In our last article, we explored postcards that depicted the story of New Orleans in its earliest days. Two important commodities that contributed heavily to the New Orleans economy back then were sugar and cotton. Planting and harvesting these crops required a large work-force to do back breaking labor. To maintain a steady work-force, the landowners turned to slaves. During both the French and Spanish administrations of New Orleans, slaves were imported from the Caribbean and Africa. In 1808, the Federal Government outlawed the international slave trade to America. However, slaves continued to arrive in New Orleans from the Northern United States. Many of the slaves were sold in “blocks” such as the one shown in Figure #1. This practice continued until the end of the Civil War.
As the slave trade decreased in New Orleans, the importance of a third major commodity, bananas, increased. Much of the processing of bananas could be accomplished via mechanical means rather than by slaves. Both the United Fruit Company (Chiquita brand) and Standard Fruit (which became the Dole Food Company) began importing bananas from South and Central America in the late 1800s into the shipping port of New Orleans. By 1910, New Orleans had become the largest banana port in the world. Each year, nearly a thousand ships arrived at the city’s banana wharves each carrying up to fifty thousand bunches of bananas. From there, each individual bunch was carried from the ship’s hold to a refrigerated train car by mechanical conveyors (Figure #2). Today, tours are available to demonstrate how the original process was conducted.
Bananas were not the only thing to arrive in New Orleans by ship; there were pirates. The most famous New Orleans pirate was Jean Lafitte. Lafitte was a French pirate and privateer who sailed the Gulf of Mexico with his brother Pierre during the early 1800s. Although most famous for helping General Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans from British invasion during the War of 1812, Lafitte was not above receiving pirated goods and reselling them for large profits. Legend has it that Lafitte conducted his nefarious business in Pirate’s Alley which extends the one block from Royal Street to Chartres Street in the New Orleans French Quarter (Figure #3). Conveniently located at the end of Pirate’s Alley is the old Spanish prison (Figure #4). The room at the extreme right on the ground floor is the cell in which Lafitte is said to have been incarcerated sometime after 1803.
If Jean Lafitte was New Orleans’ famous bad boy, then Margaret Haughery was its famous good girl. Born in Ireland in 1813, Haughery immigrated to America with her family in 1818. Orphaned in 1822 when a yellow fever epidemic killed both her parents, Margaret moved to New Orleans where she took up work as a laundress for the St. Charles Hotel. She became friends with several of the nuns of the Sisters of Charity who ran a home for orphans. With money she saved from her job, Margaret established a dairy and a bakery that produced milk and bread which she donated to the orphans of the city. Margaret died in 1882. Two years later, the Margaret statue was erected to honor New Orleans’ “mother to the motherless” (Figure #5). As the caption on the postcard says, the Margaret statue was the first statue erected to a woman’s memory in the United States.
Another can’t miss New Orleans landmark is Saint Roch’s cemetery (Figure #6). Founded more than 200 years ago, its unusual above ground burial vaults were the answer to burying the dead in a city that was built below sea level. It is said that young girls who came to pray in the chapel at Saint Roch’s cemetery on Good Friday after visiting nine other churches would find true love by the end of the year.
If you’re lucky enough to do a bit of shopping along with your sightseeing in New Orleans, Canal Street is your destination (Figure #7). Initially designed in 1807 to be a canal connecting the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, the project proved to be untenable. The canal was replaced by a wide thoroughfare which divided the city into the Vieux Carre or colonial era French Quarter and the newer American Sector or Central Business District. Today, Canal Street is the home for some of the city’s best stores and hotels. However, if you happen to find yourself on Canal Street at the time of Mardi Gras, you may find yourself among a few hundred thousand other fellow travelers (Figure #8).
Speaking of Mardi Gras that is one of the topics we will visit when New Orleans – City of History and Romance concludes next time. Until then, if you can’t physically go there, look for some of your own postcard treasures of the great city!