At different times during the past forty years, efforts have been made towards the proper drainage of the city; but, with the exception of the work done between the years 1871 and 1873, nothing of any permanent value, or of a nature embracing the completion of any comprehensive or general system, has been executed. For this fact, in connection with a brief review of our present condition, the conclusion is most apparent that the improvement in the drainage of the city has not been co‑extensive with its commercial growth.
The earliest report on the subject of drainage, is that of the City Surveyor, Mr. Louis H. Pilié, to the Common Council, in 1857, which treats wholly of the improvement of the drainage of that portion of the church lying to the rear of Claiborne street. This report recommended the construction of a number of open canals for drainage, and of levees to protect the city from inundation by the lake. The report is not accompanied by any plan, and does not clearly state what disposal of the drainage he proposed, or what locations were chosen at that time for the machinery, necessary for lifting the water. It is, however, quite apparent that it was Mr. Piliqq's idea to deliver the drainage into Lake Pontchartrain. Previous to the date of Mr. Piliqq's report, the Legislature of the State of Louisiana had taken steps towards the drainage of the rear portion of the city, as will appear from the following quotation from his report:
"I might say, en passant, that an appropriation by our last Legislature of five thousand dollars to pay two engineers to make a survey of the swamps in the rear of the city, and report on the advisability of draining same, amounts to a useless expenditure of public money."
No record is at hand to show that any practical results were obtained from the survey referred to.
The benefits that would accrue from the thorough drainage of the whole area occupied by the city, were appreciated forty years ago fully as much as now, as will appear by the following quotation from the same report:
"when the drainage of our swamps shall be perfected, our city will rank among the healthiest of the world. The growth and population of our city will rapidly appear, our commerce will be largely benefited, our population, far from seeking a residence during the summer and sickly months, will remain in the city and erect delightful residences along the lake shore, and upon the now swamp lands of our city, and thus a large amount of property, at present valueless, will amount to millions and swell our assessment rolls."
The Legislature in 1858, 1859, 1861 and 1871, enacted laws relative to the drainage of the City of New Orleans.
p48 Act No. 165 of the Legislature of 1858, relates to the dividing of the city into four drainage districts, and providing a commission for each district; and, also a mode of assessment for the operation of the same.
Act No. 179 of 1859 of the Legislature, amends Act No. 165 of 1858, by authorizing the issue of thirty year bonds, limiting the issue to $350,000 for any one of the four districts.
Act No. 57 of 1861 provides for the collection of assessments for drainage purposes.
Act No. 30 of 1871, authorizes a contract to be entered into by the City of New Orleans, with the Mississippi and Mexican Gulf Ship Canal Company, for the construction of levees to protect the city from overflow, and of canals and pumping machinery for the drainage of the city, the location of the levees and canals to be as may be determined by the administrators of the affairs of the city. This Act authorizes that the rate of charge for the work performed shall be fifty cents per cubic yard for all canals excavated, and fifty cents per cubic yard for all levees built.
In 1868, the City Surveyor, Mr. L. Surgi, submitted to the Common Council a possible relative to the drainage of the city. This report recommended the improvement of the existing condition of drainage by the construction of additional open canals, and improving the machinery. It does not contain any data as to the volume of water to be handled, or the point of outfall. In fact, the report merely recommends the enlargement and improvement of the existing canal system and drainage machines. In his report, Mr. Surgi refers to Lake Borgne and Bayou Bienvenu, as follows:
"Bayou Bienvenu empties into Lake Borgne and is one of the main natural drains of the lower section of the city from Esplanade street down."
With a view of perpetuating historical matter, the following is quoted from Mr. Surgi's report:
"As early as March, 1835, a charter was granted for a period of twenty years to the New Orleans Draining Company. Its object was to drain and reclaim, by means of canals and ditches, the land comprised between the upper limits of Suburb Livaudais, the line of the New Canal to Lake Pontchartrain, along the shore of said lake to Bayou Cochon, in a straight line to Fisherman's Canal, down thence to the Mississippi River."
