NOLA vs Nature: Building The Industrial Canal

Feb 15, 2018

Tripod’s NOLA versus Nature series returns with a story of the construction of the Industrial Canal. Host Laine  Kaplan-Levenson looks at the ways this massive infrastructure project was invasive, above and below ground. Hear the Part I on Sauve's Crevasse and Part II on Baldwin Wood

I’m standing under the St Claude bridge with Dr. Joshua Lewis, the rusty bridge that splits the Upper and Lower Ninth Ward. Josh is the science director of the Bywater Institute at Tulane University.

“So we're actually standing right on the bank of the Mississippi River where the Industrial Canal was cut through New Orleans. It's one of the places where you can really see the age of the Industrial Canal because you can look at some of this original infrastructure.”

Like the St. Claude Bridge, which was built 100 years ago, to cross the industrial canal. Josh says it was seen as a significant engineering achievement at the time of its completion in the early 1920s.

We’ve been thinking about this idea of New Orleans vs. Nature. Looking at 19th century levee breaches, 20th century drainage systems. And the Industrial canal is in a lot of ways the mother of this NOLA v nature theme. In fact the Industrial Canal was somewhat inspired by the mother of the global version of this human v nature theme -- the Panama Canal -- the ultimate example of people changing the landscape, to make it how they want it. In fact, the same engineering group who worked on the Panama Canal was involved in the Industrial Canal.

“The canal seemed to symbolize this idea that we were overcoming nature and bettering all of mankind,” Josh said. “The port made a major gamble with the construction of the Industrial Canal.”

The risky business started because the city, the port, investor, they yearned for a shortcut.  

It was never seen as just a canal to connect the river and the lake, Josh said. It was to connect the lake to the ocean. In the 1820s, city officials and the port of New Orleans started planning a way that ships could bypass the windy, scenic route that is the Mississippi river, and create a faster route for ships to get to Lake Pontchartrain, and then access the Gulf of Mexico. That was the main drive to build the canal.

And there was another thing. When you cut an artificial waterway through the city, You get more waterfront property. And on that property, businesses could do things they weren’t allowed to do on the Mississippi River.

“You could lease or sell land on the Industrial Canal to private companies to build industries,” Josh explained. “And the way that the state constitution was written up at the time, you couldn't do that on the river.”

By the early 1900s, that’s how this project was marketed to the city: a canal would create more waterfront property, which would create more commercial shipping businesses, which would strengthen the New Orleans port.

Nathaniel Rich is a writer in New Orleans. His third novel, just out, takes place in New Orleans in 1918. The year construction of the canal began. “The canal wasn't described as just a smart land project or even purely as a good thing for the port,” he said. “It was presented as a kind of gut check about the identity of the city, and of course with that, the identity of New Orleanians.”

Politicians, the dock board, the people who were calling for this canal, made appeals to the public, saying, ‘this is our big chance! This is how we can make New Orleans great again! Nathaniel says they were basically saying, “’What kind of city do you want to have here, you know? Do we want to be this second rate, backwater, or do we want to reclaim our proper position at the heart of American military and economic life?’”

Nathaniel says the end of World War I was a deeply patriotic and progress minded time.

“It's a point in which the city feels like it's on the cusp of rediscovering its historical place as the leading American port city and one of the leading economics centers of the country.”

It’s a time to advance. Through this waterway. This shortcut. The city just had to figure out where to cut. People were eyeing a stretch of land that ran the shortest distance from the river to the lake. It was in the 9th Ward.

The 9th Ward officially became part of the city in 1852, when free people of color and recent immigrants who couldn't afford to live on higher ground starting moving in. Working class people. By the early 1900s it was still mostly rural, dotted with small shotgun houses, and largely neglected by the modernizing city uptown. it had this kind of bucolic feel. But it got swampier and swampier the closer you got to the lake.

This is where City planners scoping out the site for the canal found that stretch of land. They thought it was perfect. Except for one problem. The Ursuline convent was also in the 9th Ward.  Standing in the way of exactly where the city wanted to put their canal, were 52 cloistered nuns.

Bird's eye view of the Ursuline Convent on Dauphine Street in the 9th Ward.
Credit Ursuline Convent

This wasn’t the sisters first rodeo when it came to being in the city’s way. When the Ursulines got to New Orleans in 1727, they set up shop in the French Quarter. But as the footprint of the quarter grew, the city started building roads that cut through the convent’s property. The nuns were not happy. So they thought ok, where can we go so that nobody will bother us again? Sister Rosemary Meiman, archivist at the Ursuline Convent, says they wanted something out of everybody’s way. So in the 1820s, they leave Chartres Street in the quarter, and move to Dauphine street in the 9th ward. Sister Rosemary saved part of an old newspaper article titled “The Port Board Buys Ursuline Tract” that reads:

‘A large transaction connected with the Industrial Canal was completed Thursday when the board of port commissioners paid the Ursulines for the Ursuline tract, through which the canal will reach the river. The price was five hundred thousand dollars.’

