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Ancient and Odd-Angled: The Road to Bayou St. John

Since moving to my new address on N. Dorgenois Street, my fascination with the charming and disorienting formation of streets between Esplanade, N. Rocheblave, Columbus, and Broad has only grown. Residents may know this spot as home to Pagoda Café, Club Caribbean, and McHardy’s Chicken.

 

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From N. Dorgenois, facing Bayou Road and Bell Street; photo by author, 2016

 

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Alongside King and Queen Emporium Itn'l on Bayou Road, facing where Desoto breaks off to the left; photo by author, 2016

 

This bizarre intersection has everything to do with the odd-angled Bayou Road, “the road, trace, or portage [that] predated the city, following a narrow strip of high land that led from the Mississippi River past Bayou Sauvage, called Gentilly, to an intersection with Bayou St. John” [1]. Bayou Road was the thread, some argue, that made New Orleans possible—by lending the French a “backdoor route” from the Gulf through Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain, down Bayou St. John, along the elevated ridge Bayou Road occupies to the Mississippi’s banks. The French could perch along the river’s edge, and thereby control the entire massive artery, without having to fight their way up its tumultuous mouth.

New Orleans Architecture explains that the corridor of “Bayou Road, on both its left and right sides, served as frontage for a series of concessions made first by the Company of the Indies, then by the kings of France, and later, the Spanish Crown.

Simultaneously to the laying out of the city [present-day French Quarter]…these tracts of land to the rear of the city were developed into habitations (plantations) with houses and outbuildings facing each side of Bayou Road, having orchards behind and cultivated fields extending to the swamps” [2]. Even after the neighborhoods flanking Bayou Road were developed according to orthogonal street grids in the 19th century onward, Bayou Road was left to continue on its ancient, crooked way—there were too many houses and buildings already oriented along its trajectory.

So, back to my favorite intersection! Where, like, seven irregular triangles touch noses! The energy of the spot kept pulling me in, but until I did a little extra research in order to write this post, I didn’t realize how truly charged it was.…

It turns out N. Dorgenois Street formed the boundary line between some of these Bayou Road plantations that were continually changing hands throughout the city’s early history.

Chains of title can be kind of dull, but, in brief, between 1723 and 1834 the swath of land between N. Dorgenois and Bayou St. John (broken up into various parcels) was owned by folks with surnames like: Française, Langlois, Lebreton, Brasilier, Chalon, Almonester (the city’s wealthiest resident by the mid-1780s), Blanc, Vidal, Suarez, Clark, and Blanc again, until “…on September 26, 1836, Blanc sold to the Corporation of the City of New Orleans his ‘land or plantation, irregularly shaped having about twelve arpents frontage on Bayou St. John and bound by said Bayou, Carondelet Canal, Bayou Road, and Dorgenois…for $50,000’” [3].

Until around the time of the Louisiana Purchase, the particular sliver of land between N. Dorgenois and Broad was cultivated, but had no structures on it yet. Then comes Daniel Clark, Jr., the man who wanted to turn the land between the bayou and Dorgenois into Faubourg St. John. Historian Lawrence Powell tells us more about Clark: “…a young Philedelphian named Daniel Clark, Jr., Irish-born and Eton-educated, parlayed fluency in French and Spanish to become Governor Miró’s English translator, and then used that position to facilitate an illegal tobacco trade in which the governor silently partnered with Clark’s uncle, a wealthy Baton Rouge planter and New Orleans merchant. The younger Clark soon amassed a fortune from shipping and real estate, in the meantime joining the ranks of the slave-holding gentry” [4]. Later Powell tells us the two Daniel Clarks were some of the city’s largest slave-importers during the latter half of the 18th century.

Daniel Clark’s daughter, Myra Clark Gaines, stalled the development of Faubourg St. John after Clark’s death for close to six decades via “the longest-running lawsuit in the history of the United States court system” (!!!) claiming she was the sole heir to his properties. (More on this fascinating lawsuit to come!) Before he died, Clark had succeeded in subdividing the faubourg into 35 irregularly-shaped blocks, however, and had envisioned the focal point of the neighborhood to be the fan-like formation of streets that inspired this blog post. New Orleans Architecture tells us that Clark built his country seat at the juncture of Bell, Desoto, and Bayou Road, roughly where King & Queen Emporium International is today. He died in the house in 1813 and it “ultimately fell into ruin and was demolished” [5].

 

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So now we know a bit about the mainstream history of this tangle of streets in the 7th Ward. In my next post, I will seek to explore the little-known, less-recognized facets of this intersection’s history.…

 

 

  1. Roulhac Toledano and Mary Louise Christovich, New Orleans Architecture Volume VI: Faubourg Tremé and the Bayou Road (Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company, 1980) xi.
  2. Toledano and Christovich, New Orleans Architecture, xi
  3. Toledano and Christovich, New Orleans Architecture, 54-56.
  4. Lawrence N. Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012) 194.
  5. Toledano and Christovich, New Orleans Architecture, 56.

 

Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans based poet who is currently working on a narrative history of Bayou St. John in New Orleans. You can see her posts and poetry on her website.