In 1983, archaeologists of Coastal Environments, Inc. conducted extensive testing and excavations for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development in the areas of the proposed east-bound Greater New Orleans Bridge Number 2. The first Greater New Orleans Bridge opened in 1958 to connect the east and west banks of the city. The second bridge was completed in 1988, and the city of New Orleans renamed it the Crescent City Connection in 1989. A 1977 Federal Environmental Impact Study identified 24 historical structures in the proposed bridge project area eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and the archaeology study followed up on the Environmental Impact Study to minimize construction damage on these archaeological resources.
The excavation was an expansive undertaking that lasted 4 months during the spring of 1983 with fieldwork totaling 9,200 hours. The project area was a one mile long and 300 foot wide strip that paralleled the existing Pontchartrain Expressway from the foot of the bridge at the Mississippi River all the way to its connection with Interstate 10, crossing portions of 56 city blocks and 36 acres of urban environment. This project offered an ideal opportunity for archaeologists to compare the material lives of ethnic and class groups in New Orleans as well as the commercial and industrial developments of the city.
The Lower Garden District area at the foot of the bridge was the most extensively researched and excavated given that this part of the city was once a dynamic neighborhood and later the active commercial center of 19th century New Orleans. The bridge follows along property once occupied by the Saulet, Foucher, and Delord-Sarpy plantations which has been partitioned and sold off by the the 1830s. During the mid 1800s this area’s batture land along the river was hotly contested in land ownership disputes that went up to the US Supreme Court, which you can read about in the 200 Years of Louisiana Supreme Court History tour. The area then transformed into a bustling residential neighborhood on the edges of urban New Orleans where immigrant Irish, German, Italians, and Americans settled. The project area’s proximity to the river, the railroad terminus, and the New Basin Canal, completed in 1835, accelerated economic growth. Five cotton presses were located within the Greater New Orleans Bridge corridor, and they were the source of most jobs for Irish and German immigrants who lived in the budding Irish Channel neighborhood. Other commercial enterprises in the area included the Orleans Sugar Refinery, a rum distillery, foundries, hundreds of warehouses, brickyards, and ice houses. By 1850 the neighborhood reached its population peak following the wave of Irish immigrants during the 1840s and 50s. The second half of the 18th century, however, displaced residents to accommodate growing industries. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that people moved to the far west area of the project site toward the intersection of the expressway and Interstate 10 near the Superdome.
Archaeologists dug 59 backhoe trenches and 110 hand excavation units that produced two tons of artifacts and exposed 291 cultural features. These features include 23 privy pits, two wells, nine cistern foundations, 74 wall foundations, 68 pavements, post molds, and trash deposits. The artifacts and features came from various residential and commercial sites such as a wagon yard, a tin shop, an icehouse, a brick kiln, general stores, and working class homes. The team experienced various setbacks including site vandalism resulting in artifact disturbance and inaccessibility of potentially fruitful sites due to private property ownership. They most thoroughly investigated artifacts from the 1100 blocks of Tchoupitoulas, St. Thomas, and Constance Streets, an 1835 Creole cottage at 615 Erato Street, and the corner of South Rampart and Calliope Streets.
The excavation and analysis of the 16OR78 site provides a snapshot of the scope of importance of the GNO No. 2 Project. The site is a city block bound by Gaiennie Street on the north, Erato Street to the south, St. Thomas Street to the west, and Tchoupitoulas Street to the east held 19th century structures of national historic significance including a Creole cottage, a brick shotgun house, and a double shotgun house. In the 1800s a carpenter’s shop, The Crescent City Ice Company Warehouse, Creole cottages, two-story row houses and tenement that housed working class Irish families. As the 20th century progressed, commercial properties outnumbered domestic ones. Excavations behind the double shotgun house revealed cobblestone pavements, a cement lined privy, pier footing, foundation walls, post molds, and a wooden trough. Recovered artifacts such as ceramics, buttons, liquor bottles, and tobacco pipes lead the team to conclude that lower and middle class Irish-German inhabitants replaced wealthier French occupants as the 19th century progressed.