One of the reasons the nuns agreed to sell their land, and move their massive convent uptown, is that they didn’t want to be around during construction -- which could take years. It wasn't the noise they were worried about, though. Lee Leumas is another archivist -- for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. “You've now got shipping, longshoremen, you've got people that the sisters did not want to come into contact with. So they're looking at this whole thing and seeing in the next five years this is not going to go well for us. So let's do what we need to do for ourselves and move.”

Also, the nuns had been in the 9th ward for 100 years, and watched the Mississippi River creep closer and closer towards their property. The land was eroding. They worried about their future, being so close to the river down there. So they sold the land, and on a hot September morning in 1912, 52 cloistered nuns boarded a streetcar and left the 9th Ward behind.

52 nuns board a street car to leave the 9th Ward and move uptown to State Street.
Credit Ursuline Convent

“Some of them had never been on an electric car, nor had they seen an electric car before,” Lee said. “Some of them had never left the convent since they had entered into the cloistered life.”

This was such a big deal for them, that they received a special streetcar outfitted just for this trip - with shades that the sisters could pull down to keep them separated -- sort of -- from the outside world.

“So the city has displaced them,” Lee continues. “About every hundred years they go, ‘Oh gee, we think we need your land. Let's cut through it, first by road, this time by waterway.’”

So, with the Ursulines out of the way by 1912, the city could move forward with their plans. In 1914, the Louisiana Legislature passed an act authorizing the canal. And a lot of people were really excited about this, said Juliette Landphair, a historian who grew up in New Orleans.

“Well, you've got to ask yourself, who are the people they're talking about who support this, right?”

In 1914, Jim Crow is clamping down in the city. Voting rights are being taken away through poll taxes and literacy tests. Plus, women still can’t vote. So, Julietted asked, “who's being represented in Louisiana legislature that's approving this act that's allowing the construction of the Industrial Canal?”

Not to say there wasn’t a lot of support for it. There was. Among very, very important white men with a lot of money and a lot of political clout, Juliette adds. City officials, Port commissioners, investors from Hibernia bank. And with the nuns gone, they claimed that the 9th Ward was virtually uninhabited. One problem: there were thousands of people living in the Ninth Ward at this time.

The 1910 census shows that over 5000 people living in the Lower 9th Ward, and tens of thousands in the Upper 9th. But, Juliette said, “there was a sense of, God, who would ever live out there? And that has persisted to this day, right? People who didn't live there, don't understand what the community was like there. You know this is the people who were just forgotten and rendered invisible.”

Turns out, thousands of folks did live in the 9th Ward in 1918, when construction on the canal began. The cheaper land made it affordable for black families and European immigrants to buy their first homes on the edge of the city. They built cottages out of the nearby cypress swamps. They had fenced in yards, live stock.

Mary Claire Hogan’s family is from the Holy Cross neighborhood. “It was like farmland, they grew vegetables and things like that. My mother lived below the industrial canal, on Jordan Avenue, before the canal was built. And my grandfather was James I. Quinn. And he was the owner of the property on Jordan Avenue.”

Then the federal government took over the property on eminent domain to build the industrial canal. Mary Claire’s family was one of the few that lived in the actual footprint of the canal. They were forced to take a buyout. Mary Claire doesn’t remember how much, because she lost the original deed in Katrina, when her house got 5 feet of water. But she does remember, they weren’t happy about it.

“You have to settle whatever they give you because they’re taking it anyway. You know? My mother said that grandfather said, ‘this is what America is?’”

They had 30 days to leave.

So, the canal meant that people like Mary Claire’s family were displaced. But then, this massive construction site suddenly sprouts between two fairly dense neighborhoods: the upper and lower 9th Ward. And little known fact that Josh Lewis told me: for the folks that lived in the upper and lower 9th wards, they were already separate neighborhoods at least 20 years prior to the Industrial Canal. And both the upper and lower Ninth Ward neighborhood associations opposed the canal altogether. For starters, how was transportation going to work?

“From the very start there were organized groups raising concerns about the way that the project was unfolding,” Josh said, “asking questions about how they were going to effectively get back and forth over the canal.”

And this area already felt neglected, even before the canal started. “When it came to infrastructure investments, when it came to drainage service, when it came to sanitation, when it came to roadwork, when it came to streetcar service…”  Pretty much every civic concern.

“Folks here, for legitimate reasons, had a sense that they were kind of on the outs, and on the margins of New Orleans society.”

This sense was only deeper engrained when, despite this opposition, the project broke ground on June 6th, 1918. And suddenly, the 9th ward had bookoo problems.

“And those centered mainly around drainage and sewage service. For more or less two years (and you can imagine what this would be like in the New Orleans summer) the sewer system in this part of the Upper Ninth Ward actually operated like a gigantic septic tank, because it had nowhere to go. So every time you had heavy heavy rainfall, the sewer system would fill up with water and overflow and cause all kinds of nasty problems.”

