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Highways and Byways of the
Mississippi Valley

I

THE CITY BEHIND THE LEVEE

THE country in and about New Orleans, if it was in a state of nature, would be mostly marshland. When it was first settled, the cabins of the future metropolis stood among weeds and willows and rank swamp growths, and the hamlet was infested with mosquitoes, snakes, frogs, and alligators.  Every time the Mississippi was in flood, the water came creeping over the land, and it was not long before the inhabitants began to bank out the ravaging river and attempt to drain away the surplus moisture of the soil. As the city grew, the levee was extended and strengthened, and that great earthen rampart along the waterfront is to-day the community’s chief dependence for health and for protection against the vast destruction that would be wrought by the constantly recurring floods. Whenever the water is up, the city lies lower than the river level, and if the stream gets so high that it threatens to wash over the crest of the embankment, there is intense excitement, and hasty bulwarks of sandbags are piled on top of the levee where the danger is most serious.

The situation is strange and dramatic. It stirs the imagination and arouses the interest, and when one thinks of New Orleans, the Mississippi and the stout wall of earth flanking it seem the most vital features of the place. My impulse, therefore, was to seek the river front as soon as I arrived in the city. There I had my first sight of the giant stream of our continent    and what a sullen, murky, threatening torrent it was! The banks were nearly brimming full, for I had come in early April, and the flood season is ordinarily included in that month and the one following.

The water was a dull yellow color and looked like liquid mud. I was surprised to see people drinking the dubious fluid, and I learned that the riverside workers and loiterers had a real relish for it. Some would kneel at the water’s edge and dip it up with their hands for a hasty gulp; but most depended on tin receptacles which were to be found here and there on the wharves, and which had usually done service for holding canned goods. Each had a string attached, so that you could let it down and fill it while standing on the wharf. I was curious to know how that thick and soupy liquid tasted, and I picked up one of the cans and lowered it into the water.


A Worker

A man was sitting near with a line in his hand, trying to entice some fish from the roily depths. He noted what I was doing, and saw that I was a green hand, and when I began drawing up my cup he advised me to empty it and try again. “You got that water right at the surface where it ain’t clean,” he said. “Dip down deep.”

I did as he bid, and, after all, the water was not bad. It was palatable enough in spite of its earthy flavor and slight hint of grittiness.

The river was streaked and strewn with scurrying rubbish, and wherever along the shore there was an obstruction the floating trash caught in masses. A good many men and boys were securing such of it as might serve for firewood and were piling it on the wharves. Most of them caught it with their hands or with poles and ropes, but occasionally a boat was used. One fellow who seemed to be doing especially well had a spike-pole with a cord attached, and when a stick was a little too far out to reach in the ordinary way he threw the pole like a harpoon.

I had an impression I could see all of New Orleans’ shipping in an afternoon’s ramble, and I kept on along the river northward until I became dismayed at the endless sweep of the wharves. The city is one of the chief commercial gateways of our continent, and the wharves line the stream for a distance of twelve miles. They accommodate the local craft, the river boats, and a great fleet of ocean vessels from the world over. The river itself seems dwarfed when the monster steamers of the ocean plough through its dun waters. Perhaps the most interesting boats at the wharves are the Mississippi packets    white, swan-like, with towering smokestacks, and a long gang-plank suspended in mid-air at the prow. Then there is an odd medley of ferry-boats, tugs, titanic dredges clawing up the mud from the river bottom, luggers with their curious lanteen sails, and fruit vessels from the West Indies, Mexico, and South America. The flow of produce in and out never ceases.

Some classes of goods go at once into the warehouses, trains, or vessels, but others are stacked for a longer or shorter time on the wharves. There are vast quantities of great, clumsy cotton bales, rows of oozy molasses barrels, heaps of raw sugar in coarse brown bags, piles of lumber, great odorous hogsheads of tobacco, and boxes and crates and bales of a thousand shapes and a thousand variations of contents. But cotton is more predominant than anything else; for New Orleans is the greatest cotton port in the world, and the storing, selling, and handling this product furnishes a livelihood to the majority of the city’s three hundred thousand inhabitants.

The wharves are a working-place, and they are likewise a loafing-place. The hobbling elders and the boys resort thither to spend their leisure and feel the throb of life and watch the work and the river. The sightseer from a distance is there to witness the activity, and the laborer out of a job who is more or less desirous of finding another is drawn there also. If he finds work he becomes a part of the busy turmoil, and if he does not find work he drifts about as chance and momentary fancy may direct. Possibly he takes a nap. The colored man on a warm day can stretch out or double up almost anywhere and sleep interminably.

