NEW ORLEANS: AN INTERESTING TALE

NEW ORLEANS: AN INTERESTING TALE

This has been called America's most interesting city, and a similar description might apply to the port of New Orleans. The two go together like red beans and rice.

You can't tell the story of the port of New Orleans without telling the story of the city of New Orleans. The two are intertwined, says Walter G. Cowan, author of a sprightly unpublished history of the port.Mr. Cowan spent 40 years as a New Orleans newspaperman before retiring a few years ago as editor of The States-Item. He recognizes a good story when he sees one, and he found the port's history to be a hell of a story.

His manuscript traces the development of the port and the city from their beginnings in 1718; through control by France, Spain, France again, and finally the United States; the steamboat era; the terrible yellow fever and cholera epidemics of the 1800s; the Civil War and its aftermath; the rebuilding of the port at the turn of the 20th century; its descent into political corruption in the 1930s, and its recovery and current outlook.

Mr. Cowan was surprised to discover that despite the port's colorful history, no one had ever devoted a book to the story of the port.

The idea for the book came from Windsor Publications of Los Angeles, which commissions local histories and makes much of its money from them by selling advertisements in the back of the book. The publisher approached Mr. Cowan after he collaborated with four friends on a history of the city that came out shortly before the 1984 World's Fair.

He plunged into research, banged out a manuscript on his ancient Royal manual, and turned in a 14-chapter manuscript less than a year later, in May 1986.

Unfortunately, by then New Orleans was mired in its worst economic bust since the Great Depression. Advertising became tough to sell, and the book's publication is on hold for now.

Mr. Cowan recalls first-hand many of the happenings he chronicles in the later chapters of his book. He was a cub reporter on the old New Orleans Item in the late 1930s, when the port was a chief source of patronage for the Huey Long political machine. The payroll bulged with deadheads - employees whose sole duties were to vote the Long ticket and kick back 10 percent of their salary to the machine.

The Dock Board was Huey Long's leading deadhead roost, Mr. Cowan recalled. Around that time, there was a lot that went on with the port that made news.

That hasn't always been the case.

The opening pages of Mr. Cowan's manuscript describe the 1812 introduction of the steamboat to the U.S. western waters. For the first time, shippers could move cargo regularly upstream on the Mississippi River, allowing two-way trade with the nation's midsection. It was a development that changed history.

But the local news media weren't impressed. Two papers of the day dismissed it in three-paragraph stories under tiny headlines.

The coming of the steamboat allowed the port of New Orleans to flourish, but its strategic location was recognized from 1718, when Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, founded the city at the site of what now is the French Quarter.

When Thomas Jefferson agreed to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, his interest was not in the Louisiana territory but in New Orleans, Mr. Cowan said. Jefferson noted that New Orleans was the choke point for the commerce of three-eighths of the continent.

That location benefited New Orleans enormously in the decades ahead. Logjams near the river's mouth were cleared, allowing ships to come upstream. During the 19th century the port was the chief conduit for the rapidly developing Mississippi valley. The riverfront was crowded with cotton, sugar, lumber and other cargo. By 1860 the city was the world's leading export port.

The Civil War changed that, and the port and city remained in the doldrums through most of the remainder of the 19th century. Shoals made it difficult for ships to pass through the river's mouth 110 miles downstream from the city. Business recovered after Capt. James B. Eads, an Army engineer, came up with a simple but effective system of jetties that enabled the river's current to scour its channel clear.

The Corps of Engineers now is busy dredging Southwest Pass to open the river to ships drawing up to 45 feet of water. The lower Mississippi River handles more than 40 percent of U.S. grain exports, in addition to other bulk cargoes such as grain and coal.

But as Mr. Cowan's manuscript notes, while New Orleans remains an important port, in some ways its location lately has become more of a minus than a plus.

Deregulation of U.S. inland shipping and changing transportation patterns on sea and land have cut into the port's traditional Middle American hinterland. Much of the general cargo from the Midwest now moves through Atlantic and Pacific ports.

But in an interview, Mr. Cowan pointed out that adversity isn't new to the port or city of New Orleans. From the beginning, they've faced one crisis after another, he said. That's why I think it makes one hell of a story.