Mississippi River: Economic History
Written by Michele Lee
New Orleans, like most waterside cities, was founded because its close proximity to the Mississippi river provided much economomic benefit. In earlier times, the rapid methods of transportation that we use today were unavailible, forcing people to travel manually by land or by water. Naturally, rivers quickly became a popular method of transport because they were not only faster, but required much less energy than travelling across land. Thus, a location by the river facilitates the shipment of cargo, promoting the city's economy. In addition, almost all of the imports and exports from foreign countries arrived through ports. As a result, these cities developed unique cultures from the great diversity experienced with people constantly coming in and out of the city.
In its “golden age,” New Orleans was known as the “marketplace of the wealth of the West” because of its strategic location at the center of trade between cultures and goods. The popular expansion of steamboat use in the early 1800s revolutionized transport along the river, basically creating the huge river transport industry that is in existence today. Trips from St. Louis to New Orleans that used to take 4 months now took only 3 days by steamboat, not to mention that the trip back upstream was now much easier to make. From 1816 to 1817 alone, the value of total annual receipts at the New Orleans port increased from $8 million to $13 million (Kelman, 2003). Large, decorated steamboats also brought about tourists from all over the world, curious to see not only the mighty Mississippi, but the unique cities that were spawned alongside it. By 1853, the thriving New Orleans was one of the 5 largest metropolises in the United States.
Unfortunately, the invention of railroads coupled with the negative effects of the Civil War took a toll on the Mississippi River's booming economy. The river's meandering curves now took too long to navigate, when compared to straightforward railway routes. In addition, people tired of its unpredictability, which manifested itself in occasional sediment blockage of the lower portions of the River, hampering cargo ships from arriving (Kelman, 2003).
Yet, with the help of new innovations that helped shape the river more towards man's interests (for example, Eads' creation of jetties to deepen the lower channel and rid the River of some sediment blockage issues), it is still a major source of commerce today. It is conveniently located within proximity of 6 railroads and the Interstate Highway System (Port of New Orleans, 2003). In 2001, the earnings from the Port of New Orleans alone were around $2.3 billion, creating about 107,000 river-related jobs statewide (Ryan, 2001). According to a recent statistical profile of the Port of New Orleans, the total cargo of 2004 was around 31.5 million short tons (a 5.4% increase from 2003) consisting of 72% imported cargo and 28% exported cargo. Arriving imports include steel, iron, forest products, aluminum, and natural rubber. Exports consist of mostly chemical substances (pesticides, dyes), animal/ vegetable products, and forest products. Most trade (41.7%) occurs with Europe, while 29.9% occurs with Latin America and 19.8% with Asia (Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans 2005).