The disruption wasn’t just sanitary, or social or political. It was environmental. I mean, when you’re trying to completely reroute the natural landscape, and dig 70 feet straight down into the ground, you’re going to have some issues.

“They say at the time that was the deepest kind of large excavation that had been made in the Mississippi Delta at that point” Josh said. Which was another huge point of pride for the project. When construction began, the commissioners of the Canal announced the project as “a monument to the power of Man over the forces of Nature, and to the progress of a community that will not say die.” Yeah, intense. But the forces of nature certainly put up a fight.

Stumps and Roots handled and actually pumped by the dredge Texas.
Credit The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, October 13, 1919

Out by the lake, the 9th ward was covered in thick cypress swamp. So they clear those to access the land underneath. But Josh said what they quickly found is that it wasn't just the trees on the surface that they had to contend with. It was several layers of cypress forests that were below ground. Yes, underground forests. Josh explained.

“Year by year by year, century by century, everything is sinking. But you're also getting new layers of land being dumped on top of that over and over and over again. There's a layer of salt marsh. There is a barrier island. There’s a forest. Oh there's another forest.”

And beneath all that? Quicksand.

Marshes, poisonous marsh gases, insects, islands, forests, quicksand. This is what had to be conquered to dredge the canal. Machinery split open, and got sucked into the ground, while blades were still spinning. Men clutched on to the ditch for dear life.

But humans were determined to win. Midway through construction, here’s how the New Orleans Item described the digging process:

Man every day is surpassing Nature...He turns rivers from their course and mingles oceans...If a mountain is in his way, he obliterates it. He plays hide-and-seek with hurricanes...He creates machinery like cosmic forces. The highest study of mankind is not Man, but the works of Man. In New Orleans, Man has measured strength with Nature, and conquered. He has joined the river and lake, building gargantuan foundations for his work on the quicksands themselves.

The New Orleans Item, May 2, 1920
Credit The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, October 13, 1919

The canal took five years to complete, and nearly 100 years later, it’s still here. And part of a 3000 mile intracoastal waterway system. Today, we see a host of long term impacts from this enormous infrastructure project. Connecting the river to the lake, to the Gulf, ushered in saltwater intrusion, which killed off the cypress forests, some of our best natural defense systems against flooding. And for Josh Lewis, that’s what the legacy of the canal comes down to.

“It can almost look a bit silly now. I mean considering the flood risk in particular that the Industrial Canal has brought into this part of the city, you know, that alone would seem to sort of negate any value that is there.”

Josh said that around 1980, the port said well, this vision, this dream that we had that the Industrial Canal was going to be this silver bullet that solves all of our problems, didn’t really work out that way. It didn't really solve any of them, he said.

Historian Juliette Landphair agrees with Josh. She sees the canal as responsible for the devastation the lower 9th ward faced in both Hurricane Betsy and Katrina.

“We know that the storm surge came up through the intercoastal waterways and into the city and down the Industrial Canal. The collapse of the floodwall, that is because of the Industrial Canal. That would not have happened before the Industrial Canal. And people literally lost their lives in both of those hurricanes.”

And a neighborhood that was already experiencing neglect became that much more isolated. Juliette says the people that moved out to the 9th ward before the canal, they never thought they’d be disconnected in such a physical way.

Josh and I sat in his truck near the canal, right off Poland Avenue. We talked about how the Army Corps is currently planning to replace, relocate, and lengthen the Industrial Canal lock, which Josh says is still working just fine. In fact, its main components were just replaced in 2017. The corps says this is necessary to once again allow bigger boats to move through the canal, faster. This will take more than 10 years to complete, and cost roughly 900 million dollars. The St Claude and Claiborne Bridges will often be impassable during this time. In fact, the St Claude bridge will have to be replaced altogether. These are not only integral for thousand’s of people’s commutes, it’s their evacuation route. Some people might have to be displaced during this decade long construction period, just like Mary Claire Hogan’s family was 100 years ago. And, just like 100 years ago, residents oppose this plan. They question the project’s use of resources, and how this replacement lock will affect flood protection.

Just as a type of thought experiment, I asked Josh what he thought this whole area could have been like if the canal hadn’t happened.

“Well, you would have dramatically lower flooding risk throughout this whole area. You’d probably still have a little bit more of a working riverfront. You’d have a less divided and less segregated eastern side of the city in terms of class and race, all of them are in some way related to the presence of these canals. So, that’s a few thoughts on it."

Tripod is a production of WWNO, with support from the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies. Special thanks to editor Eve Abrams, the entire TriPod editorial committee, and research assistant Ann Hackett.  Subscribe to the podcast!

*Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Dr.  Joshua Lewis was the Director of the Bywater Institute at Tulane University. That is incorrect. Dr. Lewis is the science director of the Bywater Institute.