WORDS ON LOAN

Dear Readers,

In exactly one week, I will be turning over my manuscript on the history of Bayou St. John to the publisher. You might be able to imagine the brain-fry that’s happening over here in order to make this deadline. The marathon stints of revising and citing and formatting have left me a little….blank. As in, I’m dreaming about the bayou—about writing about the bayou, in particular—but when it comes to crafting a short, interesting piece on some bayou anecdote: I’m coming up a little dry (no pun intended!).

Then I remembered a post I’d started and abandoned a few months ago. It quoted a Times-Picayune  article featuring some of the most flowery language I’d ever heard in my life (appropriate to the 1890s). But I had forgotten to cite which article this was, and instead of digging through my copious notes, I decided to run a search by homing in on particular words in the article and searching for it in the database. It wasn’t hard to find unique words: hmmm…how about “bayou st john” and “sluggish,” or “bayou st john” and “flat-chested.” I finally found it, after coming across ads to fix a “sluggish” liver, and ads (beginning in the 1920s) for various breast augmentation solutions.

Without further ado, here is a bit of poetry to brighten your day. It will brighten your day because it’s absolutely ridiculous, typifying the romantic language (not to mention values) that defined the period. At the moment this article was written, City Park was experiencing a renaissance after decades of ad hoc development punctuated by years of neglect. Within thirty years, it would largely resemble the City Park we know and love.

Lying between Canal street and Esplanade avenue, with the city cemeteries pressing close on one hand, with the sweet, sunlit spaces and gabled roofs of the old soldiers’ home on the other, with the cypress swamps of the lakeshore trooping up to the line fence like a horde of curious aborigines, with the bayou St. John [sic] and its sleepy sloops protecting it like a moat of old, with here and there a quaint Creole home close to its limits, the city park lies like a fallow field that will readily become a place of great beauty.

It is situated on a ridge as if here the flat-chested earth was swelled into a gentle mound. Across its width creeps the sluggish brown bayou Solage [sic], all choked with sedges and set like an illuminated missal with purple flag flowers and the delicate Holy Ghost lilies that flutter on their pale stalks like the ghosts of dead white butterflies chained to earth for their sins.

The greening grass wears here and there a delicate broidery of daisies, and the rough, seamed roots of thorn and oak are festooned with the pale grace of the southern wild violet, more lovely than any other in color. In the far corners heaps of blackberry vines shine like free skies set with white stars. [1]

Did you catch the horde of curious aborigines part? Or the dead butterflies chained to earth for their sins? This thing reads like a bad creative writing exercise. But thank you, Catharine Cole, for loaning us some words—perhaps more than we needed—since I’m fresh out!

 

1. “New Orleans City Park. A Bit of History as to What it Was in Olden.” Times-Picayune, 13 Mar. 1892, p. 20. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-NB-1228BBD6E62774C0@2412171-122671E8E84CFC70@19-1241C360DC863233@New Orleans City Park. A Bit of History as to What it Was in Olden?p=AMNEWS. Accessed 30 May 2017.

ENERGY AND HISTORY

This week, in light of the intense controversy the slated removal of the city’s Confederate monuments has invoked, I thought I would excerpt a previous post that seems relevant to the discussion, as well as include a few compelling images from past and present.

As anyone who has been paying attention is well aware, the statue of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, perched between the bayou and the entrance to City Park, is one of the monuments that will be removed in the near future. Given the high emotions surrounding this decision, I couldn’t help but think of the history of this particular intersection—both its political and geological history.

From my previous post about the roiling energy of this particular intersection, with some current commentary woven through:

“Around where the Bayou St. John meets Esplanade Avenue, near the entrance to City Park: this place is its own ‘energetic system’….The phenomena, geological and historical, that have unfolded at this location over the last few thousand years have charged it up so much that next time you’re there—crossing over the bridge to go to the NOMA, for example—you might be able to feel it. [Oh boy, that’s truer today than ever!] Let me give you the briefest of brief histories about this particular spot.

Before the Mississippi River swung toward its current path 700 years ago, a main arm of the river flowed west to east from present-day Kenner, through the heart of New Orleans, out to present-day New Orleans East.

