The late 18th and early 19th centuries was the era of canal building in the United States – the most famous being the Erie Canal and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal up East. New Orleans had its canals, too. Seen here in this 1906 photograph is a charcoal lugger moored in the New Basin Canal, which began where Howard Avenue and Julia Street meet near today’s Union Passenger Terminal and continued out along what is now the Lake Pontchartrain Expressway and Interstate-10 to West End Boulevard and finally Lake Pontchartrain.
Like other early 19th century rivalries between New Orleans Creoles and ascending Anglo Americans, the New Basin Canal was the uptown (above Canal Street) American Sector’s answer to the Creole’s old Carondelet Canal, built in the 1790s during the administration of Spanish colonial Governor Carondelet. It created a water route from the rear of the French Quarter to Bayou St. John and then on to the lake. It closed in the mid-1920s.
Above Canal Street, the New Orleans Canal and Banking Company, backed by a charter from the Louisiana Legislature, began work on the New Basin Canal in 1832 and by 1838 a 60-foot-wide span opened to small boats. A decade later it was widened to 100 feet. According to Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella, the company sold stock and lots alongside the proposed route to raise money to finance the project. After the company’s 35-year lease expired, the canal fell under state jurisdiction. But those are only dates. The real story is a tragic one that lives on in New Orleans history. Hired to dig the canal were mostly poor Irish immigrants fresh off the boats from the potato famine in Ireland. While digging the canal, hundreds died from heat, yellow fever and cholera. Most were buried in nearby mass graves.
The New Basin Canal was important to the city’s commercial development in the 19th century, especially between New Orleans, the Northshore and Gulf Coast, which supplied the city with various goods such as seafood, farm products, lumber, turpentine, bricks, and charcoal, as seen in this photograph. Charcoal was an important source of heating fuel. The canal also helped drain vast tracts of land out to the lake for future residential development. By the 1930s, however, newer and faster ground transportation and Industrial Canal (1923) made the canal practically obsolete. In 1938 the state filled in the canal from South Rampart back to Claiborne Avenue and the rest by the early 1950s except for that short section at West End and Lake Pontchartrain, which remains open to this day. That wide stretch of green space, or neutral ground, we now see lying between West End and Pontchartrain boulevards from about I-610 to the lake was once the New Basin Canal.
To remember the Irish diggers, in 1990 the New Orleans Irish Cultural Society erected a large, marble Celtic cross in the center of that green space in what fittingly had been the middle of the canal.