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Highway History

The Rambler's History of New Orleans
With Thanks to The American Guide Series

Mardis Gras? Fats Domino? Gris-gris?

The Rambler couldn't care less. As far as The Rambler is concerned, the only point about New Orleans is its transportation history. So anyone looking for a travel guide to the best bars in New Orleans-look elsewhere!

Origins of New Orleans

New Orleans is called the Crescent City because the original town-the Vieux Carré, also called the French Quarter-was built at a sharp bend in the Mississippi River. The town was founded about 1718 by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville.

The original town was a mere outpost of officials, soldiers, merchants, slaves, and rivermen. Not that it's any of the Rambler's business, but just for the record: To provide wives for the men of this forlorn outpost, the French government sent young women to the colony in 1728. They were known as filles á la cassette because of the small chests of clothes and linens allotted to them.

The city's reputation as a social center dates to the administration of pleasure-loving Marquis de Vaudreuil (1743-53). The residents copied his elegant manners and lavish entertaining, to the extent they could, and pretty soon, "New Orleans became noted both for its bawdiness as a river town and for its gaiety as cultural center," as noted in the American Guide Series book on Louisiana (the indispensable 1930's series of State volumes prepared as part of a Depression-era government-sponsored make-work project for writers).

The French were having trouble controlling their territory. Basically, the territory wasn't providing a decent return on the investment:

Revenue from commerce was so meager that the mother country constantly had to subsidize the colony. Comparatively few settlers migrated to the territory; by mid-century, except for plantations along the river and small settlements clustered about military posts scattered through the Mississippi Valley, Louisiana still remained an uninhabited wilderness.

With the loss of Canada to England following the French and Indian War (1756-1763), France decided to dispose of its colony, too by transferring it to Spain rather than let it fall into British hands. The transfer was completed in 1762, with New Orleans included in the territory ceded to Spain along with all French territory west of the Mississippi River. "Spain rather reluctantly accepted Louisiana. The transfer was kept secret for a time, and it was not until 1764 that French officials in Louisiana were informed of the transaction." The residents of New Orleans were not happy about coming under Spanish control. They revolted in 1768 and briefly expelled their Spanish leaders, but the Spanish took the city back the following year.

Lots of stuff happened after that, included two devastating fires (1788 and 1794), but the Rambler will jump ahead to the Louisiana Purchase. In 1801, the Treaty of San Ildefonso restored Louisiana to France, which neglected to tell the inhabitants until March 1803 when Pierre Clement de Laussat arrived to take over as prefect on behalf of Napoleon Bonaparte. A few weeks later, on April 30, Napoleon completed the sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States for $15 million. The purchase covered 1 million square miles of territory and 90,000 inhabitants. The American Guide series explained the transfer process:

In the space of 20 days (November 30-December 20) in 1803, New Orleans witnessed the transfer of Louisiana to two nations. On the day of the formal transfer from Spain to France, November 30, 1803, the populace, which had gathered at the Place d'Armes for the flag-raising ceremony, was astonished at the announcement that the colony had been sold to the United States. The inhabitants were incensed at the thought of American rule and responded with little enthusiasm as the American flag was raised in the town square 20 days later.

Perhaps the inhabitants would have been happier if they had realized that one benefit of the transfer would be the lifting of trade restrictions that had hampered the town. It now began to grow rapidly, aided, of course, by transportation. The first steamship, the "New Orleans," to descend the Mississippi was put into service between New Orleans and Natchez in 1812. By 1840, steamship arrivals had increased to about 1,573 and freight tonnage increased from 67,560 tons in 1814 to 537,400 tons by 1840 (not counting unrecorded freight rafted down river). With 102,192 inhabitants, New Orleans had become the fourth largest city in the United States and was vying with New York City for the honor of being the first port in the Nation.

But transportation giveth and transportation taketh away. Transportation innovations often threaten the established order of business:

New Orleans' commercial growth was arrested, however, by the movement of more and more produce through the Erie Canal and the competition with river traffic offered by east-west railroads.

So New Orleans looked to the railroad for help. In January 1830, the State legislature authorized the Pontchartrain Railroad Company to build a railroad from New Orleans to Lake Pontchartrain. But the problem with innovations is that they're, well, new:

Many problems confronted the builders; few of them had ever seen a railroad, and none had any but vague ideas about the construction and operation of one. Perplexing questions had to be solved. Were the coaches to be furnished with springs? Were iron or wooden rails to be used? Were the swamps over which the line was to run to be bridged or the land to be filled in for a permanent roadbed?

The 4.5-mile rail line opened in April 1831, and for the first year, the train was pulled by horses. The company finally imported a "steam car" from England and put it into service. But innovations are great if you know how to use them:

It is said that whenever the feeble locomotive broke down, canvas was hoisted by the crew if the wind was favorable, and the train "sailed" into "port."

New Orleans, like many southern cities, suffered during the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. The city surrendered to General Benjamin Butler in April 1862 and was under Union rule for the remainder of the war. Home rule was not restored until 1877 as part of the compromise that resolved the contested presidential election of 1876 that put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House.

The city's economic history since then is a story of transportation innovations harnessed to achieve increased productivity. Captain James B. Eads, whose 1870's Mississippi River Bridge in St. Louis-a steel design that experts said couldn't be built[1]--still stands as a civil engineering monument, found a way in 1879 to deepen the channel at the mouth of the Mississippi, using a system of jetties that experts said wouldn't work. Previously, shallow water and constantly shifting sandbars had impeded navigation and hindered full development of the port.

The American Guide Series listed some of the public enterprises that helped the city. The list includes many transportation features:

By 1883 the city was linked by railroads with the West and North and formed the hub of a State network. Canal Street was illuminated by electric lights in 1882 and shortly after electricity came into general use. Horse cars were supplanted by trolley cars in 1892, and a purification and pumping plant completed in 1907 gave the city an ample supply of pure water. From then on civic enterprises--the Public Belt Railway, Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, improved docking facilities, City Park extension, Bonnet Carré Spillway, new Charity Hospital, the Huey P. Long Bridge, and the New Orleans Airport-have contributed to the development of the city.

That was written in the 1930's, but New Orleans has continued to benefit from later transportation developments, including the Interstate System. But not without a few struggles.


[1] One contractor who was asked to evaluate the proposal took one look at the plans and sent them back, saying, "I cannot consent to imperil my reputation by appearing to encourage or approve of [the design's] adoption. I deem it entirely unsafe and impracticable."

Updated: 10/17/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000