From the Giant Screw Pump to Poker
A look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of New Orleans’ history with entrepreneurism.
Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.
In this year of our tricentennial, it seems appropriate to look at the history of entrepreneurism in New Orleans. The city has a long record of innovation, inventions and business leadership – combined, unfortunately, with complacency and a tendency to be its own worst enemy.
While little is known of the original inhabitants of the area, they had to be a very adaptive and enterprising people, and some recognition should be given to the first great, if unknown, New Orleans inventor: the Native American who created the plant paste used to ward off mosquitos.
The French explorer Bienville selected the site of present-day New Orleans in large part due to its potential to control the Mississippi River from both a military and economic standpoint. Over its first 80 years, the port of New Orleans became the largest in the entire Gulf Coast. Hundreds of fortunes were made (and undoubtedly, a few lost) based on the shipping capacity of the port.
The dark underside of this, of course, is that the plantations, the manufacturing and even the shipping itself were greatly facilitated by New Orleans’ status as the largest slave port in the new world.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the city’s strategic value was such that the entire Louisiana Purchase was made by Thomas Jefferson for the sole purpose of obtaining New Orleans. The port was the third-largest in the new nation, and by the 1820s, New Orleans was arguably the wealthiest city in America. Business flourished in many arenas, including banking, shipping and trading. A variety of local inventions did everything from keep the river navigable to expedite cargo loading to increase crop production.
The following Civil War caused major upheaval throughout the South, though New Orleans came out of the conflict in better shape than many of its southern counterparts. The dawn of the 19th century saw two vastly different innovations that are still legendary in the city’s history.
The first was Storyville. In 1897, city leaders defined a 38-block area where prostitution would be allowed (though not technically legal) as a way to control this and other vices. Though jazz was not actually born in Storyville, it flourished and was greatly developed within the brothels and music halls, in part because they were the only places where black and white musicians were allowed to play together. Although Storyville lasted only 20 years, it had a lasting impact on the city’s culture, with jazz noted as one of the city’s greatest gifts to the world.
The second major innovation was the giant screw pump invented by mechanical engineer A. Baldwin Wood in the early 20th century. Wood’s pumping system could move vast quantities of water and actually propel it over retaining walls and levees. These pumps enabled the draining of Gentilly, Lakeview and Metairie, and set the world standard in flood protection, so much so that the Dutch came to New Orleans to learn about water management.
New Orleans was also a major leader in aviation. The original Lakefront airport was one of the first commercial airports in the South; later, Moisant Field was one of America’s largest airports, and was the first to install Instrument Landing Systems. Sadly, its status as “The Gateway to Latin America” has been long since surpassed by other cities.
Among other great inventions created in New Orleans are the binocular microscope; frozen orange juice; wrinkle-free cotton; Venetian blinds (but why Venetian?), dental floss; poker and/or craps; and many libations, especially the Sazerac and Hurricane. Special mention should be made of the Higgins Boat, which played such a vital role in the D-Day invasion.
New Orleans today is experiencing a new golden age in entrepreneurism, of which we are deservedly proud. But if there is one lesson to be learned from our long history of innovation, it is that we have repeatedly surged to the top and then allowed others to leap over us – whether it is the Dutch in water management, Atlanta or Miami in airports, or Houston in shipping. This time, let’s stake out our entrepreneurial ground and keep building on it, rather than resting on our laurels and ceding leadership to others.