The wharves are not without their compensations to the loafers. There is always something new and interesting going on, and stray eatables are often to be had perfectly free, especially if fruit steamers are unloading. For instance, when a banana vessel discharges its cargo, you will see the stevedores in half a dozen lines, each man with a bunch of fruit on his shoulder carrying it from the vessel to the refrigerator cars. Many bananas get broken off, and others that are overripe are pulled off the bunches purposely. Every worker treasures up a few of the best to carry home, and the remainder of the pickings are thrown aside. Hovering around the edge of the workers is a throng of men and boys watching for a chance to secure a share of the discarded bananas, and all of these human buzzards get their hands full of really excellent fruit. Some of the waste fruit is thrown into the water, and close under the steamer’s hull you will perhaps see a rowboat with a couple of boys in it, one at the oars, and his companion capturing the floating plunder with a scoop-net.

Another dainty easily to be had by everybody is sugar. Raw sugar in bags comes from Cuba in vast quantities, and as the sacks lie on the wharf a man with a gouge digs into the side of each for a sample. Any one who chooses can then thrust in his fingers and sample the contents on his own account, and many take advantage of the opportunity.

New Orleans’ chief thoroughfare is Canal Street, a broad, modern business street that divides the old town from the new    the foreign city from the American. The latter is comparatively uninteresting, but on the other side of the dividing line the manners and customs of France prevail. French is the principal language and the streets bear French names. The people keep to themselves, and some of them are said never to have crossed Canal Street. Indeed, this district is probably more foreign in aspect and life than any other that could be encountered in the United States. Such narrow streets, such queer, balconied houses, such strange little shops, grimy and dark, and so many people of alien features who do not understand English, or who speak it with an unfamiliar accent!


One of the Old Narrow Streets

The population is dense, and you see frequent doors where passages lead to dwellings behind those fronting on the streets. Every house has its courtyard, and this is usually paved, and has flowers, vines, shrubs, and possibly tall trees growing in it. One article never absent is a cistern, a great, high, hooped affair that will hold several hogsheads. Into it flows the rain-water from the roofs. This water is used for all sorts of household purposes,    even drinking; but it tastes of roofs and receptacle, and most people prefer Mississippi water when they can get it. The better class of families have river water piped into their houses from the city waterworks and filter it for drinking. Others get water in barrels or bottles from springs a few score miles out in the country.

The courtyard is the children’s playground. There their elders loiter, and there the washerwoman does her scrubbing and hangs out the clothes. The buildings around are balconied, and the whole space is a convenient gathering-place for rubbish, and never lacks picturesqueness. Often fig trees flourish and ripen their fruit in it, and sometimes it contains lofty magnolias    queenly trees that all summer open their large, white, fragrant blossoms amid the glossy foliage.

Some of the city buildings date back over a century to Spanish times, and their quaint and massive architecture and weatherstained, battered walls have a charm all their own. One of the most imposing mansions belonging to a slightly later period is a large, square structure, erected by an admirer of Napoleon at the time of that noted leader’s adversity. The emperor was urged to come to New Orleans and accept the mansion for his residence, but he did not see fit to take advantage of the generous offer.

Another large building is known as “the haunted house,” and every local inhabitant can tell strange legends concerning it. In the days long before the war, it was the home of an ogress-like French madame. “She had much money,” said a woman who told me its story; “and she would buy slaves just to torture them. She would hang them up in the garret by their thumbs and whip them. The slave babies she would throw into the cistern, and after she was gone they found that cistern full of the babies she’d drowned. Many a mean thing was done in slavery times, but that was the worstest I’ve ever heard; and yet slavery was well enough in most families. Those niggers we had them times reely had to have a boss over them. They were not’ing but animals    and so wild they had to be tamed. They were ugly-lookin’, too    like apes, with big thick lips and flat noses, and hair that kinky you couldn’t get a comb in it. We don’t have such niggers any more; but I was tellin’ you about that French woman. There were gardens around the house then, and the street was not built up solid as it is now; and, besides, the stone walls of the house were very thick. So nobody heard the cryin’ and hollerin’ of the slaves. But in the end she was found out, though she was slick enough to see there was goin’ to be trouble, and she ran away to France.

“After that the house was empty and people began to see lights in the windows at night, and when they listened at the doors they would hear the cries of the dead slaves. For a long time it stayed closed up and then a high school was started in it; but the children saw ghost people going through the rooms and heard sounds that scared them, and they would jump up and run out screaming and yelling. They just couldn’t stay there, and the school had to stop. The building was no use to nobody and couldn’t be sold or rented till many years passed, and then a Dago who didn’t believe in haunts bought it for very much less than it was worth. He’s got people livin’ in it, and has a saloon on the ground floor, and he charges a nickel admission to see the building inside. Some say they still hear queer things there; but others do not hear not’ing strange at all.”

