A City, A Port And A River: New Orleans Celebrates 300 Years As A Gateway To The World

When Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville founded “La Nouvelle-Orléans” in the spring of 1718—traditionally, it was May 7, 1718—he no doubt spent days sailing up the Mississippi River, his ship’s sails prevailing against the mighty river’s current as the wind allowed. Recognizing the strategic nature of the river, Bienville had set out to establish a city on the Mississippi River, which would give France a commanding outpost in French Louisiana.

He sailed approximately 100 miles upriver until he reached what is now the Vieux Carré, better known around the world today as New Orleans’ historic French Quarter. The site offered relative high ground, a natural levee along the river, and access via Bayou St. John to Lake Pontchartrain and, beyond, the already-established coastal towns of “Old Biloxi” and Mobile.

Now almost 300 years later, gone are the mighty sailing ships of the exploring past. In their place, passersby along New Orleans’ riverfront see towering cruise ships leaning as they round Algiers Point, container ships ducking under the Crescent City Connection bridge, towboats with barges and harbor tugs churning up and down the river, and more—and often all at once.

But unchanged is the Mississippi River, which still rumbles past New Orleans’ French Quarter in 2018 much as it did in 1718, connecting the heartland of North America to the world beyond.

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New Orleans’ connection to the Mississippi River not only inspired its founding in 1718 but also has sustained it through war and peace, high water and hurricanes, festivals and famine, prominence, decline and renaissance.

And so to celebrate New Orleans’ tricentennial is to celebrate 300 years of the city’s bond with the river and its port.

That history unfolded under the French banner from 1718 to 1762, when Louisiana passed to Spain. It was under Spanish rule that the French Quarter gained its distinctive architecture. In 1795, Spain granted the fledgling United States access to the Mississippi River and the Port of New Orleans for a term of three years. When that agreement expired, though, it became evident how critical access to the Port of New Orleans and the Mississippi River was to the commercial success of the United States. Around the turn of the 19th century, Spain ceded Louisiana back to France. It was also during this time that Thomas Jefferson set out to gain permanent control of the Louisiana territory.

American and French officials signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty April 30, 1803—seven full months before Spain officially ceded the land back to France. France controlled New Orleans less than a month. The city came under American rule on December 20, 1803.

In all, the Louisiana Purchase expanded the reach of the United States westward by nearly 830,000 square miles at a cost of just $15 million (or around $300 million in current dollars).

The United States’ control of New Orleans would soon be challenged as part of the War of 1812, due primarily to Great Britain recognizing how valuable the Port of New Orleans was to the welfare of the United States. Major General Andrew Jackson, though, dealt the British army a crushing defeat January 8, 1815, in Chalmette, just downriver from the city, in the Battle of New Orleans.

Just 47 years later, the city was targeted again, this time falling to Union forces in 1862 just a year into the American Civil War. During Reconstruction, the port foundered due to channel neglect and sedimentation near the mouth of the river. That all changed in 1875 when famed civil engineer James Buchanan Eads began to build jetties at South Pass. The jetties helped the river scour its own channel, deepening the pass from 9 feet to 30 feet in just a few years. With deep-water access to and from the Gulf of Mexico, the Port of New Orleans flourished.

In 1896, the Louisiana Legislature established the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans, charged with developing port infrastructure and fostering trade within the port’s jurisdiction. Since the board’s inception, the port has overseen the construction of wharves, a grain elevator (which now serves as a coffee handling facility), the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, two cruise terminals, and the Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal, just to name a few things. The port has also been instrumental in the development of Riverwalk mall, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the Aquarium of the Americas, Woldenberg Park and Crescent Park—all occupying land where those early wharves once stood.

By the time Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the Port of New Orleans was well on its way to diversifying and modernizing its facilities. In the days after the storm, the port played a vital role in the city’s recovery. The Port of New Orleans reopened to commerce just days after the hurricane passed and served as a base of operations for federal agencies responding to the disaster.

Now in 2018, the port and the Mississippi River remain the economic and cultural drivers for the city as goods and people come to New Orleans from all across the world.