New Orleans Becomes a Metropolis

New Orleans entered upon an era of almost unbroken tranquillity, prosperity, and commercial expansion, which lasted until the Civil War. The value of exports reached nearly $10,000,000 in 1815. After the Fulton-Livingston monopoly of Mississippi steamboat traffic had been declared null and void by the United States Supreme Court, steamboats multiplied rapidly, and increased from 21 in 1814 to 989 in 1830. As the steamboat became an accepted fact, trade along the entire extent. of the Mississippi increased, and New Orleans began to vie with New York as an important port for European commerce. The levees at New Orleans were piled high with merchandise, and thousands of dock-hands unloaded steamboats to transfer the cargo to ships which carried the produce of the valley to ports all over the world. Cotton, tobacco, grain, and meat came down the river in enormous quantities, as sugar, coffee, and European manufactures went back to the pioneer homes of the new settlements.

As commerce grew, the city rapidly expanded. The American Quarter came into its own and was recognized as a very definite factor in the city's growth. Tchoupitoulas Road, near Canal Street, was by now an important commercial center. Under Samuel J. Peters, James H. Caldwell, and William H. Sparks the suburbs beyond what is now Howard Avenue were developed, and rural homes, dairies, orchards, and farms grew closer together as the region took on an urban aspect. Below Esplanade Avenue the Marigny Plantation was being developed as a suburb, while beyond Rampart Street along the Bayou Road numerous homes were being erected.

Immigration of gamblers, criminals, and riffraff from all over the world, lured to New Orleans because of its reputation as a lawless river town, brought on an acute crime problem, and the city's first criminal court was established to cope with the situation in 1817. A custom of the time for the preservation of peace -- one which lasted for many years -- was the sounding of the curfew nightly. A cannon was fired at 8 and at 9 P.M. to warn those who were out without permission to return to their homes, and sailors to return to their ships. A special pass issued by a respected merchant or employer was required of those wishing to be on the streets after curfew. At nine o'clock most of the taverns and shops closed their doors, although some of the better hotels or taverns, by virtue of their position, were not restricted by the curfew.

In March, 1818, the first steam waterworks was completed. Located on the levee near the French Market, it supplied water for both drinking and general use. Prior to its being put into operation, most of the drinking water taken from the Mississippi had been peddled through the streets at a picayune (about 6 ¼ ¢) for four bucketfuls.

In 1821 the city was excited by a rumor that an expedition was being fitted out under Dominique You with the intention of rescuing Napoleon Bonaparte from St. Helena. Ever since Napoleon's incarceration on the island, certain French citizens in the city had been interested in a plan to bring him to New Orleans. Nicholas Girod, mayor from 1812 to 1815, offered his house at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis Streets as a refuge for the former emperor, and legend has it that he had a boat built and provisioned for the rescue. Three days before sailing word was received that Napoleon had died, and the expedition was abandoned. Legend persists in investing at least two houses on Chartres Street with importance as being possible homes of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Because of the French-speaking population, theaters had limited their offerings to that language. An English actor by the name of James H. Caldwell presented, in 1820, the first English play to be staged in New Orleans. His success was so great that in 1822 he laid the cornerstone of the ' American Theater' on Camp Street between Gravier and Poydras, the first building of any pretension to be constructed in the American Quarter. With the opening of this theater in 1823 New Orleans was introduced to illuminating gas.

Within the next few years many civic improvements took place. Two hundred and fifty street lights were placed in the diagonals of the principal streets in 1821. Each intersection was hung with twelve lanterns, but although street lighting was greatly improved, the old custom of carrying a lantern when going abroad after dark was continued until 1840. A few streets were partly paved, Chartres Street having the distinction of being the only street paved its full length. The first paving in the American Quarter was done when two squares of St. Charles Street were laid with cobblestones and covered with fine gravel. Those streets which were not paved had wooden gutters and sidewalks, swept and kept clean by Negro chain gangs. Trees were planted in the Place d'Armes, along the levee, in Congo Square, and along many of the streets. Sycamores were the principal trees chosen.

Masked balls and street masking became features of the Mardi Gras celebration early in Colonial times. They were continued under the Spanish until the governors suppressed street masking because of rowdyism. Street masking again came into vogue about 1835 and the newspapers described a Mardi Gras parade for the first time.

In 1831 the Pontchartrain Railroad was put into operation between New Orleans and Milneburg, a distance of four and a half miles. A financial success from the start, the railroad soon increased its facilities for freight and passengers, and a harbor and a town (Milneburg) were laid out at the lake end of the line.

The city was visited by a terrible epidemic of yellow fever and Asiatic cholera in 1832 and 1833. In the two-year period that the epidemic raged, approximately ten thousand people died.
The Medical College of Louisiana, the forerunner of Tulane University, was founded in 1834, and was opened the following year with sixteen students in attendance. The school grew slowly until it was made the University of Louisiana by legislative act in 1847, and became Tulane University in 1883, after a large bequest was left to it by Paul Tulane.

