The story of New Orleans is dominated
Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. For the past 100 years it has also been the story of
the US Army Corps of Engineers trying to dominate the river.
When French explorers came to
the area 300 years ago they faced a dilemma. To gain access to the vast
American heartland they needed a port where river traffic could be
transfered to ocean going sailing vessels. They needed
a settlement and port facilities where the river met the sea.
Baton Rouge, the first really solid ground
up river from the delta, was 200 miles inland. Mobile which they had
settled in 1699 was 150 miles to the east. Near the mouth of the river
the land was swampy and unstable. The river's current made it
difficult for sailing ships to penetrate far inland.
After a twenty year search, the French decided an Indian
portage on high ground between the river and Lake Pontchartrain was the
location for the much needed port.Shallow draft sailing ships
enter Lake Pontchartrain through the Rigolets and then sail
into Bayou St. John. The final leg to the Mississippi River was only a
two mile portage across high ground providing access to the interior of
In 1718 the French, operating out of Mobile, established
Orleans on a natural levee of the Mississippi. The location was isolated
by swamps to the east, north and west and by the river to the south.
referred to it as the "Isle de Orleans."
The site turned out to be
suitable as a deep water port serving the entire
Mississippi River basin. It expanded slowly under French and Spanish
rule but grew explosively after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. In 1840 New Orleans was America's third largest
city trailing only New York and Baltimore. By 2005 it was still the nation's 35th largest metropolitan area
but had entered a period of decline and didn't seem likely to emerge
without drastic change.
Click the satellite image to see the portage. It starts just left of
the Fairgrounds (horse racing and Jazz Fest) and extends for about thirty city blocks on a straight
line to the southeast (straight up Esplanade) to the river at Gov.
Nicholls. The original portage starts at the intersection of Bell
Street and Bayou St. John then follows Bayou Road to the Governor
Nicholls wharf. The route runs roughly parallel to Esplanade Avenue
from the Fairgrounds to the River.