In 1869, the Common Council, by Ordinance No. 1148, N. S., elected a Board of Engineers to mature and recommend some general plan for the present and future drainage of the City of New Orleans. This Board was composed of Messrs. Braxton Bragg, A. G. Blanchard, Richard J. Evans, John Roy, H. C. Brown, G. W. R. Bayley, L. Surgi, and J. A. D'Hémécourt. This Commission recommended, for immediate relief, the improvement of the drainage system as recommended in Mr. Surgi's report in the year previous, and above referred to; but added that the ultimate plan of drainage, should be by means of underground sewers, collecting the water and delivering into the river. This report was evidently compiled without any accurate knowledge either of the topography, or of the volumes of water to be handled. While it would not be impossible to collect the storm-waters in sewers and deliver the same to the river, it would be impracticable.
The work done by the Mississippi and Mexican Gulf Ship Canal Company in 1871, 1872 and 1873, under provision of Act No. 30, of 1871, was carried out p49under the direction of the City Surveyor, Mr. W. H. Bell, and was in accordance with what is known as the "Bell Plan." There is no complete description of the system as proposed by Mr. Bell to be found, but from such records as are available, it is evident the system proposed by him was for the delivery of the drainage of the main portion of the city directly into Lake Pontchartrain. Part of the system contemplated the construction of a substantial breakwater and levee along Lake Pontchartrain from the Upper Protection Levee to People's Avenue Canal, and locating along this revetment, the necessary pumping machinery to lift the water into the lake. It is also conclusively shown that Mr. Bell contemplated the repumping of the water, from the area of the city between the river and the ridge, in order to provide the necessary slope for its delivery through canals of practicable size, to the necessary slope for its delivery through canals of practicable size, to the machines placed at the lake for final disposal. Mr. Bell recommended Lake Borgne as the ultimate out‑fall of all the foul drainage of the city, as also on the delivery of the water to the machines located on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, are fully set forth in the following letter:
To the Editor of the Times-Democrat:
New Orleans, Dec. 31, 1894.
During the discussion of the two plans for the drainage of the city now before the Council, I have seen it several times stated in print that the plan of drainage formulated by the committee on water and drainage is the system designed by my father, the late W. H. Bell. I admit that the present system of canals were designed by him and partly completed under the Mexican Gulf Canal Company drainage bill; but I most emphatically deny that he ever intended to make the mistake of depending on a single line of draining machines, located at the lake and at the head of Bayou Bienvenu, for the drainage of the city. The following quotations from his printed correspondence and reports are submitted to substantiate my denial:
Surveyor's Office, Room No. 19, City Hall,
New Orleans, June 17, 1871.
"Hon. John Cochran, Administrator of Improvements:
"Dear Sir — In my reports to you I have confined my suggestions and estimates entirely to the main reservoirs and protective levees. I would now suggest that in the location of pumping machinery, it be placed with a view to the ultimate division of the city into urban and suburban drainage, the urban drainage to be conveyed by sewers or large iron pipes, below the city into Bayou Bienvenu, the pipes passing under the navigation canals. The suburban drainage to be emptied into Lake Pontchartrain. The first step toward a system of drainage is to prevent overflow from the Mississippi river and Lake Pontchartrain. The location of this machinery becomes a secondary consideration. Respectfully, etc.
W. H. Bell, City Surveyor."
The great error many persons fall into, is the idea that the drainage of this city can be drawn from the river bank and thrown into the lake by a single line of draining machines placed upon the lake shore. A practical objection arises in the fact that the land is comparatively flat for a distance of •three miles (excepting the Metairie ridge) and in some places four miles, which great distance admits of no down grade or fall in the bottom of the canal. All the present canals are about level on the bottom, the fall being created by the action of the draining wheels upon the surface. Consequently, there is no current or action of water upon the bottoms of the canals, ZZZ hcn the great deposit near the thickly settled portions of the city. A single line of draining machines placed at the lake to drain from the river, or to drain from intermediate lines of machines, would require to be very powerful and great dip of wheel (to secure a current on the bottom of the canals), consequently a great weight of foundation and machinery, which is difficult to construct substantially upon that soil. By having three lines or divisions the breaking of machinery or caving of levee does not necessarily cause a general overflow.
p50 The above communication outlines a system of drainage which in its main points is the same as that outlined by the Advisory Board of Engineers in their preliminary report to the City Council. It also shows very conclusively that my father, upon a thorough investigation of the subject had become convinced that the only way to thoroughly and rapidly drain the city was by rehandling the water, or in other words, the system must be cumulative. To sustain his position on this point I append a quotation from a communication to Mayor Benjamin F. Flanders, by G. W. R. Bayley, civil engineer, in his discussion of the drainage problem at that time:
Respectfully, A. C. Bell, Civil Engineer.
In 1881, a communication was addressed to the Honorable Mayor and Administrators of the City of New Orleans by Mr. Joseph Jouet. The plan contemplated the construction of a large central canal, which would act as a main tail-race for all the drainage, to run from the Upper Protection Levee and connect with Bayou Bienvenu, through which all the drainage water of the City of New Orleans would be delivered to Lake Borgne.
In 1889, a plan for the drainage of the City of New Orleans was presented to the City Council by Mr. J. L. Gubernator, which, with some modifications, was submitted by him to the present Advisory Board. The general features of this plan are the delivery of the water into Lake Pontchartrain, the improvement of existing canals, the construction of a large number of additional open canals and the placing of a large number of drain u machines.
The plan presented to the Advisory Board by Mr. S. D. Peters, is for the delivery of all the drainage of the city through a main central canal to Lake Borgne. The drainage received from the different areas of the city is to be pumped into this main canal, and the main canal relieved by a pump at its lower end. The general features of the plan presented by Mr. Peters are similar to those contained in Mr. Jouet's plan of 1881.
In 1890, the Orleans Levee Board offered a premium of $2500.00 for the best plan of drainage for the City of New Orleans. The only data which they could furnish those who desired to enter this competition, was a general plan of the city. No exact knowledge could be given as to topography, areas, hydrography, or other data essential for the formulation of an efficient plan. Although there were several plans submitted in response to the advertisement, none could be accepted, for the reason that there was no reliable knowledge of the factors which were essential in determining the value of any of the plans submitted.
The necessity of making investigations relative to the topography and hydrography of the city, for the purpose of formulating a plan of drainage, has long been appreciated and, in 1888, an endeavor was made in the Legislature to pass an act enabling this preliminary work to be executed. The City Engineer, B. M. Harrod, made strenuous efforts to secure the necessary funds from the City Council, but without success. An attempt to obtain the funds by private subscription p51from public spirited citizens, also failed, and no measures looking towards the execution of this very essential preliminary work, were adopted until September, 1892, when an ordinance was introduced in the Council appropriating $17,500.00 for the purpose. This step met with considerable opposition, principally due to the supposition that the investigation had been made by previous administrations, and that the data could be found. A rigid search was made for records of this nature, but without result. The necessity for obtaining this information was demonstrated to the Council, and the ordinance authorizing the work, and providing the funds therefor, was adopted by it in February, 1893. The work was inaugurated thereafter, with as little delay as possible.
As shown in the above statement of the various attempts that have been made relative to the improve of the drainage of the City of New Orleans, no work of any magnitude has been done since 1872 and 1873, under what was known as the "Bell Plan."
As stated in the body of the report, the Canals and Draining Machinery have not sufficient capacity to deliver the water to the out-falls with such rapidity, as to avoid the inundating of large and valuable areas; in fact, the investigations which have been made show, that when working at their maximum capacity they are capable only of properly disposing of the run‑off from 1/100 of an inch rain-fall in 5 minutes, or 12/100 in one hour, which, in comparison to storms such as visited the City of New Orleans on August 13, 1894, is entirely inadequate. The water from this storm remained on a large territory of the city for a period of 72 hours before the existing machinery, working at its full capacity, removed same.
The existing system of drainage is composed, as stated in the body of the Report, of open canals receiving the water delivered from the higher portions of the city by the small street gutters, and conveyed by these open canals to the draining machines, which deliver the same into Lake Pontchartrain. These draining machines are four in number, and are located in the bottom of the basin between the river and the Metairie and Gentilly Ridges, excepting the London draining machine, which is located on Gentilly Ridge.
The Dublin draining machine is located at the intersection of 14th and Dublin streets, and has a maximum capacity to deliver 480 cubic feet of water per second, with a lift of five feet. This machine is composed of two wheels, one being 34 feet in diameter and 6 feet face and the other being 34 feet 4 inches diameter, with a face of 5 feet 9 inches.
The Melpomene draining machine is located at the intersection of Claiborne and Melpomene streets, and has maximum capacity to deliver 150 cubic feet of water per second, with a lift of 5 feet. This machine has only one wheel, which is 35 feet diameter, 4 feet 6 inch face.
The Bienville draining machine is located at the intersection of Hagan Avenue and Toulouse street, and has a maximum capacity to deliver 240 cubic feet of water per second, with a lift of 5 feet. This machine consists of two draining wheels, one being 28 feet 6 inches in diameter, 4 feet 4 inches face, and the other 34 feet in diameter and 7 feet face.
The London draining machine is located at the intersection of London Avenue and Gentilly Ridge, and has a maximum capacity to deliver 300 cubic feet of water per second, with a lift of 5 feet. This machine consists of two draining wheels, each of which is 35 feet in diameter and 4 feet 10 inches face.
p52 There is located at the intersect into no Bayou St. John and Orleans streets a centrifugal pump, delivering into the lake through the same tail-race as the Bienville machine. This pump has a maximum capacity of 44 cubic feet of waterer second, with a lift of 5 feet.
The area of the city now drained is divided into three districts by the two Navigation Canals.
These districts are known as first, second and third, and embrace an aggregate of 13,557 acres. The location of these districts, as also of the draining machines, is shown on Plate III.
The area of the city now drained extends only from the River to the Metairie and Gentilly Ridges, and a portion of this territory is wholly undrained ZZZ raind and other portions, of considerable area, are but partially drained.
The first drainage district embraces that portion of the city between the River, Metairie Ridge, the two Navigation Canals, Julia and Toulouse streets and has an area of 2,170 acres which is tributary to the Bienville draining machine.
The second district embraces that portion of the city between the River, Metairie Ridge, Upper Protection Levee, New Orleans Navigation Canal and Julia street, and has an area of 7,709 acres which is tributary to the Dublin and Melpomene draining machines.
The third district embraces that portion of the city between the River, Gentilly Ridge, Carondelet Canal, Bayou St. John, Toulouse and Elysian Fields streets, also between Elysian Fields and Poland streets from the River to Claiborne street, aggregating an area of 3,740 acres, which is tributary to the London draining machine and the Orleans pump.
The section of the city known as algiers, situated on the right bank of the river, has no drainage system.
As above noted, the total area of the city on the left bank of the river now drained has an aggregate area of 13,357 acres, which, as shown, is very imperfectly drained, and is about one-half of the area which the plan proposes to thoroughly drain, the aggregate area of which is 24,932 acres including Algiers.
The draining Machinery, with the exception of the Orleans pump, has been in service for upwards of forty (40) years, and is consequently primitive and not economical in its operation.
Considering the matter from every point, our present situation as to drainage in conjunction with the topographical and hydrographical conditions, renders the formulating of a thoroughly efficient and comprehensive system of drainage for the city an unique and intricate problem, and, perhaps, is unparalleled in this country or Europe, and the solving of the problem renders absolutely necessary a most careful and rigid investigation into all of the conditions bearing on the subject.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Sewerage & Water Board
of New Orleans
U.S. Corps of Engineers
New Orleans District
1895 Advisory Board Report
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 20 Feb 10