"To the Indian the Mississippi was a place to fish and a river upon which to travel. To Hernando de Soto and his followers it was a great river to be crossed, a hazard. To the French it was an important artery connecting the settlements of upper Louisiana and the Great Lakes country with the lower country and New Orleans. To the Spanish it was an international boundary line with Great Britain and later with the United States, and a river of commerce. To the Americans it has been the great commercial waterway of the nation, for it drains over twenty-five states with a total area greater than the combined areas of Great Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and a few other smaller European nations. During the early years, the Mississippi and the rivers which flow into it determined the paths of Louisiana settlement, and until the arrival of the railroad and the hard-surface highway, they dictated the routes of Louisiana commerce."
[Edwin Adams Davis. Louisiana: A Narrative History, 3rd ed., 1971, p. 8]

View of New Orleans, taken from the Lower Cotton Press (published by Louis Schwartz, ca. 1850). Cotton presses were a vital element in the New Orleans economy throughout the nineteenth century. The Levee Steam Cotton Press was a massive plant located on the river at present-day Press Street. It was one of twenty such businesses listed in the 1858 Business Directory published by A. Mygatt & Co. The long-vacant site of the lower cotton press will soon be reborn as the new facility for the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA).
[Louisiana Division Print Collection]
For 280 years the Mississippi River has run through the City of New Orleans. Their fortuitous intersection has had profound effect on both.

The Crescent City would not--indeed could not--exist without the mighty river. Bienville chose this bend in the river for his new town because of both its strategic command of the stream and its proximity to Bayou St. Jean and Lake Pontchartrain, an important alternate route to the Gulf of Mexico. Against all odds, not the least of which was the river's tendency to overrun its banks regularly, the town prospered and grew. In many respects it was the Mississippi that nurtured the fledgling New Orleans and gave it what it needed to develop into one of the nation's great cities.

The Mississippi has bestowed, and continues to bestow, many gifts upon its premiere city. New Orleans derives great wealth from the river. Imports from distant lands and exports from America's heartland pass through the Crescent City port, producing immense profits for the buyers and sellers of its myriad commodities. Workers in numerous port-related jobs have earned comfortable livings on the riverfront. Ship builders, ship owners, and ship operators have accumulated fortunes moving goods in and out of the port. The river has even "created" valuable real estate along its shore; the owners and lessors of that land have benefitted considerable from its use.

New Orleans prides itself on being "America's Most Interesting City," thanks largely to a collection of unique cultural elements. The Mississippi has significantly influenced the city's cultural development in a number of ways. Over the years a massive immigration from foreign ports into the port of New Orleans has left the city with a diverse population--and an international flavor--that work to make it an attractive destination for an ever-growing number of visitors. The city's famous cuisine owes much not only to that same international flavor, but also to the variety of delicacies and fresh ingredients brought in via the river. Jazz, the Crescent City's unique contribution to the world's musical heritage, was both nurtured and popularized by shipboard players during the genre's formative years. Even the Mardi Gras, the city's preeminent visitor attraction, has at least its symbolic origins in the Mississippi.

New Orleans is able to enjoy the river's bounty only because of her success in controlling and managing the mighty Mississippi. Historically, the city government played the pivotal role in harnessing the river's power and directing it toward the public good. Municipal workers under the direction of the City Surveyor built and maintained the levees and wharves that both our lives and livelihoods depend on. The city's wharfingers and collectors managed the early port, harvesting the levee dues and keeping order amidst the always hectic activity along the riverfront. The city's leaders--the mayor and city council--secured contracts with private concerns to pump water from the river and to operate the ferry boats that served to link the city's two halves, so abruptly divided by the rushing currents of the Mississippi.

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iw/we 5/1998