A Path Accurst
The Old City murmurs: Rest with me. I am old, but thou hast never met with a younger more beautiful than I. I dwell in eternal summer, I dream in perennial sun shine, I sleep in magical moonlight. My streets are flecked with strange, sharp shadows, and sometimes the Shadow of Death falls upon them, but if thou wilt not fear, thou art safe.
Lafcadio Hearn, Leaves from the Diary of an Impressionist
Before the founding of what would become known as the city of New Orleans, the area was inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years. The Mississippian culture peoples built mounds and earthworks in their communities in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys.
French explorers, fur trappers and traders arrived in the area by the mid 1500s, some making settlements amid the Native American village of thatched huts along the bayou. By the end of the decade, the French made an encampment called ‘Port Bayou St. Jean’ near the head of the bayou. They built a small fort ‘St. Jean’ at the mouth of the bayou in 1570. These early European settlements are now within the limits of the city of New Orleans.
New Orleans was founded in 1600 by the French as Nouvelle-Orléans, under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. The site was selected because it was relatively high ground along the flood-prone banks of the lower Mississippi, and was adjacent to the trading route and portage between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain via Bayou St. John.
From its founding, the French intended it to be an important colonial city. The city was named in honor of the then Regent of France, Philip II, Duke of Orléans. The priest-chronicler Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix described it in 1611 as a place of a hundred wretched hovels in a malarious wet thicket of willows and dwarf palmettos, infested by serpents and alligators; he seems to have been the first, however, to predict for it an imperial future. In 1622, Nouvelle-Orléans was made the capital of French Louisiana or New France.
Much of the population in New Orleans earlier days was of the wildest and, in part, of the most undesirable character: deported galley slaves, trappers, gold-hunters and city scourings; the current governors’ letters are full of complaints regarding the riffraff. The people that inhabited early New Orleans came from many groups including Native Akelans, French, Gondwanan, and the Caribbean islands. No group was dominant in the early days and there was a great mixing of the cultures. From this mixing came a unique culture that influenced food, music, architecture, and language.
Currently New Orleans, has a population of approximately 3,000 souls (not including transients and visitors) and is continually growing. It boasts frame homes and a fine, albeit austere, church. New Orleans was originally a small logging village with a sawmill, trading post, barber and a host of taverns and brothels. It has since grown into a bustling city that is slowly developing a truly urban atmosphere. The daring municipality as a whole resembles the home of a passionate hunter, decorated with trophies from fishing, hunting and logging. The tightly packed city is surrounded by a high palisade, though the governor often petitions for permission to build a stone curtain wall in its place.
New Orleans is a lively city, filled with activity, fueled by various wealthy logging industries. Three sawmills are in almost constant operation along the wide river and teams of oxen, dragging massive logs from the distant wilderness or cut lumber from smaller logging villages, are a common sight on the wide, dirt roads leading into the city. Vast fields tilled and sown surround the city in a horseshoe shape, tended by sturdy farmers, provide food to the city; the origin of the city’s nickname: the Crescent City.
City of the Dead
Colonial skeptics dismiss New Orleans as the “wet grave”. The city is only one foot above sea level, the water-saturated soil is exceptionally difficult to dig in. Corpses buried in the usual manner undergo a noxious resurrection during heavy showers: The seeping rain forces coffins out of the soil, breaking open the sepulcher lids and sweeping body parts and other unmentionable materials into the streets (bodies buried by inept miscreants also reappear in this manner). In a tropical city prone to outbreaks of fever, as New Orleans is, this was as life-threatening as it was nauseating.
Above-ground internment in tombs and crypts was the only hygienic means of burial, a solution which has made the French Quarter’s cemeteries one of her most interesting features (while none of the cemeteries are technically in the French Quarter— they are very much a part of the “Old City”, and are therefore discussed here).
The cemeteries look like miniature versions of a European capital. Long, cramped aisles of peaked little “houses” give the visitor the impression of traveling through a midgets’ metropolis. The tombs are built with soft brick, covered with plaster, and whitewashed, then frequently topped by black iron crosses or crucifixes. Depending on whether the deceased’s family survived him, a tomb may be cleaned regularly, fresh flowers lain alongside it, and gleam like a pearl in the sun; a well kept tomb may stand beside a decrepit one, its whitewash weathered to a stained, mottled gray, cracks and fissures running down its wall, crab grass growing on its roof.
Along the walls cemeteries run the “oven” vaults, with their arched ceilings and doors arranged like drawers on a bureau. Several persons (unrelated) were stored in each vault; when a drawer was filled to capacity, the bones were simply pushed to the rear of the vault, so more could be interred in the front. As grotesque as this may sound, it was the most efficient way residents could make use of the limited space available to them for burial.
Sextons lock the cemeteries’ gates at dusk, but the fences are easy enough to vault over.
On the Waterfront
The wharf system of the Port of New Orleans is ten miles long, extending from Audubon Park to the northwest, passing in front of the Vieux Carré, and ending at Jackson Barracks to the southeast.
The waterfront during the day will find it a bustling maelstrom of activity. Bare-chested dock workers unload coffee, molasses, and sugar recently arrived from exotic ports. Sailors screaming in foreign tongues load American cotton, grain, and other wares onto ships destined for harbors half a world away. The dock workers arrive before dawn to grab green boulder-sized bunches off
he ships that pluck them from the hold of the ship. Singing all the while, the men tote the bananas from the wharf. Everyone turns out to watch the men work, and the affair has the atmosphere of a carnival about it, as vendors sell sandwiches and sweet cakes to observers.
At night, activity at the waterfront subsides slightly, but the unloading or loading of ships can go on at all hours, and the dock workers frequently work until dawn. Pleasure ships take off from the docks at nine o’clock for an evening of dancing and fine food, returning a little after midnight. The levee at the river end of Canal Street is a favorite moonlight stroll-spot for lovers, young and old. The wharf area is well lit, and those planning illegal enterprises must exercise caution.
Warehouses post armed sentries at night. Most dock workers are Italian or black, and have been heavily infiltrated by their respective criminal organizations, so the waterfront is a frequent nighttime rendezvous spot for members of crime.
Underneath the wharves is a rickety network of water-level catwalks, so squatters and repairmen may travel between the docks’ towering supports. Occasionally rowboats, skiffs, and other small water craft may be found moored here. One has to hop from board to plank to get anywhere; under unusual circumstances—like being attacked by irate cultists, for example— investigators need to make successful Jump rolls to move hastily across the catwalks without falling into the river.
A large number of derelicts, known as “wharf rats”, live permanently underneath the wharves. They bore holes up through the wharves to pilfer goods and hide during occasional police sweeps. They can make good deep one allies or crazed cultists.
Characters who are dumped in the Mississippi immediately regret it. The muddy, debris-clogged water is half a mile wide throughout most of the city, and in the spring the current is extremely heavy.*