This is first successful attempt at creating a streetcar turnaround at this intersection, which is notoriously confusing and historically jammed with traffic, owing to an odd dog-leg where Canal Boulevard and Canal Street meet City Park Avenue. Fifty years ago, RTA made a similar attempt to connect Canal Boulevard and Canal Street – although that earlier design necessitated the demolition of Odd Fellows Rest Cemetery. Fortunately for New Orleans cemetery heritage, this plan was scrapped and the cemetery was saved.
This tangled intersection of New Orleans thoroughfares, joined with the Pontchartrain Expressway (Interstate 10), is the site of a dozen different New Orleans cemeteries ranging in founding dates from 1840 to 1973, and ranging in background from elite city of the dead to humble potter’s field. The intersection of Canal Street and City Park Avenue is an essential crux of New Orleans history in almost every way. It is a heart of metropolitan development and architectural expression without compare. Over the next month, Oak and Laurel is taking a look at the history of the Canal Street cemeteries and their environs, beginning with the history of the land itself.
Bayou, Ridge, and Canal
The area that is now a busy intersection bounded on all sides by cemeteries was, until 1838, dominated by cypress swamp, acacia trees, and a bayou along a high ridge. Metairie Ridge, a deposit of high-ground formed by an ancient route of the Mississippi River, framed Bayou Metairie at this spot. The ridge operated as a road before French colonization in 1718, used by the Acolapissa Native Americans as a route to access Bayou St. John. Later, Bayou Metairie would be filled in and became City Park Avenue.
One section of Bayou Metairie remained in Metairie Cemetery along City Park Avenue/Metairie Road until the 1960s, serving as one of the cemetery’s “lagoons.” After the cemetery lagoon was filled in, the only remaining trace of Bayou Metairie can be found in New Orleans City Park, forming a closed-off body of water there.
Metairie Ridge was located far from the developed city of New Orleans until well into the nineteenth century. Yet farther down Canal Street (laid out in 1810) in the city’s commercial hub, plans were formed for the undeveloped land beginning in the 1820s.
Competition between the old French-speaking order and the American interests that populated the city after the Louisiana Purchase motivated investment in a new canal. In 1831, the New Orleans Canal and Banking Company was founded by the Maunsell White and Beverly Chew with the backing of the state of Louisiana. The company was formed with the specific goal of establishing a “canal from some part of the city or suburbs of New Orleans, above Poydras street to the Lake Pontchartrain.” Construction on the New Basin Canal began in 1832, although a terrible cholera epidemic held up its progress that year.
The New Basin Canal began at a turning basin along Triton Walk, approximately the present location of the Union Passenger Terminal in the Central Business District. It extended northwest near what is now Carrollton Avenue and turned more northerly from there, meeting Lake Pontchartrain at what is now West End Boulevard. If this route sounds vaguely like the route of Interstate 10 from the Crescent City Connection to the I-10/610 merge, that’s because the Pontchartrain Expressway very closely replaced the New Basin Canal route in the mid-twentieth century.
But in the 1830s the New Basin Canal was just beginning as a commercial waterway. Moreover, the shell road that ran alongside the canal swiftly became a popular route for commercial and leisure travelers alike. The route from Triton Walk to the West End was six miles long, an enjoyable day’s ride to Lake Pontchartrain, where restaurants and diversions soon cropped up to accommodate pleasure-seekers. The intersection of Bayou Metairie and the New Basin Canal marked the half-way point between the city and the lake, and the place soon became a kind of commercial center. A toll booth was erected at the intersection, and alongside it was the “Half Way House,” a resting place with gardens, refreshments, and entertainment. In this same year, Metairie Race Course was also founded at the Bayou/Canal intersection.
Nineteenth-century New Orleans urban development had fostered an appetite for fresh air and greenery among its residents. The paired development of the New Basin Canal and extension of commerce along Canal Street had opened the area to the greater population.
From the time of the Louisiana Purchase through the 1840s, immigrants from all over poured into New Orleans. As they brought their bodies and livelihoods, they brought their culture and traditions. From Creoles of color from San Domingue, New Orleans gained the shotgun house. As for the thousands of immigrants from the Anglo-Protestant North who came to New Orleans, New Orleans gained from them wire-cut Pennsylvania brick, Anglo-American concepts of landscape design, and the idea of the rural garden cemetery.
