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PGT Beauregard took on New Orleans' drainage problem 160 years ago

P.G.T. Beauregard's greatest impact on the city of New Orleans and the surrounding area was arguably as a skilled, highly respected engineer.
Credit: Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University
Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University

NEW ORLEANS -- With the controversy still roiling over last year’s removal of the monument dedicated to Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, New Orleans -- its officials, its activists, its historians, its people -- continues to grapple with Beauregard’s life and legacy.

That examination intensified again this month when City Park workers removed the pedestal that used to elevate Beauregard and his battle horse. That scrutiny was highlighted by the opening of a 100-plus-year-old time capsule that had been filled with artifacts and installed in the monument’s cornerstone upon its dedication.

Like all Confederate leaders, Beauregard’s legacy is a complicated and controversial one and more than deserving of intense scrutiny. But out of all such prominent figures from a rebel country that essentially defended slavery, Beauregard may have gone the furthest toward redeeming himself by becoming an early advocate for racial integration and civil and political rights for newly emancipated slaves.

He ran for New Orleans mayor in 1858; became a successful railroad executive; served as a representative for an early version of the state lottery; and, as Louisiana adjutant general in the 1880s, fought for increased funding for the state militia and helped strengthen the local National Guard.

But arguably his greatest impact on the city of New Orleans and the surrounding area was as a skilled, highly respected engineer. He was trained in the discipline at West Point and served for several decades in the Army Corps of Engineers. And he played a key role in the dredging of the Mississippi River, in designing and overseeing the construction of the city’s famed custom house and in the development of streetcar technology.

But it was in the drainage of the city -- the public works vexation that has dogged New Orleans since its inception 300 years ago -- that Beauregard truly immersed himself.

One year after the city’s flawed drainage system caused massive flooding during a heavy rain, it may even be instructive to look at Beauregard’s take on the subject.

In December 1858 -- the day after Christmas, to be precise -- Beauregard issued a comprehensive proposal for the city’s First Drainage District. The 14-page report followed an act passed by the State Legislature to establish such a system. Even then, Maj. Beauregard – he would later be elevated to the rank of general -- realized the daunting task of making the boggy land between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain habitable.

“On this important subject a very elaborate treatise might be written,” Beauregard stated in the report, “but I have thought it best to confine myself to the leading points embraced in the investigation, in order to make my Report as concise as practicable.”

The report includes detailed topographical analyses, measurements, figures, charts and costs of the proposed drainage district. After examining two systems prominent in Europe -- one in Italy, the other in Holland -- Beauregard recommends the Dutch model that features a network of dikes, canals and levees.

The report also proved shockingly prescient. It discussed many of the challenges that plague the city’s drainage system today, and it also presents many of the same mechanics that have since been used to keep the city dry, such as steam-powered screw pumps. The document also outlines innovative techniques -- even a few that, in hindsight, might have helped prevent many of the ensuing flooding events in New Orleans. For example: planting rows of sunflowers along the berms of every canal.

He pegged the price tag for the proposed drainage district at roughly $530,000, which comes out to just over $15.2 million in today’s dollars.

Beauregard, ever supremely confident in his abilities, also promised grand results from his design, including the reduction of yellow fever epidemics and other health problems caused by swamp-bred mosquitos. Commerce in the city would be greatly enhanced, he conjectured, and promised the construction of “magnificent summer residences and gardens of all dimensions, wharves and landings … along the lake shore …”

“Such a system would have been economical, perfect in itself,” he boasted, “and easily carried into execution, so that what is now swampland of an impassable character, would have become in less than four or five years … high lands, as available for cultivation and building purposes, as any to be found along the banks of the river.”

How much of Beauregard’s proposal was undertaken by the city remains unclear. However, the officer remained so respected as an engineer that even decades later, after multiple flooding events, folks in New Orleans were still pining for Beauregard’s proposals and skills.

In 1868, just three years after the Civil War, Beauregard briefly served on a new city drainage board until resigning, according to The Daily Picayune, “for the purpose of effecting some method for the more effectual drainage of the city, and protecting it from overflow.”

An adept political animal, Beauregard navigated the choppy waters of post-war Reconstruction to remain in high esteem throughout the ensuing decades. In 1877, then-Mayor Edward Pilsbury received a proposal from Beauregard, “who was requested to give his views concerning the best method of protecting the city from the ravages of the river,” The Picayune reported.

Six years later, the Times-Democrat newspaper -- lamenting the unfortunate influence of “sanitary quacks and self-appointed engineers” whose questionable ideas failed to stop flooding -- called for “the drainage system of New Orleans ... (to) be intrusted [sic] to such a skilled, and tried engineer as Gen. G.T. Beauregard; his plan should be persistently carried out … from year to year until perfected.”

Even in 1888, the populace and media of New Orleans encouraged the 70-year-old Beauregard to run for commissioner of public works. Local newspapers decried what they viewed as a corrupt political machine that was allegedly crippling services, bankrupting city coffers and causing wholesale infrastructural decay.

With a focus on the ever-shoddy drainage, writers employed almost hyperbolic language touting the general as a drainage savior.

“Under him, there will no longer be that uncertain and wavering policy that has of late marked [the public works] department,” stated The Times-Democrat. “There will be no difficulties as to drainage, but he will perfect and carry out a system of drainage and of street improvements that will render New Orleans safe from the floods for all time to come.”

You can see where this is headed, right?

Beauregard did end up running for the position, and he won handily and took charge of the department in late April. However, just three months later, Beauregard resigned as public works commissioner after experiencing an “I’m too old for this stuff” moment. He cited ill health as well as a lack of sufficient funds necessary to carry out his planned infrastructure overhaul.

Thus, in the end, even one of New Orleans’ greatest engineering minds was forced to throw up his hands and walk away from the dysfunction -- a dysfunction that still plagues the city’s drainage system 130 years later.

Read the full report below: