Today in French Quarter History, August 30th, 2018

Today in French Quarter History, on August 30, 1956, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway opened to traffic. The Causeway is the longest bridge over continuous water in the world. In today’s post, we’ll explore, not so much the bridge, but Lake Pontchartrain’s connection to the French Quarter. If it weren’t for the lake, New Orleans and the French Quarter would never have come into existence.

How did Lake Pontchartrain get its name?

Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, found the mouth of the Mississippi River on March 2, 1699. Shortly thereafter, with the help of Indian guides, he began an exploration of the territory upriver. When they reached the brackish lake Okwata, d’Iberville changed its name to honor his chief proponent, the French Minister of the Marine, the Comte de Pontchartrain. He also named an adjoining, smaller body of fresh water, Lake Maurepas, after Ponchartrain’s son.

An important portage or path

D’Iberville’s guides also pointed out that the area that came to be New Orleans would be a good place to settle because of a “portage.” A portage is a path used to connect two waterways. The Indians used the portage to travel back and forth easily between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi. The portage was about a mile long and ran from the river to Bayou St. John. After carrying their canoes along the path and arriving at the Bayou, the Indians would paddle about three miles to reach Lake Pontchartrain. While the portage provided a “back door” from New Orleans to the Gulf Coast, it also provided a “back door” to Louisiana’s interior.

It would take almost 20 years to establish New Orleans at the place the guides originally pointed out. This would be accomplished by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, in 1718. Jean Le Moyne was d’Iberville’s much younger brother who had accompanied him on his journey of discovery in 1699. In 1701, at age 21, d’Iberville named him commandant of the Louisiana territory.

Trading with the Gulf Coast and French Canada

It was important to the crown to establish a connection point between holdings in Canada and along the Gulf Coast. The king also wanted to develop the lower Mississippi itself as both a trade waterway and a defense against British encroachment. Establishing a city at present-day New Orleans near Lake Pontchartrain seemed to be a logical choice.

Serious French settlement along the Mississippi would require a reliable method of supply. Fortunately, bringing in supplies through the lake from the Gulf Coast was a much shorter route than attempting to travel up the Mississippi River from its mouth. The Indians knew this long before the French arrived. The distance from the river to the Gulf Coast via Bayou St. John saved approximately 75 miles of travel.

From portage to canal

The portage route to the lake was such an important supply chain that first the French, and later the Spanish, would develop it further. It became an actual road (Bayou Road) under the French, but the Spanish took another approach altogether. They built the Carondelet Canal. The canal ran in a straight line directly from Bayou St. John to the back of the French Quarter. Boats arriving from the lake would take the canal right to town! By the 1820s, seventy to eighty vessels were making the trip each day.

The Americans and the New Basin Canal

After the Americans acquired Louisiana in 1803, there was a great rivalry between the Creoles of the French Quarter and the Americans who settled across Canal Street. This rivalry extended to the boats arriving on Lake Pontchartrain. The Americans dug a new canal, dubbed the New Basin Canal, and the Carondelet came to be called the Old Basin Canal. Commercially, the New Basin Canal was even more successful than the Old Basin Canal. However, the importance of the lake/portage/canal routes would wane. Soon, the golden age of steamboats would replace them.

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Today in French Quarter History, August 25th, 2018

Today in French Quarter History, we celebrate the life of author, Truman Capote, who passed away in Los Angeles on August 25, 1984. Though he was born in Touro Infirmary in the Garden District, Capote spent much of his early life in the French Quarter. His first, rather unhappy, home here was within the Hotel Monteleone, which today offers a suite bearing his name.

Truman Capote’s early life in the French Quarter

Most of what we know of Capote’s early life in the French Quarter comes from his own recorded recollections. His mother was a beauty queen who gave birth to him when she was 17. Capote has told of being locked in alone in the family apartment at the Monteleone by his uncaring mother while she went out on the town. He also related how, at age 5, he got separated from his mother at a Mardi Gras parade. Capote ended up spending the night inside the police station and his mother retrieved him the next morning.

Capote moves to Alabama and befriends Harper Lee

The same year, Capote was sent to Alabama to live with his mother’s relatives. There, he became close friends with “the girl next door,” Harper Lee. Her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, features a character based on Capote, and his first novel features a character based on Lee. Before Mockingbird was published in 1960, Lee accompanied Capote to Kansas as his assistant researcher. The two were working on an article that would later expand into Capote’s signature “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. In 1965, Lee edited the final draft of the book. Although Capote did not credit her for the writing, he dedicated the book to her. Lee and Capote remained close friends for life.

Summers in New Orleans

Capote would always return to New Orleans for holidays and most summers for a month or two. Over the summers, he frequently accompanied his father who was a purser on a steamboat on the New Orleans-St. Louis run. Later in life, Capote reminisced that he tap danced for passengers to the accompaniment of the great Louis Armstrong. He claimed that Satchmo gave him a boater hat and that he collected tips after each dance. Some believe this reminiscence was a figment of his famous imagination.

Capote completes his first novel at age 23

In 1945, Capote moved to New Orleans to live on his own. He took up residence in an apartment at 811 Royal Street in the French Quarter. It was here that he worked on his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms that was published in 1948 when he was just 23 years old. The novel was semi-autobiographical and debuted at number nine on the New York Times bestseller list. It is the story of a troubled, slightly effeminate, 13-year-old boy whose mother passes away and who is then sent from New Orleans to live with his father in Alabama. The novel dealt with coming of age and homosexuality and would launch Capote’s career. After its publication, Somerset Maugham claimed Capote, “was the hope of modern literature.”

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