1901: The first salvo in New Orleans’ war on potholes
New Orleans’ struggle to maintain its roads goes back almost to the city’s founding. Such is life in the swamp. But on April 29, 1901, that struggle entered the modern era when Odd Fellows Hall in New Orleans played host to a statewide Good Roads Convention, part of the national Good Roads Movement. Much of the discussion dealt with improving country roads to help farmers get their wares to city markets, but in his welcoming remarks to the delegates, Gov. W.W. Heard displayed a certain amount of foresight, saying, “The recent invention of the horseless vehicle, which has but preceded the marvelous discoveries of the fuel oils in this immediate vicinity, … looms up as another incentive for road improvement.” For all intents and purposes, New Orleans’ war on potholes had begun.
The potholes are still winning, much to the consternation of the city’s residents, who have been known to name, decorate and even party inside particularly large potholes or those they feel haven’t been filled quickly enough by the city’s Public Works Department. By its own estimate, the city filled more than 360,000 potholes — that’s more than a third of a million — from 2011 to 2016.
- The Good Roads Movement was started by cyclists but took on new urgency with the introduction of the automobile — and yet even more urgency with the 1908 introduction of the mass-produced Model-T Ford, which led to the proliferation of cars in America.
- In summer 1901, the Fair Grounds were the site of a 4th of July Festival. In addition to fireworks, the featured attractions include automobile races that were billed as the first in the South, according to an ad in The Daily Picayune.
- On Dec. 29, 1902, the Automobile Club of New Orleans was founded. According to coverage of the club’s inaugural meeting in The Daily Picayune, it was the first automobile club south of Ohio.
- In addition to offering to dispatch cars to help the owners of skittish horses get their animals accustomed to the sight of automobiles, officials with the Automobile Club also expressed an interest in road improvement at that first meeting. “These clubs have done more towards securing good country roads than any other agency throughout the States,” an unnamed club member was quoted as having said.
- In 2007, during the administration of Mayor Ray Nagin, the city bought two “pothole killer” machines that the city said is capable of filling as many as 50,000 potholes a year.
- What is arguably largest pothole on record in New Orleans opened up in April 2016, when an unused tunnel near the foot of Canal Street collapsed in on itself, opening up a 600-square-foot hole that took a month and a half to repair. Technically, it was referred to as “the Canal Street sinkhole” — but, after all, what is a sinkhole but a pothole with ambitions?
- Know of a New Orleans pothole that needs fixing? Report it by calling the city at 311 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. from any phone based in New Orleans.
For well more than a century, potholes have been a fact of life in New Orleans. If you live here, you’ve got one of two choices: You can get angry about them, or you can do like a group of Irish Channel residents who in September used a giant neighborhood crater as the site of a “pothole party.” In a spring 2016 interview with Garden & Gun magazine, none other than actor Matthew McConaughey — a frequent visitor to and outspoken appreciator of New Orleans — outed himself as an adherent of the latter approach. “Part of me hopes that they don’t fix the potholes,” McConaughey said. “In the South, it’s actually built in — you have to take your time. As for the roads in New Orleans, you go too fast, and you’ll burn your lap with coffee and your shocks will be gone. You know what I mean? Just take your time.”