They call this, among other similar names, the Metairie-Sauvage distributary. This former limb of the Mississippi River is crucial to our tale. For one thing, it built up the relatively high, well-drained Metairie-Gentilly ridge system…. It also spawned (gasp!) the bayou itself! Near where modern-day Esplanade Avenue nears City Park, this former distributary meandered…sharply. No one quite knows why it did, but we do know that in the process of meandering it sent yet another distributary southward (a body of water simply called the Unknown Bayou, that would eventually form Esplanade Ridge) and another, smaller distributary northward, toward the lake (the Bayou St. John!). For some inexplicable reason, the Metairie-Sauvage distributary split into three, irregular fingers at this location—and thank goodness it did!  [1]

Here’s another theory about the bayou’s birth, since what I’ve explained above is not 100% certain: it’s possible that after the Mississippi chose its current path 700 years ago and the Metairie-Sauvage course was abandoned—becoming a sluggish bayou in the process—the Bayou St. John formed as a drainage conduit for this larger bayou. At a weak point in the natural levee (around where present-day Esplanade nears City Park!) the Metairie-Sauvage flood waters crevassed and flowed toward the lake, a process that would repeat itself until the bayou was gouged permanently into the landscape. It’s possible, indeed probable, that the formation of the bayou is a combination of these theories—a drainage conduit throughout the millennia, if you will.

Either way you slice it, this spot—near where City Park Avenue meets Carrollton at Moss, near the roundabout with P.G.T. Beauregard at its center, near where the bridge spans the bayou and oak-lined Esplanade begins—has seen a lot of prehistoric action. Water trickling, gushing, overflowing, bifurcating—to the north, to the southeast, to the east. Water heaping up and creeping through. It’s seen a lot of historic action as well.…”

Yes, yes it has. And it’s watching history unfold as we speak!

postcard courtesy of Bayou St. John resident Bill Abbott

 

photo by Simi Kang, 2017.

 

photo by Simi Kang, 2017.

 

1. Richard Campanella, Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans (Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, 2008) 77-78.

RECLINING MERMAIDS AND STOLEN PLANES

While combing through 150 years of Times-Picayune articles that mention Bayou St. John, I have learned of countless strange objects discovered in its murky “depths.” This week, I thought it would be fun to compile just a few. What do a locked safe, an unearthed coffin, a “nude stripper,” a stolen airplane, and a mermaid have in common?

In 1960, two fishermen discovered a locked safe in the bayou, and, after unsuccessfully attempting to haul it out, called the police. Last we heard of this safe, it was traveling in a “tow wagon” to the police station, at which point the police were going to attempt to find out who it belonged to. [1]

In an article from 1974, we find a comical photo of a naked man (buttocks to the camera) near the Magnolia Bridge. In front of him, thigh-deep in the water, a patient-faced, bespectacled man appears to be attempting to convince the naked man of something. Meanwhile, two police officers appear to be trying to pull the naked man from the water from behind with pieces of…string. On the bridge, onlookers crane their necks to get a better look. The caption reads: “While social worker Edward Buuens distracts a nude man who had waded into Bayou St. John, Ptn. B. B. Booth, of the New Orleans Police Dept. emergency unit prepares to pull the unidentified stripper from the cold water. The only explanation given by the man was that he was going to ‘stay in the water until I stop smoking.’” I wonder how that string tactic worked out for them…. [2]

Ok, I cheated a little bit with the unearthed coffin. It wasn’t found in the bayou so much as in someone’s front lawn who lived close to the bayou. It just had to make it into this story! In 1968, a woman called the police after spotting “a rusting metal coffin that was ornate and quite expensive” sitting on her front lawn. The police arrived and opened it, only to discover a few bits of trash and a “large funeral flower arrangement, faded and yellowed with age.” [3]

In 1975, a man claims to have spotted a mermaid in the bayou. Twice. “While many folks are preoccupied seeking something hideous like the Loch Ness Monster,” R.C. Ryan decided to put “his phantom-seeking time to better use” by searching for beautiful mermaids. If you aren’t already skeptical, consider the description of Ryan’s mermaid: “‘She was reclining languorously on the bank….She was ravishingly beautiful with her raven tresses billowing in tangled disarray and framing her peach-blossom cheeks.’” She sounds like the type of mermaid one might find in a paperback romance novel, as opposed to in the bayou, but what do I know? [4]

Lastly, in 1983, a pilot “crashed-landed a stolen, single-engine plane in Bayou St. John…leaped from the sinking craft, swam to shore, and fled in soggy clothes….” Witnesses spotted the plane “sputtering” over City Park before it veered toward the bayou where it meets the lake, clipped the crown of an oak tree, and barely missed the footbridge that once spanned the bayou near Spanish Fort before it finally crashed into the water. The plane was discovered to have been stolen from Guadalupe County Airport in Sequin, Texas, over a year earlier. [5]

 

  1. Times-Picayune, 30 Jun. 1960, p. 2. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.
  2. Times-Picayune, 14 Dec. 1974, p. 2. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.
  3. Times-Picayune, 15 Jan. 1968, p. 4. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.
  4. Times-Picayune, 12 Sep. 1975, p. 20. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.
  5. The Times-Picayune The States-Item, 16 Jun. 1983, p. 1. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.

