Roustabouts on the New Orleans levee, ca. 1890. In accordance with the strict delineation of tasks along the riverfront, the roustabouts worked on board the steamboats; longshoremen worked on the wharves themselves. On the boats, the roustabouts stoked the boilers and handled the cargo. The riverfront laborers, many of whom were ex-slaves, were paid well, for the times, but the work was back breaking, the hours were long, and the treatment was often harsh. The roustabouts had no lodgings on the boats, but slept where they could, often on the cotton bales. For meals, they ate what was left over after the passengers had dined.The river has created millionaires and bankrupts, and it has provided a livelihood for an untold number of people working in untold numbers of jobs. The influence of the river on the labor force has always extended well beyond the docks into all corners of the city. The 1900 New Orleans City Directory lists a dizzying array of professions and workers associated directly or indirectly with the river--bankers; insurance agents; cotton brokers; freight brokers; grain brokers; rice brokers, and sugar brokers; commission merchants; cooperage companies; owners, managers and laborers at cotton presses and dry docks; fruit importers; grain exporters; boat builders; oyster wholesalers; sail makers; towboat captains and crewmen; carters; wagon manufacturers; watchmen; the men of the Dock Board itself and the members of the city's exchanges; the ferry boat operators and crewmen; the railroad companies and all their attendant employees; the lessees of wharves and landings--and the list could go on. Today, the economic impact of the river is even more encompassing. Directly, the port generates some 50,000 jobs in the New Orleans metro area. The Dock Board's Annual Directory, listing services or companies connected in some way with the Port of New Orleans, is more than 150 pages long. The Port also provides more than $250 million in state and local tax revenue, indirectly affecting the quality of life of all the citizens of New Orleans--and beyond.[George Francis Muggier Collection]
An example of the kind of river-based company that influenced the New Orleans economy and provided jobs for residents was the Cromwell Steamship Line, with offices in the 1880s at 41 Carondelet Street. This company owned four first-class steamships running from New Orleans to New York. Pen Illustrations of New Orleans, 1881-1882, a"historical and descriptive review" of New Orleans trade, commerce and manufacturers, speaks of the company in these glowing terms:
The impetus given to the industries of this community by the capital and enterprise of this company, is not unrecognized, and the general consideration with which it is regarded is the natural outgrowth of a career which, for a number of years, has embodied the highest principles of commercial integrity and personal honor. No more effective messengers of peace, civilization and commerce, can our nation avail itself of than American steamers, enabling that interchange of products and inhabitants that shall bind the lands together in the bonds of a common brotherhood. [p. 67]The description is a bit excessive, perhaps, (and the volume is full of such paeans to commerce) but it illustrates the enthusiasm with which the New Orleans business community viewed the climate of the times. The boom did not last, but for the time being, New Orleans looked toward the future with optimism and confidence.
Back to River Exhibit Main Page