The rural cemetery movement arose in the northeast in part from the contemporary expansion of cities. Advances in industrialization within the urban landscape created in city-dwellers a longing for the countryside. Furthermore, this same industrialization advanced the American middle class in such a way that recreation was newly defined. Inspired by English landscape design, the rural cemetery was the predecessor to the public park – in fact, Central Park landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead designed one such cemetery in California. This shift in the appearance and purpose of cemeteries coincided with many American cultural movements like Romanticism, the definition of the middle class, and the “beautification of death period.”
Northern Americans who moved to New Orleans were inspired by what they saw at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts, Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and many more. These were cemeteries that were designed instead of planned, with undulating pathways that strolled past weeping willows and reflecting pools. This was the rural cemetery movement, a great leap in the history of cemeteries that would change the American perception of death forever.
On April 25, 1840, the first cemetery at the intersection of Canal Street and Metairie Road was officially opened. Cypress Grove was owned and operated by the Firemen’s Charitable Benevolent Association (FCBA) and, although the cemetery would be open to all burials, it would be dedicated to the memory of New Orleans’ volunteer firemen.
The dedication ceremony of Cypress Grove included a march of nearly one thousand firemen, clergy, and prominent citizens marching through downtown New Orleans, each wearing mourning bands and a few carrying urns of the ashes of their martyred comrades. The procession boarded the Nashville railroad at the foot of Canal Street and rode to the end, where the Egyptian Revival columns of Cypress Grove’s entrance would have stood almost completely alone within the undeveloped landscape.
Among the martyrs honored that day was Irad Ferry, the “first martyr,” who perished in the line of duty on New Year’s Day 1837. Originally buried in Girod Street Cemetery, Ferry’s remains were relocated to Cypress Grove as the cemetery’s first burial, beneath a marble sarcophagus topped with a broken column which was designed by J.N.B. de Pouilly and constructed by stonecutter Newton Richards. In a nearby tomb constructed for this purpose, the remains of eleven additional firemen were buried.
Most of the volunteer firemen of New Orleans were transplants from elsewhere – Irad Ferry himself was originally from Connecticut. The Firemen’s Charitable Benevolent Association’s choice to establish New Orleans first purpose-built rural cemetery was one born of their origins in the north. The monumental Egyptian Revival entrance to the cemetery was directly inspired by the entrance of Mount Auburn Cemetery. Said the FCBA of their rural cemetery:
(To learn more about Cypress Grove’s history, check out our blog post “Lost Landscapes of Cypress Grove,” Part 1 and Part 2)
Cypress Grove Cemetery may have extended across Bayou Metairie and through what is now Canal Boulevard. It is true that a cemetery was once present in this space. However, the cemetery is referred to in records as both “Cypress Grove Cemetery No. 2” and “Charity Hospital Cemetery No. 2.” This potter’s field, which records suggest was dominated only by below-ground burials of the indigent, is referred to in at least one record as belonging to the Firemen’s Benevolent Association, but leased by Charity Hospital for the burial of deceased patients. Over the next century, Cypress Grove No. 2 would accept thousands of indigent burials and become an on-again, off-again bone of contention in this funerary landscape.
Next week, we will explore the 1840s as new cemeteries are founded, namely St. Patrick’s, Dispersed of Judah, Charity Hospital Cemetery, and Odd Fellows Rest.
 Richard Campanella, Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans (Lafayette, LA: Center for Louisiana Studies, 2008), 30, 135.
 T.P. Thompson, “Early Financing in New Orleans: Being the Story of the Canal Bank, 1831-1915,” Publications of the Louisiana Historical Society, Vol. VII (1913-1914), 24.
 Laura D. Kelley, The Irish in New Orleans (Lafayette: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2014), 32-36.
 Dell Upton, “The Urban Cemetery and the Urban Community: The Origin of the New Orleans Cemetery,” in Exploring Everyday Landscapes: Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, ed. Annmarie Adams and Sally McMurry (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 132-133, 139-140; David Charles Sloane, The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 44-46.
 Thomas O’Connor, ed. History of the Fire Department of New Orleans (New Orleans: FMBA, 1890), 70-71.
 “Firemen’s Celebration in New Orleans,” Galveston Daily News, March 6, 1869, 1.
 Firemen’s Charitable Association, Report of the Committee of the Firemen’s Charitable Association, on the Cypress Grove Cemetery (New Orleans: McKean, 1840), 4.
 Henry Rightor, Standard History of New Orleans, Louisiana (New Orleans: Lewis Publishing Company, 1900), 265. Rightor’s 1900 history refers to this cemetery as Charity Hospital No. 2.
 Peter Dedek, The Cemeteries of New Orleans: A Cultural History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017), 61, 77.