REBELS IN THE WATER

In my travels, I have heard tell of an inordinate number of cars ending up in the waters of Bayou St. John over the years. New Orleans residents may remember all the cars that searchers found submerged near Harrison Avenue when they were searching for Terrilyn Monette, who went missing back in 2013. Well it turns out cars in the bayou has been a thing since the advent of automobiles.

Consider this “wild ride” from the historic Times-Picayune database:

On February 23, 1958, Bobby Gray, age 18, was driving along the newly-paved Wisner Avenue near Mirabeau when supposedly his brakes failed and his car went “zigzagging crazily” for about 900 feet before plunging into Bayou St. John. As it sank to the bayou’s murky floor, to a depth of around 15 feet, Bobby rolled down his window. When he tried to swim out (he could not swim), his “trouser cuff…snagged on the handle of the sunken car’s window lift.

(EEK!)

Luckily, his 15-year-old cousin, Richard Holt, was following close behind in another car. When he saw his cousin’s car swerve into the water, he leapt out, dived in, and rescued Bobby.

Later on, the boys were taken to Charity Hospital. At this point, the article is a bit unclear: “Apparently neither of the youths was hurt in the incident about 2:30am.” Was it late at night when the accident happened? Or just late at night when they finally reported to the hospital? Did anyone check Bobby’s breaks when they pulled the car out of the water? Look, I’m glad the boys were alright, but I’m just wondering if a bit of teenage tomfoolery might have been at play here….

Also, can you imagine that murky bayou water in the dark? Or rather, illuminated by the warbled glow of submerged headlights? OMG NO THANK YOU. Although of course I would dive in there to save a loved one if it came to it!

Also, this: “Police said confusion arose at the scene when all three youths [the third being the driver of the second car] left the accident locale to change from their wet clothing.” A taxi driver had witnessed the accident and called the cops, and when they arrived on the scene they thought the driver was still stuck in the car. They were prepping a diver to go down and search for him when the three boys showed up.

Really? You just drove your car into the bayou and almost drowned, but you’re gonna head home and change your clothes before you go report the accident?

Maybe they were hiding their alcohol!

Did anyone think of that?!

I’m sure these “youths” learned their lesson, but still. In the pixelated photo of the boys included with the article, the two of them look like regular James Deans, leaning up against a brick wall in their denim jackets. And is that a cigarette one of them is rolling?!

 

  1. Times-Picayune, 23 Feb. 1958, p. 12. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-NB-12C117247468B7DF@2436258-12BE1FE9DC6DD045@11-12C1421E02A381B0@?p=AMNEWS. Accessed 21 Mar. 2017.

SWAGGERING SABERS AND LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS

You all, I found my poetic-historian soulmate!

Over the past two years, I have skimmed the headlines of upwards of 10,000 Times-Picayune articles from 1837 to 1988. I have come across articles on subjects ranging from the mundane to the fantastical, and nearly every one of them was interesting in some way.

However, I have never found (nor would I have ever expected to find) a journalist whose writing voice I could relate to. After all, I’m not a journalist; a stylistic comparison has never felt relevant. What’s more, until I hit the 1970s and 1980s, most articles were noticeably (and understandably) dated.

And yet, I discovered a piece tonight called “New Orleans’ Canals Go Underground,” from February 1950, and was amazed to discover a voice with both drama and intelligence, poeticism and fact. I was riveted from beginning to end, and was even shocked to learn a new fact about the Old Basin (Carondelet) Canal I’d never come across before—something that happens less and less the more research I do, although of course one always has more to uncover. You can imagine my further delight in learning the writer was a woman (!) which was very rare up until more recent decades.