It is quite evident to the wanderer in the Creole quarter that the days of glory for this part of the city are of the past. Business and fashion have moved on and left the district stranded on the shores of time, though its decay and tendency to dilapidation doubtless make it more moving to the imagination than it was in its heyday of prosperity.

“Oh, things was very different here before the war,” explained the woman who told me about the haunted house. “The old French part that you now see so shabby was very fine then. Everybody was rich. You could pick up the money by the barrelful. The white people didn’t need to do any work. They all had servants. Some of ‘em wouldn’t even put on their own shoes when they got up in the morning, but had a slave do it. Then the war came and knocked us all down. Everybody lost    lost money, lost property, lost slaves. The change was hardest of all on the Creoles. They had too much pride to work    yes, they would starve rather than work, and so this old part of the city has been poor ever since.”

A peculiar characteristic of the city is that family food supplies are largely obtained from markets where many tradesmen congregate in a single great shed-like building. The smaller markets are only open in the morning and later are deserted to myriads of flies and doubtful odors. The early hours of the day are the marketing hours, and much of the buying is done before breakfast; but in the neighborhood of the great French market, near the cathedral and the wharves, there is a coming and going of basket-laden, sunbonneted women all day. A series of widespreading roofs mounted on iron or masonry pillars here shelter a dim and cavernous interior, where you find a wonderful array of fruit, vegetables, turtles, tropical fish    plunder of every variety both of land and sea and from far and near.

The New Orleans streets are in a few instances paved with asphalt, but most are laid with big square slabs of granite, which time and travel have canted at all sorts of angles and worn and battered into all sorts of roughnesses. Over these stones the traffic jolts and rattles, and when a loaded cart approaches with any speed there is such a crash of impending doom as makes the unaccustomed stranger jump with alarm.


Little Italians

Owing to the low, marshy situation of the town, an underground drainage system presents exceptional difficulties, and in the old city the street gutters serve as sewers and likewise as a dumping-place for garbage. They are encumbered by refuse through which flows a filthy, sluggish rivulet, and I have never encountered dirtier and more ill-smelling thoroughfares. A recent report of the superintendent of streets lists some of the gutter trash as “plank, bags, wads of paper, straw, wire, decayed vegetables, kettles, cans, boxes, banana stems, cast-off furniture, dead puppies and rats.”

The gutters of the city slope away from the river to canals, from which the water is pumped into channels connecting with Lake Pontchartrain, five or six miles distant. The lake is a broad inreach from the Gulf of Mexico, and is several feet lower than the river.

The same cause that results in surface drainage accounts for the habit of making burials in tombs above ground instead of in the watery soil. The cemeteries are heavily walled about and thickset with the brick or marble dwellings of the dead. These tombs usually consist of two vaults well cemented to prevent exhalations from interred bodies; but sometimes the vaults are built in a solid mass in tiers and are then called ovens. Rigorous laws are enforced to prevent vaults being opened until a year or two has passed after a burial. Then, if a vault is needed for another body, it is unsealed, the coffin within is broken up and burned, and the bones are deposited in a space left for the purpose at the base of the tomb. Thus many burials can be made in the same vault.

One cemetery that attracts a particularly numerous concourse of visitors has a tall stone chapel in it dedicated to St. Roch. Here miracles are wrought which have made the place famous. According to a little pink-covered pamphlet sold at the cemetery, St. Roch is one of the greatest saints of France. He was born in 1294, marked with a small red cross in the region of his heart. This singular mark was considered by his parents to foretell his future holiness, and he early “astonished every one by the pious and charitable instincts of his gifted soul.”

At the age of fifteen his parents died, and he became the heir of “their vast wealth.” He was too young to have entire control of this property, but he promptly gave away as much of it as was at his disposal. Then he put on the garb of a pilgrim and started for Rome. On the way he came to a city where the plague was raging. That “inflamed his charitable zeal,” and he began nursing the sick. “God rewarded his noble sacrifice,” and in a short time the plague disappeared.

Then he plodded to another city similarly afflicted, and “delivered it from the ravages of the plague.”

Everywhere he went the result was the same. Contagion fled before him, and it began to be whispered about that he was an angel in disguise. Many he restored to health by simply making the sign of the cross over them. For years he continued his labors among the Italian cities, but at last he himself fell a victim to the epidemic and crept away to a cave in the forest. After closing the entrance with brush he knelt to pray, when a fountain of sparkling water burst forth right before him. He quenched his thirst and washed and was much refreshed. Such was the power of the water that he presently entirely recovered. Then he returned to his early home in France. But he was not recognized, and “his sole ambition being to endure humiliations for the love of Christ,” he would not tell who he was.

