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Canal Street

Canal Street

Palace Cafe
Palace Cafe
Astor Crowne Plaza
Astor Crowne Plaza
Harrah's Casino
Harrah's Casino
Canal Streetcars
Canal Streetcars
The Aquarium of the Americas
The Aquarium of the Americas

New Orleans' "Main Street," named for a canal that was never built, Canal Street is the traditional starting point for any tour of New Orleans. Head off in any direction from this downtown hub – including west toward the Mississippi River – and you are bound to see or find something of scenic or historic interest.

In earlier years Canal Street was THE place to go in New Orleans for shopping, dining, entertainment and socializing. Uptown women and their daughters, fashionably dressed all the way down to the elbow-length white gloves, checked out the latest designs at now-defunct department stores with legendary names like Krauss', Maison Blanche, Godchaux's, D.H. Holmes and more. Men did (and still do) their high-end clothes shopping at Rubenstein's and Meyer the Hatter. Theatres like the Saenger brought in live touring Broadway shows while the Loew's State Palace and Joy Cinema theaters offered the latest first-run movies.

Today many of the older Canal Street buildings, including the former Maison Blanche, Godchaux's and D.H. Holmes stores have been converted into top-rated luxury hotels with names like the Ritz Carlton and Astor Crowne Plaza. Other luxury hotels tower over Canal Street, widely regarded as the widest major urban thoroughfare in the nation. Replacing the now-defunct department stores are The Shops at Canal Place in the street's 300 block, which include such nationally renowned fashion retailers as Saks Fifth Avenue and Brooks Brothers, in addition to other high-end jewelry and clothing boutiques.

Canal Street is one block away from the upriver boundary of the French Quarter and the starting point for every major street that runs the length of the French Quarter. It is also the starting point for all the major avenues that run from downtown to uptown and the street that divides north from south in the city street designations.

Canal Street runs from the historic "Cities of the Dead" aboveground cemeteries to the Mississippi River, where a free ferry ride takes you over to historic Algiers Point. Today Canal Street is served along its entire length by a newly restored streetcar system that makes frequent stops near major downtown hotels and at all key cross streets.

A hot spot for fun and action during Mardi Gras, Canal Street has been hosting parades since the very beginning of the local celebration in the mid-1800s. Up to a million people now crowd into every square inch of the parade route to enjoy the festivities for which New Orleans is internationally renowned. During the Christmas Holiday Season, the colorful and imaginative lighting displays along Canal Street downtown have become a major attraction.

History of Canal Street

Canal Street was originally named for a canal that was supposed to have been built to connect the river with another canal that connected to Lake Pontchartrain. The canal was never dug but instead it became the city's main pedestrian and vehicular thoroughfare. Horse-drawn carriages carried the city's well-to-do families to the street's mercantile establishments while many others rode in on hundreds of streetcars coming in from nearly all neighborhoods of New Orleans. Canal Street was the terminus for every major electrified railway line in the city.

The street came to be the dividing line between the neighborhoods of the older Creole and French-descended residents and those of the newer-arriving Americans. From this, the term "neutral ground" came to describe Canal Street and eventually the term was applied to any median strip down the middle of a New Orleans street.

When most commerce came into the city from packet boats traveling down the Mississippi, Canal Street was a bustling thoroughfare with wagons carrying goods to and from the port. Transoceanic ships from nearly all major maritime nations began calling on New Orleans, establishing the city as a center for international commerce and necessitating the need for a Customs House which was built on Canal Street between the early 1840s and 1881. It still stands today, resplendent in its white marble exterior of Egyptian and Greek revival styles and now housing the Audubon Institute Insectarium, the world's largest museum dedicated to everything that walks, crawls or flies and can be classified as a "bug."

To learn more about Canal Street and its history you can order and read Canal Street: New Orleans' Great Wide Way by Peggy Scott Laborde and John Magill (Pelican Publishing, 2006: ISBN 978-1-58980-337-4).

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