor for the hand of Don Andreas Almonaster’s fair daughter, the late Baroness Pontalba, became in after days a like solitary type of the same class. Jean Gravier’s house long survived him, a rendezvous for desperate characters, and, if rumor is correct, the scene of many a terrible murder.
In the favoring eddy under the river-bank in front of Faubourg Ste. Marie landed the flat-boat fleets from the Ohio, the Tennessee, and the Cumberland. Buyers crowded here for cheap and fresh provisions. The huge, huddled arks became a floating market-place, with the kersey- and woolsey- and jeans-clad bargemen there, and the Creole and his sometimes brightly clad and sometimes picturesquely ragged slave here, and the produce of the West changing hands between. But there was more than this. Warehouses began to appear on the edge of Tchoupitoulas road, and barrels of pork and flour and meal to run bickering down into their open doors from the levee’s top. Any eye could see that, only let war cease, there would be a wonderful change in the half-drained, sunbaked marshes and kitchen-gardens of Faubourg Ste. Marie.
Presently the change came. It outran the official news of peace. “Our harbor,” wrote Claiborne, the Governor, in March, 1815, “is again whitening with canvas; the levee is crowded with cotton, tobacco, and other articles for exportation.”
A full sunrise of prosperity shone upon New Orleans. The whole great valley above began to fill up with wonderful speed and to pour down into her lap the fruits of its agriculture. Thirty-three thousand people were astir in her homes and streets. They overran the old bounds. They pulled up the old palisade. They shovelled the earthworks into the moat and pushed their streets out into the fields and thickets. In the old narrow ways-and the wider new ones alike-halls, churches, schools, stores, warehouses, banks, hotels, and theatres sprang tip by day and night.
Faubourg Ste. Marie outstripped all other quarters. The unconservative American was everywhere, but in Faubourg Ste. Marie he was supreme. The Western trade crowded down like a breaking up of ice. In 1817, 1,500 flat-boats and 500 barges tied up to the willows of the levee before the new faubourg. Inflation set in. Exports ran up to thirteen million dollars’ worth.
In 1819 came the collapse, but development overrode it, Large areas of the batture were reclaimed in front of the faubourg, and the Americans covered them with store buildings. In 1812, the first steam vessel had come down the Mississippi; in 1816, for the first time, one overcame and reascended its current; in 1821, 441 flatboats and 174 barges came to port, and there were 287 arrivals of steamboats.
The kitchen-gardens vanished. Gravier Street, between Tchoupitoulas and Magazine, was paved with cobblestones. The Creoles laughed outright. “A stone pavement in New Orleans soil? It will sink out of sight!” -But it bore not only their ridicule, but an uproar and gorge of wagons and drays. There was an avalanche of trade. It crammed the whole harbor-front-old town and new–with river and ocean fleets. It choked the streets. The cry was for room and facilities. The Creoles heeded it. Up came their wooden sidewalks and curbs, brick and stone went down in their place, and by 1822 gangs of street paviors were seen and heard here, there, and yonder, swinging the pick and ramming the roundstone. There were then 41,000 people in the town and its suburbs.
The old population held its breath. It clung bravely to the failing trades of the West Indies, France, and Spain. Coffee, indigo, sugar, rice, and foreign fruits and wines were still handled in the Rues Toulouse, Conti, St. Louis, Chartres, St. Peter, and Royale; but the lion’s share-the cotton, the tobacco, pork, beef, corn, flour, and northern and British fabrics-poured into and out of Faubourg Ste. Marie through the hands of the swarming Americans.
“New Orleans is going to be a mighty city,” said they in effect, “and we are going to be New Orleans.” But the Creole was still powerful, and jealous of everything that hinted of American absorption. We have seen that, in 1816, he elected one of his own race, General Villeré, to succeed Claiborne in the governor’s chair, and to guard the rights that headlong Americans might forget. “Indeed,” this governor wrote in a special message on the “scandalous practices almost every instant taking place in New Orleans and its suburbs” – “Indeed, we should be cautious in receiving all foreigners.” That caution was of little avail.