The site of New Orleans first appealed to the city's founder, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, in 1699. Native Americans had informed him about Bayou St. John, a shortcut from Lake Pontchartrain to the higher land on the banks of a defensible bend in the Mississippi River. Almost two decades later, Bienville supervised the first efforts to build a city on this site.
Until the advent of the steam engine, portage upriver against the Mississippi current was difficult even under the most ideal of conditions. In the 18th century, sailing ships could easily enter Lake Pontchartrain and access Bayou St. John. From there, goods could be portaged a short distance to what is now the oldest section of the city, the French Quarter.
Governor Francisco Luis Hector, Baron de Carondelet, who oversaw the Spanish colonies of Louisiana and West Florida from 1791-1797, was responsible for many advances in the quality of life of the region. Seeking to improve drainage and improve access from the city to the bayou, in 1794 he excavated a 1.6 mile canal. In 1796, the Cabildo issued a decree naming it Canal Carondelet.
The canal became a vital resource for shipping thanks to the efforts of James Pitot and the formation of the Orleans Navigation Company in 1805. It was improved many times over the next several decades, but because it did not flow except with the wind and tides, it often filled with sewage, detritus and plants. It also was a source of frequent flooding because it allowed water from the lake to enter the city during storms.
In the 1830s, a new, wider, deeper canal was dug, this time not by prisoners and slaves, but by newly arrived Irish immigrants who died by the thousands of disease and dysentery. The New Basin Canal paralleled the Carondelet one and ran directly from the lake to the thriving new American sector. In a relatively short time, Canal Carondelet saw its volume of traffic decrease significantly. Schemes to re-establish its relevance led to losses and lawsuits. However, its placement at the heart of the old French city, where many merchants and institutions were located, kept it operating until the early 20th century.
As the city grew, the canal proved to be a corridor for other development and traffic. For many decades in the mid-to-late 1800s, pedestrians enjoyed the Carondelet Walk which featured as many as 3 gardens that charged admission. It also became a corridor for the new railroad systems, which ultimately are responsible for much of the land remaining open to this day.
By the 1920s, the Old Basin Canal, a name it acquired to differentiate it from the New Basin Canal, again fell into disrepair. It was declared un-navigable and filled between 1927 and 1938. In the 1990s, visionary citizens began an effort to transform the land--now a 3.6 mile corridor from City Park to near Armstrong Park--into a linear park and bicycle path. Called the Lafitte Corridor, design plans were approved by the public in 2011.