The Irish in New Orleans
The New Basin Canal
by Kevin Brown, Trinity Christian Community
Driving through New Orleans on I-10 many wonder why the road takes a northern turn at the Superdome only to resume its western route at West End Boulevard. It’s a strange twist for a major interstate highway, this elongated “S-Curve” from downtown toward the lake. This odd development is not a monument to the eccentricities of our city planners, rather this stretch was built upon what once was the New Basin Canal.
Starting from Lake Pontchartrain near the present day intersection of Robert E. Lee and West End Boulevards, the canal ended in a turning basin near the intersection of Rampart Street and Howard Avenue. You can see the remnants of this turn just outside of the Union Passenger Terminal.
Known also as the New Orleans Canal or the New Canal, it was designed to connect the Lake to the American section of the city and be a conduit for commerce. In 1831 the New Orleans Canal and Banking Company was formed with $4,000,000 and tasked with building the canal. Digging began in 1832 and continued through completion in 1838.
The work was difficult. The swampland was full of alligators and snakes. The cypress trees were difficult to uproot by hand. Picks, axes and shovels were wielded by hand.
Malaria and cholera were rampant in the city at that time. In 1832 alone over 6,000 people died in 20 days in a citywide cholera epidemic. These diseases were especially pronounced among the canal workers who were digging through a swamp.
The laborers were primarily new Irish immigrants, most of whom were willing to work for $1.00 per day. It is estimated that between 8,000 to 20,000 of these immigrants lost their lives in the digging of the canal. Many were buried in the levee and road along the canal in unmarked, anonymous graves. A poem written at the time recounts the challenges faced by the Irish:
Ten Thousand Micks
They Swing Their Picks
to Dig the New Canal
But the Choleray
Was Stronger ‘n They
And Twice it Killed ’em All.
Today a monument to the Irish laborers can be seen on the grassy neutral ground alongside West End Boulevard, a Celtic cross erected where so many lost their lives.
Upon completion the canal spanned 3.17 miles, was 60 feet wide, and could accommodate boats drawing six feet of water or less. Ultimately the canal was widened to 100 feet and could accommodate boats drawing 12 feet of water. Throughout the years shell roads were built alongside the canal.
An amusement district emerged in the West End area complete with a pavilion and hotel. A day trip could be taken on a mule-powered barge where one could fish, swim, dine, and play at the amusement park complete with a Ferris Wheel, rides and attractions. Eventually one could travel to West End and catch a boat to Mandeville. It was a welcome diversion from the rigors of city living.
Because the canal drained the cypress swamps between the city and Lake Pontchartrain, the surrounding land could be developed. As the city spread and new homes were built, the importance of the New Basin Canal waned. In 1923 the Industrial Canal was constructed and further eroded the significance of the New Basin Canal.
The Louisiana Congress passed an act to close the canal in 1936 and the area between the turning basin and Claiborne was filled between 1937 and 1938. Throughout the 1940’s portions of the canal continued to be used. By 1950 all but a small stretch of canal between Robert E. Lee Boulevard and the Lake was filled to create the Pontchartrain Expressway, which is now I-10. Between I-10 and Robert E. Lee Boulevard one can still appreciate the size of the canal by viewing the grassy neutral ground between West End and Pontchartrain Boulevards.
Until Hurricane Katrina the remnants of a once-thriving amusement district were still operating. Today the area is just a shell of its former glory. The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation is working to rebuild the lighthouse that once graced the end of the canal and eventually will again.
So, next time you drive I-10 from downtown toward Baton Rouge, or along West End Boulevard toward the Lake, remember that there was once a thriving canal there. Take time to visit the memorial to the Irish laborers while walking atop what once was the canal alongside West End Boulevard. See the remaining stretch between the Lake and Robert E. Lee Boulevard. Have lunch at one of the few restaurants and walk through the ruins of West End Park.
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