That put him under suspicion, and he was arrested as a vagabond of doubtful character and thrust into prison. For five years he continued in the prison “communing with God and practising the severest austerities, his only food bread and water, and even that used abstemiously.” Death came to his relief at the age of thirty-four, and when the jailer found him lifeless on his dungeon floor the apartment was filled with a mysterious light, and near the body lay a marble tablet with the following inscription on it in letters of gold: “Thou who, being attacked by the plague, will have recourse to the powerful protection of Blessed Roch, beloved by God, shall find immediate relief.”

The mark of a cross was found on the dead man’s breast, and then it was known that he was St. Roch. The next year his native city built a chapel in his honor, and since, in other sections of France and in other countries of Europe, temples, chapels, altars, and statues of St. Roch have multiplied. Nearly all these originated in a sense of gratitude for protection he had granted in periods of public distress to the communities which have erected them.

The New Orleans chapel was dedicated to St. Roch at the time of the city’s yellow fever epidemic in 1878, and the municipality continued remarkably free from devastation by contagious diseases until the city was again invaded by yellow fever in 1905. The little Gothic chapel is now popularly known as a wishing shrine. Thither people come to pray for whatever they happen to desire, confident that they have a much better chance of having their wishes granted than if they offered their petitions elsewhere. A considerable proportion of its patrons are young women who beg the good saint to send them husbands.

In the dim, cool interior, when I was there, several yellow candles were burning before the altar    votive offerings of visitors. The walls were hung with small tablets bearing the word Merci, and with crutches left by the lame and halt who have been healed at this miraculous spot, and with casts of hands, feet, legs, etc., presented by persons cured in this member or that.


On the Way to her First Communion

Yet not all requests are granted, and many who come hopeful go away with sad disappointments and heartaches. Thus, one person told me about a cripple boy whose spine had been hurt when he was a baby. “He was all shakified,” the narrator continued, “and he couldn’t walk well, and he speak so bad you couldn’t hardly tell what he said. They took him to St. Roch Cemetery, and soon as he was inside the gate he didn’t walk lame any more, but began to run to the chapel; and they were scared to see him do like that. I suppose the angel was acting on him; but it give his folks such a funny feeling that they took him away and wouldn’t go again. Perhaps, if they had kept on going he might be well now instead of a poor little cripple. But you can’t tell. I know lots who have visited St. Roch’s Chapel and had more trouble afterward than they did before.”

Of points of interest in the city environs I was most attracted by the battle-field a half dozen miles down the river, where Andrew Jackson won his famous fight with the British. The latter part of the way I walked along the crest of the levee. On one side was the muddy torrent of the Mississippi almost washing the top of the embankment. On the other side, ten or fifteen feet below the river level, were mansions and cabins amid fields luscious with tall grasses and odorous with clover blossoms. The trees were full-foliaged, all the early vegetables were ready for market, innumerable birds were singing, and the roads were thick-covered with a powdery dust.

I found the battle-field amid broad, level pasturelands, and essentially unchanged since 1815. Here Jackson, with about six thousand men, threw up entrenchments between the river and a swamp, and awaited the assault of Pakenham’s veterans, who outnumbered the defendants two to one. The battle lasted less than thirty minutes; yet in that time the attacking force lost twenty-six hundred men, while the Americans had only eight killed and thirteen wounded. Never in all history was an English army so badly defeated.

Portions of the old earthwork behind which the Americans fought still remain, and in the wide hollow of the ditch, from which the earth was excavated, are pools and stretches of stagnant water, the home of mud-turtles and frogs, the breeding-place of mosquitoes, and the hunting-ground of darning-needles. I combated the mosquitoes as long as I lingered, but they were persistent in spite of serious losses, and I presently retreated to the city.

I arrived in the early afternoon. It was a typical day    the air clear, the sunshine burning. I was never much inclined to stir about in the noontide hours, and, like every one else, if I chanced to be on the streets at that time I kept to the shady side. Shade was at a premium, and as much of it was secured as possible by balconies on the house fronts and roofed sidewalks before the stores; and when the sunlight slanted beneath these roofs, curtains were drawn down from under the eaves to shut out the glare and the heat.

Yet while it was so sweltering in New Orleans, the papers told of blizzards, frosts, and snow in the North. What a land of contrasts!

NOTE. — New Orleans possesses many attractions for the tourist, and one can stay an indefinite length of time without exhausting its interest. I have spoken only of salient features that I myself enjoyed most, but there is much else that has a strong appeal to the stranger. Get a guidebook at a news stand, and you will find in it all the detailed information necessary to enable you to decide what you wish to see. As a rule, the points of interest are quite accessible, most of them by trolley, and the expense of sightseeing need be but small. It is advisable, however, if one would be comfortable, to go only to the best hotels and restaurants. Among the various river trips that can be made, perhaps the most attractive is an excursion down to where the river joins the gulf.


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