1878 Map Shows New Orleans Ancestors Built on High Land

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An 1878 map of New Orleans' settled areas shows that most of the city's 200,000 residents at the time clustered in a narrow swath along the Mississippi River, settling on the natural levees created by periodic floods.

It was still a good idea 127 years later. The city's old footprint corresponds closely to the small area that remained dry in the disastrous floods that came after Hurricane Katrina.

Indeed, the storm served up an unwelcome reminder that the city's expansive interior, pumped dry in the first few decades of the 20th century, is mostly reclaimed swampland. The killer storm essentially recreated what was here when Bienville founded the city in 1718.

"Of course the early settlers had it right," said Peirce Lewis, an urban geographer at Pennsylvania State University and author of "New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape," perhaps the definitive book about the effect of the city's topography on its history. "They worked with the river and the natural levees for almost 200 years."

Consider the 1878 map of New Orleans, drawn by civil engineer T.S. Hardee, which shows a city whose east-west dimensions are similar to today's. But most of the populated area in 1878 is confined to a strip of the east bank of the Mississippi River that runs from the Jefferson Parish line down to Poland Avenue in the Bywater.

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