From Bayou Segnette State Park – Westwego, LA
The Mississippi River has always loomed large in America’s identity from history taught in schools, works of literature and in this nation’s economy. New Orleans is a good place to experience the river in all its bustling activity, natural splendor and historical significance. For generations the Mississippi has always been a working river for this city but for most New Orleanians floodwalls, warehouses and busy wharves cut them off any pleasure activity access to the river.
This began to change in the 1970’s when unused industrial buildings near the French Quarter were destroyed and replaced by a picturesque Woldenberg Park and Riverwalk. However traces of the old warehouses and wharves of years gone by, the freight trains that still pass between the river and the French Quarter and the traffic on the river all prove to the residents and visitors that this city is still very dependent upon one of the world’s busiest rivers……the Mighty Mississippi.
Sitting on one of the many benches along the riverfront you will witness the Canal Street Ferry also known as the Algiers Ferry cross the river on the quarter hour daily. This ferry carries automobiles for a $1.00 fee and pedestrians and bicycles for free from the foot of Canal Street in New Orleans with Algiers on the west bank……again an example of this great river being used as a travel corridor by Americans wanting a shorter means to reach the other bank. The ferry has been in regular service since 1827.
Located at the nexus of the Mississippi River and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, New Orleans is today one of the busiest ports in the world. But because of engineering feats that tamed this great river, there has been a price to pay…..cutting off the Delta’s ecosystem from the life giving water and sediment of the river.
Much of the Delta lies below the level of the Mississippi most of the time due to the river confining itself in its own natural levees that were built up through successive spring floods and then exaggerated by man-made levees and floodwalls atop the natural ones. Even if standing on some of the highest ground in the city at 10 feet above mean sea level, you would find yourself lower than the level of the river during a major spring rise.
Today we walked many of the streets of the French Quarter seeing pieces of history contained in what is itself a historical part of this city. One of the oldest parks established very early in New Orleans history overlooking the river is Jackson Square; unfortunately the park was closed to visitors today for beautification reasons. Originally called the Place d’ Armes until after the Battle of New Orleans in 1814 it was renamed for General Andrew Jackson. Today in the center of the park stands an equestrian statue of Jackson erected in 1856; one of three in Americas by sculptor Clark Mills.
Surrounding this historical Jackson Square are many other buildings that are steeped in history of this city. Just behind the square on a promenaded section of Chartres Street are three 18th-century historic buildings which were the heart of the city in the colonial era. At the center of the three is St. Louis Cathedral, to its left is the Cabildo and on its right is the Presbytere which was built to match the Cabildo.
The St. Louis Cathedral also known as the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans. This cathedral has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating cathedral in the United States. It is also one of only a few Roman Catholic churches in the U.S. that fronts a major public square.
The first church built on this site chosen by the founder of New Orleans; Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville was built in 1718. However it was a later built church on this same site in 1789 that was raised to cathedral rank in 1793 and then was expanded and largely rebuilt in 1850.
The Cabildo was the seat of colonial government in New Orleans. The original Cabildo was destroyed in the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 and was rebuilt between 1795-99 as the home of the Spanish municipal government. The building’s name comes from the governing body who met there – the “Illustrious Cabildo” or city council. It was the site of the Louisiana Purchase transfer ceremonies in 1803 and continued to be used by city councils of New Orleans until the mid 1850’s.
The building’s main hall has been used as a courtroom by the Spanish from 1799-1803, by the Louisiana territorial superior court from 1803-1812 and after the American Civil War was the home of the Louisiana Supreme Court from 1868-1910. It was in 1911 the Cabildo became the home of the Louisiana State Museum.
The other building located behind Jackson Square built in 1791 to match the Cabildo is the Presbytere. It originally housed the city’s Roman Catholic priests and authorities. In 1834 it like the Cabildo was used by the Louisiana Supreme Court and in 1853 cathedral officials sold the Presbytere to the city which in turn sold to the state in 1908. It like its twin on the other side of St. Louis Cathedral became part of the Louisiana State Museum complex in 1911.
Forming two sides of Jackson Square are matching red-brick block long 4-story buildings built in the 1840’s known as the Pontalba Buildings. The ground floors of these buildings house shops and restaurants while the upper floors are apartments that are the oldest continuously rented such apartments in the United States and as such have been a National Historic Landmark since 1974.
For a different kind of history one can look diagonally across Decatur Street from Jackson Square and the 1891 building which housed the brewery for a local favorite…….Jax Beer. During the 1960’s this brewery was the 10th largest in the U.S. But just 10 years later the owners went bankrupt and by the 1980’s the building was bought and turned into shopping and restaurants. Today some of this retail space has been converted into luxury condominiums.
One last piece of history seen today was the Old U.S. Mint building and museum which sits on the northeastern edge of the French Quarter which used to be the entire city of New Orleans. Because of New Orleans’ strategic location along the Mississippi River it was a magnet for commercial activity.
In the early 19th century the city was the fifth-largest in the nation and conducted more foreign trade than any other city in the United States. This coupled with large quantities of gold from Mexico passing through the ports and located relatively near gold deposits recently discovered in Alabama made this city a good location for a U.S. Mint.
On March 3, 1835 President Andrew Jackson signed a bill authorizing the U.S. Treasury to establish a branch mint in New Orleans. It was to manufacture hard currency in both gold and silver setting it apart from the other two Southern branch mints that only minted gold coinage. Actual minting began here in 1838 and became the only mint to produce a Confederate coin in 1861.
Operating as a U.S. mint from 1838 to 1861 and again from 1879 to 1909 it produced over 427 million gold and silver coins of nearly every American denomination with a total face value of over $307 million US dollars. However by 1909 the operation here had become obsolete and was superseded by new mints in San Francisco and Denver and minting ceased at this location.
Since arriving here at our first river destination and exploring the end of the river, life along the banks of the river from eras gone by and leisurely walking the streets of this historic river city, a display in the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve we toured earlier today entitled “Celebrating Life in a Liquid Land” really came to the forefront of this day. So in closing I would quote from it…….”Subtropical climate and distinctive cultural traditions seem to set it apart from the rest of the country. Hurricanes, torrential downpours and the Mississippi’s spring floods have rendered the people’s grip on the land precarious at best. In a place where the boundary between earth and water is always shifting, impermanence is one of the landscape’s most reliable features. Like the jazz it has inspired, the rhythm of this Delta is often improvisational, spontaneous and undeniably one-of-a-kind”