The Coffee Trade and the Port of New Orleans
The Port of New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century
Base of Canal Street, Steamboat America - William Henry Jackson / 1900
In the nineteenth century the port of New Orleans grew from a colonial supply depot into the second largest port in the country and the fourth largest in the world during the 1840s. Even before the introduction of steamboats to New Orleans in 1812, the port was destined to become a major shipping center of the young United States. Flatboats from throughout the Mississippi Valley carried the agricultural bounty of the land to be shipped to ports on the East Coast, Europe, and Latin America. Into the port came manufactured items, tropical fruits, and coffee from foreign lands. Cotton, the main export, formed the basis of the port's developments as a major entrepôt into and out of the United States.
Steamboats contributed to the tremendous success of the port of New Orleans in the early nineteenth century. During the 1830s and 1840s, increased commercial activity produced an atmosphere of bustle and excitement. Visitors marveled at what they saw along the levees of New Orleans as the small town grew into a major city:
Coffee and the "Logical Port"
European explorers and traders largely disseminated the centuries-old practices of coffee cultivation and consumption from the Middle East to Europe and then to the Americas. Sometime during the eighteenth century, New Orleans received its first shipments of green coffee from Cuba and other Caribbean Islands. As the city grew and commerce expanded, more coffee arrived from the Caribbean and South America until the port had become the second largest importer of coffee in the United States after New York by the 1840s. From the first recorded statistics of 1802 when 1,438 bags of coffee arrived until 1857 when over 530,000 bags arrived, the city earned its nickname of the "Logical Port" for Latin American imports. Because of its position at the bottom of the Mississippi Valley and its proximity to countries and territories to the south, the city was ideally suited to receive goods from all over the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America.
Slack-Water Days on the Levee
The Civil War and Reconstruction did more than just slow down the trade into the port. They wiped out the city treasury, leaving few funds to repair the docks and build covered wharves to store incoming goods. As a result, the city leased out sections of the riverfront to private interests whose focus on short-term profits led to shoddy facilities. The city found itself with inadequate wharves and high dockage fees, which drove away business. Commodities were left to rot under the harsh elements of rain and sun along the waterfront. The disorderly wharfage system left many cargoes misplaced, broken up, or stolen. Moreover, New Orleans faced the ever-present threat of yellow fever, which shut down the port for months at a time, forcing importers to take their cargoes elsewhere. The port faced stiff competition from the growing railroads as farmers, merchants, and manufacturers found it easier and faster to send goods by land than by water.