Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

New Basin Canal of New Orleans

Irish Celtic Cross in New Orleans
New Basin Canal Monument
(Photo by Adrian McGrath)

New Basin Canal of New Orleans
By Adrian McGrath

A monument in the shape of a Celtic Cross, made from Irish marble, stands today on the West End of the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. On Pontchartrain Boulevard not far from Lake Pontchartrain on the median (what is called a “neutral ground” in New Orleans), the green grey cross reminds us of a sad story that happened long, long ago. It is a story of prejudice and poverty, struggle and suffering, hope for a better life in a new land, and death. But also remembrance. On this spot between 1832 and 1838, thousands of Irish immigrants, and some German immigrants too, died working under terrible conditions to dig a canal through disease infested swamps to connect Lake Pontchartrain to the commercial area of the city of New Orleans.


The canal was called the New Basin Canal, and it lasted just over 100 years until it was filled in and covered up partly with a modern boulevard. Modern transportation systems made the canal irrelevant and even a nuisance. All memory of the Irish immigrants was in effect lost except to folklore and a few history books until the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans erected a monument to honor the workers who perished. The laborers, who often toiled in swamps under the burning  south Louisiana sun in severe humidity, died of various diseases like cholera and yellow fever carried by mosquitoes, injuries from working with pick and shovel and bare hands, and probably malnutrition and opportunistic diseases as their food and cooking resources were totally inadequate.
Irish Celtic Cross with rock entrance
(Photo by Adrian McGrath)



But ultimately they died from prejudice because Irish Catholic immigrants were blatantly discriminated against and could only do the most difficult and dangerous jobs no one else wanted.

With the mentality of “No Irish Need Apply” prevalent, thousands of Irish came from Ireland or elsewhere in America, especially from the Philadelphia area, to work, suffer, and die in the bayous and swamps of New Orleans.

New Basin Canal, New Orleans c. 1915
(Wikimedia, public domain)

Because of its location on the Mississippi River and its proximity to a lake to its immediate north -- which is really a bay with access to the Gulf of Mexico and the open sea -- New Orleans was one of the most important ports in America in the 19th century. In fact, it was only surpassed by New York City in importance to international shipping. New Orleans was the last large port coming from the river to the Gulf, and it controlled all the traffic on the Mississippi River and its tributaries seeking access to the sea.
Plaque on the Irish Cross Monument
(Photo by Adrian McGrath)



The city was originally French, beginning in 1718, then went to Spain, then back again to France, then to the United States in 1803. Creoles, the old established class of French and Spanish origins, already had a commercial waterway which connected the city -- which then ran along the river near the Vieux Carre or French Quarter -- to the lake to the north, which in turn had access to the open sea. Bayou St. John was a natural waterway which the Creoles could use together with a small canal which connected to the bayou. Small ships, boats, and barges could use this route as an alternative to the river which was mainly for very large transport ships.


As the city grew and the Americans arrived -- who did not necessarily get along with the Creoles -- American businessmen wanted their own canal which could connect their commercial part of New Orleans to the lake.  The Anglo-Americans mainly resided in the area of the city just upriver from the Creole French Quarter across another “neutral ground” which kept the two groups of mutually-distrusting people apart. So, a new canal was needed for the industrious Americans -- the New Basin Canal. To dig this canal, a difficult and dangerous job, it was decided the labor to be used was Irish immigrants. The Irish were desperate enough to accept such work and do the job.
New Basin Canal at Lake Pontchartrain c. 1948
(From Wikimedia Commons public domain)



Slavery existed at that time in Louisiana, in the South, and in some other parts of the USA; but businessmen and slave owners feared the loss of investment if a slave were injured or perished in the work. The loss of the life of an Irish immigrant, however, was of little or no concern to them. They could always hire another for a very low wage. So, because of prejudice and job discrimination, the Irish came to New Orleans to dig the canal.


When they arrived they discovered the company store which was their source of supply had inflated prices, food supplies were totally inadequate, and medical care was in effect not available. The combination of brutally hot and humid weather most of the year, swampy conditions filled with wild animals including snakes and alligators, and most deadly of all, disease carrying mosquitoes which spread yellow fever, plus difficult and dangerous physical labor without the aid of machines resulted in the deaths of thousands of the Irish over the years of construction.
Irish Cross, New Basin Canal
(Photo by Adrian McGrath)


There was a little ditty or song that was made about the digging of the canal which is quite revealing. Only a part of it, however, now appears in the history books. But the phrase goes as follows:


“Ten thousand Micks, they swung their picks,
To dig the New Canal.
But the choleray was stronger ‘n they.
An twice it killed them awl.”


The ditty probably is not right about the exact number who died or how they died. The number of deaths was likely in the thousands (no one knows for sure), but probably not as high as 20,000. But the poem is an indication that most likely something large-scale and very tragic did occur.


The canal existed until about 1950 but gave way to modernization. All visible memory of the canal today is gone except a very small waterway near the lake. The rest is now filled-in land and paved streets. But on November 4, 1990, the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans dedicated a monument for the Irish who died. Written at the foot of the Celtic cross  -- which is made of marble from Kilkenny Ireland -- are the following words: “In memory of the Irish immigrants who dug the New Basin Canal 1832-1838.”


Thanks to the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans, the tragic loss of these Irish will not be forgotten.

Sources and further reading: “The Irish and the New Basin Canal of New Orleans” by Adrian McGrath, Irish Eyes newspaper, Vol.1 No 6, July 1994; How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev, Routledge, 1995, esp. see p. 109; The Irish in New Orleans 1800 -1860 by Fr. Earl F. Niehaus, LSU Press, 1965; Wikipedia article on the New Basin Canal at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Basin_Canal ; My earlier article on the topic at Old NOLA Journal http://oldnolajournal.blogspot.com/2012/07/new-basin-canal-1832-1838.html ; The photo of the New Basin Canal is from 1915 from the Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons and is in public domain.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page; The photo of New Basin Canal at Lake Pontchartrain is in public domain at Wikimedia Commons at
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NewBasinCanalAirView1948.jpg

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