The people of New Orleans take pride in Canal Street. It is to the modern town what the Place d’Armes was to the old. Here stretch out in long parade, in variety of height and color, the great retail stores, displaying their silken and fine linen and golden seductions; and the fair Creole and American girls, and the self-depreciating American mothers, and the majestic Creole matrons, all black lace and alabaster, swarm and hum and push in and out and flit here and there among the rich things, and fine things, the novelties and the bargains. Its eighteen-feet sidewalks are loftily roofed from edge to edge by continuous balconies that on gala-days are stayed up with extra scantlings, and yet seem ready to come splintering down under the crowd of parasolled ladies sloping upward on theta from front to back in the fashion of the amphitheatre. Its two distinct granite-paved roadways are each forty feet wide, and the tree-bordered “neutral ground” between measures fifty-four feet across. It was “neutral” when it divided between the French quarter and the American at the time when their “municipality” governments were distinct from each other.
In Canal Street, well-nigh all the street-car lines in town begin and end. The Grand Opera House is here; also, the Art Union. The club-houses glitter here. If Jackson Square has one bronze statue, Canal Street has another, and it is still an open question which is the worst. At the base of Henry Clay’s pedestal, the people rally to hear the demagogues in days of political fever, and the tooth-paste orator in nights of financial hypertrophy. Here are the grand reviews. Here the resplendent Mystic Krewe marches by calcium lights on carnival nights up one roadway and down the other, and
“Perfume and flowers fall in showers,
That lightly rain from ladies’ hands.”
Here is the huge granite custom-house, that “never is, but always to be” finished. Here is a row of stores monumental to the sweet memory of the benevolent old Portuguese Jew whom Newport, Rhode Island, as well as New Orleans, gratefully honors-Judah Touro. Here sit the flower marchandes, making bouquets of jasmines and roses, clove-pinks, violets, and lady-slippers. Here the Creole boys drink mead, and on the balconies above maidens and their valentines sip sherbets in the starlight. Here only, in New Orleans, the American “bar” puts on a partial disguise. Here is the way to West End and to Spanish Fort, little lakeside spots of a diminished Coney Island sort. Here the gay carriage-parties turn northwestward, scurrying away to the races. Yea, here the funeral train breaks into a trot toward the cemeteries of Metairie Ridge. Here is Christ’s Church, with its canopied weddings here the ring-politician mounts perpetual guard. Here the gambler seeks whom he may induce to walk around into his parlor in the Rue Royale or St. Charles Street. And here, in short, throng the members of the great New Orleans Creole-American house of “Walker, Doolittle & Co.”
One does not need to be the oldest resident to remember when this neutral ground in Canal Street was still a place of tethered horses, roaming goats, and fluttering lines of drying shirts and petticoats. In those days an old mule used to drag his dejected way slowly round and round in an unchanging circle on the shabby grassed avenue, just behind the spot where the statue of Henry Clay was later erected by good Whigs in 1856. An aged and tattered negro was the mule’s ringmaster, and an artesian well was the object of his peaceful revolution.
No effort deeply to probe the city’s site had ever before been made, nor has there been any later attempt thus to draw up the pre-historic records of the Delta. The alluvial surface deposit is generally two or three feet thick, and rests on a substratum of uniform and tenacious blue clay. The well in Canal Street found this clay fifteen feet deep. Below it lay four feet more of the same clay mixed with woody matter. Under this was a mixture of sand and clay ten feet thick, resembling the annual deposits of the river. Beneath this was found, one after another, continual, irregular alternations of these clay strata, sometimes a foot, sometimes sixty feet thick, and layers of sand and shells and of mixtures of these with clay. Sometimes a stratum of quicksand was passed. At five hundred and eighty-two feet was encountered a layer of hard pan; but throughout no masses of rock were found, only a few water-worn pebbles and some contorted and perforated stones. No abundance of water flowed. Still, in the shabby, goat-haunted neutral ground above, gaped at by the neutral crowd, in the wide, blinding heat of midsummer, the long lever continued to creak round its tremulous circle. At length it stopped. At a depth of six hundred and thirty feet the well was abandoned-for vague reasons left to the custody of tradition; some say the mule died, some say the negro.
Drainage in the City
However, the work done was not without value. It must have emphasized the sanitary necessity for an elaborate artificial drainage of the city’s site, and it served to contradict a very prevalent and solicitous outside belief that New Orleans was built on a thin crust of mud, which site might at any moment break through, when towers, spires, and all would ingloriously disappear. The continual alternations of tough clay and loose sand and shells in such variable thicknesses gave a clear illustration of the conditions of Delta soil that favor the undermining of the Mississippi banks and their fall into the river at low stages of water, levees being often carried with them.
These cavings are not generally crevasses. A crevasse is commonly the result of the levee yielding to the pressure of the river’s waters, heaped up against it often to the height of ten or fifteen feet above the level of the land. But the caving-in of old levees requires their replacement by new and higher ones on the lower land farther back, and a crevasse often occurs through the weakness of a new levee which is not yet solidified, or whose covering of tough Bermuda turf has not yet grown. The fact is widely familiar, too, that when a craw fish has burrowed in a levee, the water of the river may squirt in and out of this little tunnel, till a section of the levee becomes saturated and softened, and sometimes slides shoreward bodily from its base, and lets in the flood, -roaring, leaping, and tumbling over the rich plantations and down into the swamp behind them, levelling, tearing up, drowning, destroying, and sweeping away as it goes.