Here are a few excerpts from Diane Ferrell’s 1950 article for your reading pleasure, with a few of my comments woven in:

“Drownings, freak automobile accidents—many of these will end when the canals in New Orleans are subsurfaced. [Love that word “subsurface”! Microsoft Word doesn’t even recognize it!]

“But with them an era will also close—an era which has been marked by the birth of commerce and the death of men. [Yus. Love the drama.]

“The long period from the building of the first canal in the mid-1700s belongs to cotton-laden steamboats, Zulu kings, battles for the city’s existence, to the kids who learned to swim in the canals, to those who died in them. It belongs to the 10,000 Irishmen who were gobbled up in the disease-ridden muck of the New Basin canal.…

“Ten thousand foreigners are buried in the banks of the New Basin canal. Working in the cholera-laden swamp they dug the canal and their graves with the same hands, with the same shovels. [So dramatic! Not to mention, I’ve always wondered why slaves weren’t made to build the New Basin Canal (dug in the 1830s) like they were forced to dig the Old Basin, and Ferrell explains later in the article that they were too valuable to be sacrificed, unlike the thousands of immigrants, the “dispensable” labor, who were trying to call New Orleans home at that time.]

“The first police force New Orleans ever had owed its saber-swaggering existence to a canal. [Wuuuut? First of all, I love this “saber-swaggering” image. Second of all, Ferrell explains later a tidbit of history I hadn’t yet come across in my research about the Old Basin: that Gov. Carondelet charged landowners for the right to use the canal to drain their plantations, and used the funds to create the city’s first police force at the end of the 1700s.]

“Twelve years ago, the dug-up gunnels [Such poetic sounds!] of an old flatboat brought to light a mystery waterway that few knew ever existed. [Wuuuut? A mystery waterway? Ferrell explains elsewhere in the article that a partial barge was unearthed beneath the intersection of St. Charles and St. Andrew back in the 1930s, the vestige of an old canal that used to trickle through the area.]

“A New Orleans canal had one of the first two women in the United States who were employed by the government as lighthouse keepers.…” [WORD! I’m fairly certain she is referring to Bayou St. John here—I remember coming across a mention of a female lighthouse keeper in another article from somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, but I hadn’t realize she was such a pioneer. More on this soon!]

Farrell closes out the riveting piece with the following: “…it is…the open canals that have mirrored our history and washed away our dead. Every time the city fills in or subsurfaces one of them—we are healing a scar, closing a chapter, covering a grave.” [Mic drop.]

 

Times-Picayune, 12 Feb. 1950, p. 148. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-NB-12B0D8D602B78CC5@2433325-12B096409BA28E03@147-12B17A511651CE34?p=AMNEWS. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

MYSTERY BOAT LADY

I stumbled across this fantastic boat lady a few months ago in my bayou travels, and I haven’t been able to get her out of my mind! She lives in Wikimedia Commons, and there is absolutely nothing known about her other than this photo, which was probably taken sometime in the 1910s.

Bayou_St_John_1910s_01-2

“Woman on boat, Bayou St. John, New Orleans, LA, circa 1910’s”; Source Flickr: bayou st.john 1910s 01; Author Greg Livaudais.

This would make sense, given the bayou’s nearly two-decades-long litigation limbo beginning in 1908. While the powers-that-be were trying to figure out who had control over the waterway—the Carondelet Canal & Navigation Company, the State, or the federal government—the bayou was basically partying non-stop. Boathouses and houseboats and pleasure craft of all shapes and sizes, including, apparently, our feline-loving mystery lady’s boat!

I wish I knew her story. I wish I knew her cat’s story.

Recently, in my travels as an educator, I was introduced to an exercise that I absolutely love. It’s a way of looking, really looking, at an image, and perhaps noticing details about it you otherwise might not have.

It goes like this: you make a list of observations about the image, and you phrase them like this:

“Look at [blank about the image].”

And then you make a list of everything not visible in the image, and you phrase it like so:

“Where is [the invisible thing]?”

As in:

—Look at the scalloped ruffle on the boat’s awning….

—Look at her smile….

—Look at the shadow of her hand across her face….

—Look at her cat’s tail draped over the arm of the chair….

—Look at the wicker furniture….

—Look at the word “restaurant” behind her….

—Look at the rope attached to the boat….

—Look at her cap….

—Look at her long coat….

—Look at the wharves on the opposite bank….

—Look at the white poles holding up the awning….

—Look at the tiny man sitting on the porch of the restaurant, also wearing a hat….

And then:

—Where are the other boats?