Ill feeling between the Americans and Creoles was manifested in many ways, more so because the Creoles outnumbered the Americans in the City Council, and as a result received the benefit of Council enactments. This animosity came to a climax in 1836 when a young American was killed in a duel by a Creole. In conformance with the law, the survivor was placed on trial, but was acquitted. The decision was taken by the Americans as an individual insult, and justice was demanded by a mob which surrounded the judge's home. The State, taking heed of the trouble in the city, withdrew the charter and issued another, with the provision that the city be divided into three separate municipalities, to be governed over by an autonomous board of elected aldermen, presided over by a recorder. A fourth board, which was to constitute the City Council, was drafted from the three boards and was presided over by the Mayor. Only those problems which were of common interest to all three municipalities were handled by the City Council. The first municipality embraced the Creole section, the second comprised the American or uptown section, and the third contained the remainder of what is now New Orleans. In 1852, after sixteen years of tripartite government, the city was reunited into a single municipality.

The nationwide panic of 1837 caused a serious disruption of business in New Orleans and threatened to disturb the financial structure of the city. Fourteen banks announced suspension of the payment of specie. In an attempt to improve financial conditions, more money was put into circulation, each municipality issuing its own money, which ranged in denomination from twenty-five cents to four dollars. In the mad scramble for money, which depreciated as rapidly as it was issued, corporations, and even individuals, issued their own money. Depreciation was so great that money had to be carried about in large sacks. Credit was stagnated until 1839, when prosperity returned, and the city again forged ahead.

By 1840 New Orleans, with 102,192 inhabitants, had grown to be the fourth largest city in the United States. Second only to New York as a port, it was contesting with that city for first place. Commerce of that year reached the total of approximately $200,000,000. Imports, which in 1815 had represented 50 per cent of the total commerce when New Orleans was the only port of entry for the upper valley, declined to 33 ⅓ per cent by 1840, a diminution attributable to changing trade conditions following the construction of the Erie Canal and the building of railroads from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Middle West. Competition from Eastern seaports for the valley trade became noticeable after 1835, when thousands of tons of produce were moving out of the Ohio country to New York instead of to New Orleans. No impression was made upon the business interests of New Orleans, however, because the continued increase in the population of the Mississippi Valley caused an actual increase in river shipments, notwithstanding the divergence of trade to the East. From 1830 to 1850 railroads were regarded largely as local feeders to river and canal, but after 1850 connections were completed between Chicago and the Atlantic coast and the trade of the Valley began, slowly at first, but with increasing rapidity, to leave the river route. Warning came in 1846, when, for the first time, flour and wheat receipts at Buffalo exceeded those at New Orleans. Little concern was felt in New Orleans at this shift in trade routes, since cotton was becoming more and more the chief economic reliance of the city. By 1850 it accounted for forty-five per cent of the total commerce. Along with the shift to cotton as a commercial staple went the trade in slaves, New Orleans becoming the greatest slave market in the country.

Literature and the arts kept pace with economic and social development, as New Orleans became the cultural center of the South. Opera flourished, theaters attracted European stars, artists abounded, and bon vivants thrived in a city which had already become famous for its fast and loose manner of living. Gambling, horse-racing, dueling, steamboat racing, and cock- and dog-fighting, in addition to the magnificence of balls, receptions, and Mardi Gras, made New Orleans, which was even then becoming a winter haven for well-to-do Northerners, a gay metropolis.

A new public-school system was put in effect in 1847, the State providing funds on the basis of educable children ranging in age from 6 to 16 years. In 1848 approximately 7000 children attended the free schools, and by 1860 the number rose to 12,000. After 1850 the public-school system was enlarged to a great extent through the beneficence of John McDonogh.

Yellow fever broke out sporadically in 1852, to reach epidemic proportions in the following summer. At the height of this, the worst epidemic in the history of the city, barrels of tar were burned at the street corners and cannon were fired to purify the atmosphere, a practice which threw the sick into convulsions. Doctors and nurses toiled heroically, and many who might have fled from the city remained behind to volunteer their services. Money was contributed from all parts of the country. After 'Black Day,' August 31, 1853, on which 230 deaths from fever were reported, the plague began to abate. The number of deaths from all causes between June and October is estimated to have exceeded 11,000, yellow fever accounting for 7,189.

The frequency with which yellow fever and cholera epidemics occurred and the abnormally high death rate (said to have been 100 per cent higher in 1849 than that of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Charleston) gave New Orleans the reputation of being the graveyard of the Nation. Local pride, which persisted in regarding yellow fever as a 'strangers' disease,' a conception curiously borne out by the fact that very few natives were stricken by the malady (only 87 native-born Orleanians perished in 1853), caused the citizens to minimize the extent of the recurrent scourges, the attitude being taken that denial of its presence was the best cure for fever. Lack of underground sewers, the filthy condition of the streets, and pools of stagnant water, in which mosquitoes bred freely, were contributing factors which, though offset to some extent by quarantine regulations, continued to make yellow fever the greatest peril to the city. Only after the true origin of the disease was determined and efforts were made to control mosquito breeding, was New Orleans made a healthy city.

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