"Cotton! At first it had been cotton and sugar and all the other produce of the great valley. Then cotton and sugar had moved to the fore, and in the end cotton was supreme. Sugar cane could be produced in only a limited area; the other produce of the valley might be consumed or moved elsewhere; but cotton was the Deep South's own. It could be grown in every Gulf state and far up into Tennessee, Arkansas, and southern Missouri. Around that primary fact grew much, if not most, of the South's economy and much of her political thought and action. It was around cotton that most of the South's credit system revolved, and New Orleans was the heart of that system."

[Harold Sinclair, The Port of New Orleans (1942), p. 171]

"The titles of fastest,' largest,' largest number of bales carried,' shallowest draft,' most expensive,' most palatial' were claimed by various contenders--and such claims will be finally adjudicated only in that happy place to which all good steamboats go."

[Ray Samuel, Leonard V. Huber, & Warren G. Ogden. Tales of the Mississippi (1981), p. 161]

The John A. Scudder was built in Cincinnati for the Anchor Line in 1873 from the old steamboat Marble City and made the run to New Orleans for the next 12 years, until it was dismantled and its hull turned into a wharfboat at Vicksburg. According to the caption on the reverse of the photograph, the huge carrier brought her largest trip into New Orleans on November 28, 1878, comprising 4,484 bales of cotton, 10,055 sacks of cotton seed, 1,069 barrels of cottonseed oil and 3,509 sacks of oil cake and hulls. Capt. A.J. Carter commanded.
[David Barrow Fischer Steamboat Collection]
The first steamboat reached New Orleans in 1812; by the mid-1820s the steamboat had supplanted the flatboat and the barge in the Mississippi River trade, and the period of New Orleans' great post-Civil War prosperity had begun. Ten years later, as many as 1600 or 1700 steamboats arrived in port a year, all of them loaded with freight and passengers from upriver. These "steamboat days" are perhaps the river's most romantic era--in retrospect, at least; the phrase conjures images of "floating palaces," showboats, riverboat gamblers, contests to judge the fastest ship, calliopes and whistles at the wharves. In reality, though, the majority of steamboats were workhorses, with an emphasis on cargo rather than on passengers and luxury. And cotton was what the boats hauled best. It was the cotton trade on the "lower" river--from Cairo to New Orleans-- that allowed riverboating to survive the Civil War and to continue to thrive in the port of New Orleans for a good twenty years after the railroads had gained supremacy in the "upper" river markets. After the war, huge cotton carriers like the John A. Scudder shown here arrived in New Orleans "loaded to the guards" with bales of cotton, sacks of cotton seed, and barrels of cottonseed oil. By the turn of the century, however, the writing was on the wall and the development of cross-country rail lines in the lower Mississippi Valley spelled the end of steamboat days.

With the decline in the cotton trade came the gradual demise of such financial powerhouses as the New Orleans Cotton Exchange as well as city's other commodities exchanges--among them, the Sugar Exchange, which once had its headquarters on the riverfront at Bienville Street, near the site of the present-day Aquarium of the Americas. The cotton warehouses and the huge cotton presses that stood back behind the levee fell into disuse and disrepair--only to be completely transformed in the last fifteen years into the "Warehouse District." The massive 19th-century brick buildings that once held the sugar and cotton and rice and molasses are one-by-one being renovated into luxury apartments and condominiums and are housing, largely, the city's successful young professionals. Once again, the district hums with activity and prosperity.

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iw/we 5/1998