Visitors and locals alike view Canal Street as the transit hub of the city. Buses and streetcars have converged on Canal Street for more than 150 years now, bringing people from downtown and uptown to the city center, for work, shopping, doctors’ appointments, and many other errands. But streetcars have only been a part of Canal Street since 1860 — what was Antebellum Canal Street like?
Canal Street did indeed get its name because the original plan was to have a canal at that location. That plan didn’t work out, though, leaving the city with a wide (146 feet) avenue, separating the original city (the French Quarter), along with its “downtown” expansion neighborhoods, Faubourgs Treme, Marigny and Bywater. The “American Sector” grew out towards “uptown,” with Faubourg Ste. Marie, into the Irish Channel and the Garden District.
Canal Street’s full length was defined by the 1850s, running from the Mississippi River to Bayou Metairie, 4.3 miles towards Lake Pontchartrain. Metairie Road in Jefferson Parish and City Park Avenue in the city are built on what was the stream bed for the bayou. With a solid natural boundary for Canal Street (Like Esplanade Avenue’s with Bayou St. John), combined with the fact that what is now Lakeview was still swampland at the time, developers marked the end of Canal Street as the northern-most point in the city, and began to build cemeteries there. Several cemeteries, including the Irish community’s St. Patrick’s cemeteries, were developed at this time.
Going out to West End wasn’t the big deal in the 1850s that it would become after the Civil War. The New Basin Canal was still a very new addition to the city’s transit system and commercial map. There was no easy way to get out to Lake Pontchartrain on the west side of town. Fort St. John (Spanish Fort) was still considered to be an active military installation, at Bayou St. John and the lake, so New Orleanians looking for cool breezes by the water took the “Smokey Mary” train up what is now Elysian Fields Avenue, to Milneburg.
The downtown part of Canal Street was already a big deal by the 1850s. There were two big changes/additions to Canal at this time. The first was the relocation of Christ Church Episcopal, from the corner of Canal and Bourbon to Canal and Dauphine. Judah Touro, a businessman with a number of interests, approached the Christ Church chapter, offering to buy their property, where he built a series of buildings designed with retail space on the first floor, and apartments. The “Touro Buildings” have been a mainstay of lower Canal ever since. (Christ Church would make one more move, in 1885, to St. Charles Avenue and Sixth Street, uptown.)
The other big addition to Canal Street was the Clay Monument. Henry Clay, the great orator and Congressman from Kentucky, died in 1852. In 1857 a group of New Orleanians organized to build a major monument to Clay. That monument, located in the middle of Canal Street at the corner of Royal Street/St. Charles Avenue, was completed and dedicated in 1860. The round base of the monument turned this intersection into a roundabout. The intersection remained that way until streetcar electrification in 1894.
Mule-drawn streetcars had been bringing folks from uptown to Canal Street for 20 years by the 1850s, but to go up and down the street, New Orleanians relied on horse drawn omnibus carriages. In 1860, the New Orleans City Railroad Company incorporated. That company laid streetcar tracks on Canal Street, Esplanade Avenue, Rampart/St. Claude, and Front Street, as they brought public transit to the downtown side of Canal. Their car barn was located on Canal and N. White streets, where the present-day bus facility and streetcar barn for NORTA is located.
These scenes of antebellum New Orleans don’t change much until the larger stores build out and expand their operations after the Civil War. Because New Orleans surrendered to the U.S. Navy in 1862, the city was spared the damage inflicted on many others in the Confederacy. With the surrender of New Orleans, the port re-opened, and while things were not going well for the Confederacy as a whole, the New Orleans economy began to recover. When riverboat and railroad commerce from the middle of the country returned after the war, the city expanded, and Canal Street reflected New Orleans’ return to Southern prominence.
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is also author of Legendary Locals of New Orleans. Branley’s latest book, New Orleans Jazz, is now available in bookstores and online. Edward is also the NOLA History Guy, online and on Twitter (@NOLAHistoryGuy).