New Orleans may be inundated either by a crevasse or by the rise of backwater on its northern side from Lake Pontchartrain. Bayou St. John is but a prehistoric crevasse minus only the artificial levee. A lung-prevailing southeast wind will obstruct the outflow of the lake’s waters through the narrow passes by which they commonly reach the Gulf of Mexico, and the rivers and old crevasses emptying into the lake from the north and east will be virtually poured into the streets of New Orleans. A violent storm blowing across Pontchartrain from the north produces the same result. At certain seasons, the shores of river, lake, and canals have to be patrolled day and night to guard the wide, shallow basin in which the city lies from the insidious encroachments of the waters that overhang it on every side.
It is difficult, in a faithful description, to avoid giving an exaggerated idea of these floods. Certainly, large portions of the city are inundated; miles of streets become canals. The waters rise into yards and gardens and then into rooms. Skiffs enter the poor man’s parlor and bedroom to bring the morning’s milk or to carry away to higher ground his goods and chattels. All manner of loose stuff floats about the streets; the house-cat sits on the gate-post; huge rats come swimming, in mute and loathsome despair, from that house to this one, and are pelted to death from the windows. Even snakes seek the: same asylum. Those who have the choice avoid such districts, and the city has consequently lengthened out awkwardly along the higher grounds down, and especially up, the river shore.
But the town is not ingulfed; life is not endangered; trade goes on in its main districts mostly dry-shod, and the merchant goes and comes between his home and his counting-room as usual in the tinkling street-cars, merely catching glimpses of the water down the cross streets.
The humbler classes, on the other hand, suffer severely. Their gardens and poultry are destroyed, their houses and household goods are damaged; their working days are discounted. The rich and the authorities, having defaulted in the ounce of preventive, come forward with their ineffectual pound of cure; relief committees are formed and skiffs ply back and forth distributing bread to the thus, doubly humbled and doubly damaged poor.
No considerable increase of sickness seems to follow these overflows. They cannot more completely drench so ill-drained a soil than would any long term of rainy weather; but it hardly need be said that neither condition is healthful under a southern sky.
In the beginning of the town’s existence, the floods came almost yearly, and for a long time afterward they were frequent. The old moat and palisaded embankment around the Spanish town did not always keep them out. There was a disastrous one in 1780, when the Creoles were strained to the utmost to bear the burdens of their daring young Governor Galvez’s campaigns against the British. Another occurred in 1785, when Miró was governor; another in 1791, the last year of his incumbency; another in 1799. All these came from river crevasses above the town. The last occurred near where Carrollton, now part of New Orleans, was afterward built. Another overflow, in 1813, came from a crevasse only a mile or two above this one.
Next followed the noted overflow of May, 1816. The same levee that had broken in 1799 was undermined by the current, which still strikes the bank at Carrollton with immense power; it gave way and the floods of the Mississippi poured through the break. On the fourth day afterward, the waters had made their way across sugar-fields and through swamps and into the rear of the little city, had covered the suburbs of Gravier, Treme, and St. Jean with from three to five feet of their turbid, yellow flood, and were crawling up toward the front of the river-side suburbs-Montegut, La Course, Ste. Marie, and Marigny. In those days, the corner of Canal and Chartres Streets was only some three hundred yards from the river shore. The flood came up to it. One could take a skiff at that point and row to Dauphine Street, down Dauphine to Bienville, down Bienville to Burgundy, in Burgundy to St. Louis Street, from St. Louis to Rampart, and so throughout the rear suburbs, now the Quadroon quarter.
The breach was stopped by sinking in it a three-masted vessel. The waters found vent through Bayous St. John and Bienvenu to the lake; but it was twenty-five days before they were quite gone. This twelvemonth was the healthiest in a period of forty years.
In 1831, a storm blew the waters of Lake Pontchartrain up to within six hundred yards of the levee. The same thing occurred in October, 1837, when bankruptcy as well as back waters swamped the town. The same waters were driven almost as far in 1844, and again in 1846.
It would seem as if town pride alone would have seized: a spade and thrown up a serviceable levee around the city. But town pride in New Orleans was only born about 1836, and was a puny child. Not one American in five looked on the place as his permanent home. As for those who did, the life they had received from their fathers had become modified. Some of them were a native generation. Creole contact had been felt. The same influences, too, of climate, landscape, and institutions, that had made the Creole unique was de-Saxonizing the American of the ” Second Municipality,” and giving special force to those two traits which everywhere characterized the slave-holder -improvidence, and that feudal self-completeness which looked with indolent contempt upon public cooperative measures.
The Creole’s answer to suggestive inquiry concerning the prevention of overflows, it may easily be guessed, was a short, warm question: “How?” he thought one ought to tell him. He has ten good “cannots” to one small “can”-or once had; the proportion is better now, and so is the drainage; and still, heat, moisture, malaria, and provincial exile make a Creole of whoever settles down beside him.
In 1836, a municipal draining company was formed, and one draining wheel erected at Bayou St. John. In 1838, a natural drain behind the American quarter was broadened and deepened into a foul ditch known as Melpomene Canal. And in 1849, came the worst inundation the city has ever suffered.