—Where are the objects the rope is attached to?

—Where is the bayou’s other bank?

—Where is the name of the boat?

—Where is the lady’s husband/daughter/son/mother/father/lover/friend?

—Where is the boat’s motor?

—Where is the cat food?

You get the idea! If you need me, I’ll just be over here staring at this poor-quality photo, trying to guess at this lady’s story, and making whimsical lists. I love her smile, her relaxed manner, and her chubby cat, even if don’t know the first thing about her. Please add to these lists below if you feel so inclined!

BAYOU ST. JOHN: ACTING UP AGAIN

“Water hyacinths blocking a steam boat on a bayou in Louisiana in 1920.” October 25, 1920, photo from Louisiana Works Progress Administration collection.

In writing a recent post on fish in the bayou, I learned a bit about the decision to intermittently reopen, back in 2014, the lock separating the waters of Bayou St. John from those of Lake Pontchartrain. But apparently this most recent debate on a stagnant and unhealthy bayou was not the first of its kind—not at all!

I still have some research to do on the construction of the lock at Robert E. Lee, decisions surrounding bayou health over the course of the 20th century, etc. But until I have all the answers, here are some interesting tidbits on our troublesome friend:

In 1952, a Times-Picayune headline claimed: “Bayou St John Acting Up Again: Surface Scum Permeating Area with Bad Odor.” A caption beneath a photo of the weed-choked bayou read: “Malodorous Stuff Blankets Water Near City Park Entrance.” I’ve decided we don’t use the word “malodorous” enough anymore…. let’s resurrect it (just in time for Mardi Gras)!

The article goes on to explain: “Members of the Bayou St. John Improvement Association reported Friday that scum forming on the surface of the bayou has permeated the area with a gagging smell….” Public Buildings and Parks Commissioner Victor H. Schiro noted that this phenomenon was certainly not isolated (“‘We have [this] trouble every year…’”) nor was it a small problem: “‘All week we’ve had a crew of six to eight men collecting the scum off the water. They’ve moved six truckloads of the stuff all ready. We’ll probably be doing this for another month.’” Wow. That’s a lot of scum.

Schiro said he didn’t quite understand the phenomenon, but attributed it to vegetation growing on the bed of the bayou that, during certain times of year, rose to the surface. “‘It’s like a flower that comes to bloom,’” he said. I’m wondering if this stuff might simply have been algae, but I’m certainly no expert. More research required.

The article wraps up with a final thought from Schiro: “‘There’s not much we can do about this except to try to keep the bayou clean….Whenever we say anything about closing the bayou the people raise the devil, so we do the best we can under the circumstances.’” All around the city, open canals were being buried and covered over, including the bayou’s younger sister, the New Basin Canal. Therefore, filling in the bayou to avoid this kind of nuisance wasn’t a fanciful idea. Nonetheless, the bayou was clearly as beloved then as it is now, despite its smelly antics. [1]

One more fun fact: in 1953, they were back at it, trying to get rid of the problematic vegetation. A Times-Picayune headline read: “Bayou Clearing Work is Started, But Undergrowth’s Weight Brings Halt for Repair.” I will quickly summarize the gist of the article: a war surplus amphibious “duck,” a 2.5-ton, six-wheel “truck and barge combined, equipped with a propeller and capable of locomotion on land and water,” outfitted with a special metal basket at the end of a boom, was being used to clear the bayou of its organic mess. However, this amphibious behemoth was no match for the bayou’s impressive undergrowth. The weight of it broke the boom, and the “duck” had to be sent back to the Sewerage & Water Board for repairs. The bayou was said to have tweeted: #sorrynotsorry #iamwhoiam[2]

1. Times-Picayune 21 Jun. 1952: 6. NewsBank. Web. 7 Feb. 2017
2. Times-Picayune 23 Jul. 1953: 1. NewsBank. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.

WPA PHOTO COLLECTION DETOUR

For the past few weeks, I’ve been searching for images to use in the bayou book—combing the digital holdings of the Library of Congress, the Louisiana Digital Library, the New Orleans Public Library and about a billion other institutions, not to mention desperately attempting to track down details about unattached (but often wonderful!) historic images on Wikimedia Commons and personal blogs.

In my travels, I came across a heap of digitized WPA photographs at the NOPL. The photos cover a huge variety of WPA projects unfolding all over the city in the 1930s and 40s, and many of them are fairly mundane—but a seemingly equal number are totally fascinating.

I hope everyone will forgive me if I stray a bit from the bayou in this week’s post….

The photos took me on an adventure, and I couldn’t resist!

I clicked around, and decided to present some gems I found—of women and children in particular.

 

Photo #1: June 1941, from the series entitled, simply, “Mattresses.”

The finding aid explains a bit further: “WPA workers manufactured 17,682 mattresses and quilts to be distributed to the needy during 1939.”

I love how tangible this photo feels—those slats, the piles of fabric, the aprons!

 

Photo #2 & #3: September, 1937, from a series called “Archaeoconchology.”

I know, right?! Who is this amazing woman! To whom is she calling?! So it turns out “archaeoconchology,” when entered into the Google search bar, turns up a grand total of 9 (obscure) entries. One hesitates to say it’s not a real word…. The only quasi definition I was able to turn up said it was a branch of archaeozoology.

Basically, someone was collecting some sea shells, perhaps studying them, and otherwise having this woman in her amazing dress pose with them.

 

Photo #4: From September 1940, from series called “Household Aide”

The finding aid explains that these photos feature a “training center for household aid workers. Photographs show Mrs. Eva Blackwell, assistant supervisor, with workers in the ‘carpentry’ shop and Mrs. Leila Schneidau teaching workers the proper care of patients.” In this particular shot, we see what I assume is a “worker” leading a little boo into another room. This child has completely won over my heart! But what makes this photo *extra* special is what I believe is a mannikin lying in bed in the background. There were other photos of mannikin patients, so I think it’s a safe bet. Also, just look at her.…

 

Photo #5: From January, 1940, from a series called “Music.”

The following description confirms what you think you’re seeing: “Harmonica class at Robert C. Davey School, 1307 Dryades Street. Jimmy Dillon, 14, 1621 Dryades; Rita Van Court, 13, 1824 Terpsichore; Gladys Luc, 13, 908 Howard; Anna Paladino, 15, 1400 Baronne.” Why aren’t harmonica lessons a part of music class in public schools nowadays?! Practicing my scales with my classmates at the front of the room, with that wand waving about in front of me—what could be better?! What’s also wonderful is we have names and addresses for some of the students. If any readers recognize grandparents or addresses, please comment!

 

Next post, it’s back to the bayou—I promise! But I seriously recommend clicking around this collection at the NOPL in the meantime.

 

All photos from WPA Photograph Collection, Louisiana Division, New Orleans Public Library.

1. Mattresses, 27.03 “Matress Making Project,” 6/12/1941, #10.

2 & 3. Archaeoconchology, 04.02 , “Shell Project Story at the Louisiana State Museum,” 9/29/1937, #7 & #8.

4. Household Aide, 22.01, 9/18/1940, #10.

5.  Music, 30.07, “Federal Music Project,” 1/10/1940, #1.

BSJ’s STUBBORN SHIPYARDS

In the 1920s and ‘30s, thanks in no small part to the New Deal, Bayou St. John got a huge makeover.

No more mudflats and sunken garbage! No more crumbling levees! No more broken shell roads! No more houseboats and boathouses and ramshackle wharves! All of those things, after all, do not befit the name “Bayou St. John Aquatic Park,” which is what the weed-choked small craft parking lot, crisscrossed with outdated bridges, would become over the course of a few short years.

This is not to suggest the “old bayou” didn’t go down without a fight.

Perhaps the most heated argument to come out of this transformation occurred between Walter Parker, President of the Bayou St. John Improvement Association, and Joseph Dupuy, owner of the last remaining shipyard between Esplanade and Hagan Avenues. You see, the bayou’s makeover wasn’t only cosmetic; its essential character and function needed an overhaul as well. Its very role within the city, according to those at the helm (no pun intended!), needed redefining. After all—the Carondelet Canal, which once extended the bayou to the French Quarter along the path of today’s Lafitte Greenway, was no longer in use, and by 1938 was completely filled in. Without its manmade limb, the bayou served very little commercial purpose. And yet, old habits die hard. Along with the vestiges of other miscellaneous industries once connected with the waterway, two large shipyards remained active along the bayou’s lower banks by the time its makeover was proposed.

What’s wrong with a couple shipyards, you ask?

In short, they require the wrong kind of bridges.

