After a long hiatus, bayou posts are back! I know you’ve been waiting on tenterhooks….
After four months of more general Bayou St. John research, I am about to start focused research for the first chapter of the book—on the bayou’s geomorphic/geographic and Native American history. If anyone has any advice for me—ideas for what to read, who to talk to, etc.—reach out! I get to talk about former Mississippi River pathways, sediment deposits, pirogues, trade routes, slight-but-significant ridges.… CAN’T WAIT.
The past couple weeks, I’ve been on a few bayou adventures.
I biked the almost-100%-completed Lafitte Greenway—a 2.6-mile bicycle and pedestrian trail extending from N. Alexander St., near the base of City Park, to the French Quarter.
New Orleans residents may or may not realize that the Lafitte Greenway follows the path of the former Carondelet Canal, a waterway hand-dug by slaves in the late 18th century, when New Orleans was still under Spanish control, and utilized throughout the 19th century as a commercial conduit between the bayou and the French Quarter. This meant ships laden with goods from settlements north of Lake Pontchartrain or along the Gulf could avoid navigating the Mississippi River altogether and travel through Lake Pontchartrain, down Bayou St. John and into the Carondelet Canal in order to off-load their goods at the rear of the French Quarter.
There is much more I could (and WILL, in the book) say about the Carondelet Canal. But for now: there is a fabulous (free!) exhibit at the Pitot House on the history of the Carondelet Canal, curated by the Louisiana Landmarks Society, in celebration of the opening of the Lafitte Greenway. So many beautiful old maps and photographs!!! It is both succinct and intensely interesting. I HIGHLY recommend it.
After biking the greenway, I checked out the historic Ossorno House in the Quarter, at 913 Governor Nicholls.
This house was built on the Bayou St. John sometime before 1781 and apparently dismantled and transported, most likely via mule and cart, along Bayou Road to its present location—as were all goods traveling from the bayou to the Quarter before the Carondelet Canal was dug. According to geographic historian Richard Campanella (one of my heroes), in his Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics Before the Storm, the house is a fine example of a French Creole-style plantation house (although the roof was remodeled sometime in the 1830s)—one of only two plantation-style houses to be found in the French Quarter (the other being Madame John’s Legacy)—which testifies to its rural birth on the bayou. Campanella tells us it’s “the oldest extant structure in the rear of the original city” (106).
I then decided to bike the approximate path of this all-important route along Bayou Road, one of the principal reasons why New Orleans was founded where it was (for access to the river without having to navigate its mouth, as was mentioned above).
While in this neighborhood, I found…
A historic cornstalk fence at the historic (1870) Dufour-Plassan House.
The approximate general region where Almonaster built a leper hospital in the late 18th century.
Finally, I arrived at the bayou itself. Here are a few spots of interest along its banks, a couple of which I was lucky enough to get to go inside of (!!), courtesy of the generous, unsuspecting homeowners I found busying themselves in their front yards.
What is referred to as “the old Spanish custom house,” although it never officially served as a custom house (there are various theories as to why people refer to it as such). I was lucky enough to get an in-depth tour of the inside of this home (!!!), the owner of which has been painstakingly renovating it for six years. Beneath layers and layers of renovations that have been done over the past two and a half centuries, he has made some amazing discoveries—like anactual iron jail cell, apparently dating from the Spanish colonial period, that the current owner suspects was used to hold folks who were smuggling illegal goods up the bayou, or who perhaps couldn’t pay the toll. ARE YOU KIDDING THAT’S AMAZING.
Below is the plaque that explains a bit more about the house.
Roses that someone had flung into the bayou near the Magnolia Bridge.
And, last but certainly not least, what is perhaps my favorite historic house along the bayou, built in the last decade of the 18th century: “The Sanctuary.” Walter Parker, former mayor of New Orleans, who spearheaded the “beautification” of the bayou in the 1920s and 1930s and who is therefore responsible, in large part, for the bayou as we know it today, once lived in this house. I wasalsolucky enough to be able to see the back courtyard of this home—guarded by a three-hundred-year-old live oak tree that predates the house, and other amazing, old, beautiful things. More on this house, and its many previous owners, to come.