When Ferries Were A Fleet
Up until 1935’s Huey P. Long Bridge opening, there was no way to cross the Mississippi River near New Orleans, except by boat. From the earliest years of the city, boats were regularly available for hire to ferry passengers and freight across. In fact, part of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans involved getting reinforcements to Jackson’s force on the West Bank. According to Stanley C. Arthur’s 1915 book The Story of the Battle of New Orleans, troops were ordered “to hasten across the river by the ferry.”
The first steam ferry was established in 1820, with a license given to a group including future Governor Pierre Derbigny, according to Joseph Dawson, III’s 1990 book The Louisiana Governors. Regular service from Canal Street to Algiers began circa 1827, according to websites FriendsoftheFerry.org, and NewOrleansHistorical.org, a service of U.N.O.’s Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies. Since that time, ferries have served the city well.
Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson is rumored to have taken the long-closed Walnut Street ferry to Westwego to sing at her relatives’ church. The river ferry support structure can still be seen in Westwego at Sala Avenue, and Westwego has in recent years explored setting up a service across to Audubon Park at that spot.
Thomas Pickles could be called the “Ferry Godfather” of New Orleans. His company, and namesake boat, kept cross-river traffic going.
Another remnant of ferries past is Ferry Place, one block long, running from Willow to Plum Street uptown between General Ogden and Monticello Streets, marking an approach to the old Oak Street to Nine Mile Point ferry. As late as 1931, there were ferries at Kenner and Harahan, and seven ferries in New Orleans, plus two railroad ferries. The New Orleans ferries were near Oak Street, Walnut Street, Napoleon Avenue, Louisiana Avenue, Jackson Avenue, Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue.
The number of New Orleans ferries greatly increased toward the end of the nineteenth century, and that was due to one man: Thomas Pickles. Pickles and his wife, Ema, immigrated from England to New Orleans in 1840. Pickles soon began practicing his profession – pharmacy. By the 1850s, he had a drugstore and, besides advertising a disinfectant and supplying that to the city on a monthly contract, he also began supplying oil for street lamps. Since his business was located near the riverfront, he became familiar with shipping, and, by 1870, he bid on a ferry contract. He won it, and soon began enlarging his local ferry empire.
Pickles improved the ferry landings, the passenger terminals, and the vessels. One catamaran (two hulled) ferry, built in 1892, was named the Thomas Pickles. Although Pickles died in 1896, his namesake boat continued in service until it sank near the Gretna ferry landing in 1965, during Hurricane Betsy.
Today, there are only two ferries operating in this area: Canal Street to Algiers, and lower Algiers to Chalmette. Both still provide a pleasant river cruise. You could even take the ferry to the Algiers Courthouse for your wedding – and enjoy a honeymoon coming back!