In order for bigger boats to travel to the shipyards for repair, they needed the bayou’s drawbridges to open—most notably, the old Esplanade Bridge and the present-day Magnolia (or Cabrini) bridge. But Parker and the rest of the BSJIA did not envision drawbridges in the new Aquatic Park: they interfered with City Park-bound traffic, and, as is illustrated below, required a much planning and many resources to operate.

According to Parker, opening the bridges required the services of a “specially trained crew” of at least five men (members of the Public Service Organization, and therefore not available to the city at a moment’s notice), often took upwards of 30-45 minutes to complete, and required notifications of the police department (for assistance detouring traffic), the Public Service Transportation Department (to reroute buses), Charity Hospital ambulances (that seems dramatic), and the fire department. Traffic had to be detoured to the Magnolia Bridge, and then, half an hour later, rerouted again so that the Magnolia Bridge could be opened. All, as Parker added for emphasis, so that “one boat can go to one boatyard for repair.” [1]

By the early 1930s, the Mullens Shipyard (near Esplanade Avenue) had agreed to be moved, but up until 1936, much to Parker’s chagrin, Dupuy refused to be relocated. But how would they finish their revetment work? And how would they install the proposed “fixed-span” bridges, with enough clearance only for canoes and other such small “pleasure craft”?

It wasn’t until Congress declared the bayou a “non-navigable stream” in 1936 that the city finally claimed the right to put its foot down. Eventually, the Dupuy shipyard was forced to move lake-ward. The bayou, goshdarnit, was to be recreational! I have to admit to having a soft spot for this shipyard, or at least the memory of it. Every time I pass by Dumaine Street’s intersection with the bayou, I imagine its skeletal hulls-in-progress, its busy working men, its stubborn desire to stay put.

1. City Engineer’s Bridge Records, 1918-1967, City Archives, Louisiana Division, New Orleans Public Library.

A BRIDGE’S MANY LIVES

Did you know that the historic, blue-tinted bridge spanning Bayou St. John across from Cabrini High School—colloquially referred to as the “Cabrini Bridge,” or Magnolia Bridge—has not always lived where it lives now? For decades, it spanned the bayou at Esplanade Avenue, serving as the last link along that bustling artery connecting downtown with City Park and Metairie Road.

Imagine how many thousands of buggy wheels have rolled across its stretch! How many clopping horse hooves and clattering streetcars!

photo from Wikimedia Commons

In 1909, before upgrading to a significantly larger steel trunnion bridge, they unhooked the Magnolia Bridge from its foundations and floated it down to its present location on a barge. The original idea was to re-erect it across from Grand Route St. John, but the curve at that spot in the bayou rendered the location less than ideal. So the bridge was set down in its current location, where it began its second life as a key artery for residents of the surrounding neighborhoods until it ceased serving vehicular traffic sometime in the middle of the last century.

The re-location of the old Magnolia Bridge in 1909 went off without a hitch, but the same cannot be said about the construction of the new bridge at Esplanade that same year. On May 19, 1909, the Times-Picayune reported that during a routine test during the bridge’s construction, “With a terrific crash, the span of the steel bascule trunnion bridge in course of construction at the Esplanade Street end, crossing Bayou St. John, snapped in twain, and the heavy superstructure fell into the bayou, effectually closing navigation of that waterway for some time to come. Five men were injured, one of them, Frank Cunningham, fatally, two others severely and two slightly….”

Frank Cunningham, originally from Oklahoma, Mississippi, was only 24 years old. Newly married, he had been living in New Orleans for eight years doing iron and steel work. When the new bridge “snapped in twain,” Cunningham “was struck on the head by a piece of iron…and, falling, the base of his skull was fractured. He lay there unconscious until he was carried to Picdeloup’s saloon, opposite, remaining there until the ambulance arrived and took him to the hospital.” [1]

The rest of the new bridge’s construction saw its fair share of mishaps and delays, even once repairs were made. In fact, its entire existence (before the present-day bridge at Esplanade replaced it) was besotted by inefficiencies, closures, and repairs. All in all, it seems our Magnolia Bridge was far more trustworthy—not to mention older, more unique, and, let’s face it, sexier (!).

This just goes to show you that a bridge, in all its day-to-day stillness, can be far more than it appears to be.

 

1. “Bayou Bridge Wrecked, Killing One, Injuring Four. Steel Structure Across Esplanade Avenue Breaks Under Strain.” Times-Picayune 19 May 1909: 5. NewsBank. Web. 28 Dec. 2016.