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NEW ORLEANS — Before there was a city called New Orleans, there was a road that led to it.

Around 300 years ago, when the French were deciding where to settle the city that would become New Orleans, they were looking for a location with access to the Mississippi River.

Sailing up the mouth of the river was unreliable.

“When the river is low, you have shoaling and sandbars at the mouth,” says geographer Richard Campanella from the Tulane School of Architecture. “If your ship gets stuck on the sandbars, you have to wait until the river rises.”

Of course, the French were looking for waterways that led from the Gulf Coast to the river. But, it was a land route that made all the difference.

Bayou Road was a high, dry path that connected Bayou St. John with the Mississippi River. The French learned about the path from Native Americans, who had been using it long before any explorers from Europe had arrived.

“Indigenous people figured out that you can come in from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the back bay known as Lake Pontchartrain,” says Campanella, ” you can take your boats up Bayou St. John, and you can disembark roughly where Bell Street meets Moss Street today, and take that slight topographical ridge, and get to the Mississippi River without going up the Mississippi River.”

It was a portage where settlers could carry their supplies from the bayou to the river. Where Bayou Road hit the river became the French Quarter. Today it’s called Gov. Nicholls Street in that area.

“Because of this very slight terrestrial passageway or portage through the swamps and the way it kinked up with Bayou St. John, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Mississippi, unquestionably New Orleans would have been located elsewhere,” says Campanella. “We definitely would have a completely different history and geography to the city of New Orleans. That’s how important Bayou Road is.”

Bayou Road is the reason New Orleans exists where it does. But why does Bayou Road exist? In the map below, follow geographer Richard Campanella as he explains on a tour of Bayou Road from the bayou to the French Quarter.

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