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New Orleans and the bicentennial that wasn't

The 100-year celebration didn't go so well

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"New Orleans will conduct a celebration that will send its echoes around the world," runs the lead of a 1917 Times-Picayune story announcing plans for the city's bicentennial celebration. Drawing on materials that recently had surfaced in French archives," the story said, city planners had pegged the date of the city's founding as Feb. 9, 1718 — coincidentally, the bicentennial would be the Saturday before Mardi Gras.

  Much was planned for a multi-day bicentennial celebration that would host governors, mayors and the U.S. ambassador to France. Festivities were to begin with the arrival of a replica of the French ship Neptune, which allegedly carried New Orleans' earliest European inhabitants, at the Place d'Armes — today's Jackson Square — at "10 o'clock in the forenoon." Other celebrations included a military salute to the flag of France, a parade to New Orleans City Park, a 1718-era costume ball at the ill-fated French Opera House at Bourbon and Toulouse streets (it burned down in 1919) and the presentation of a key to the city to the Duke of Orleans on Lundi Gras.

  But the bicentennial became mired in a familiar swamp of logistical and circumstantial issues. As The Times-Picayune reported, bicentennial committee planners shifted the celebration's date forward by two months to complete a restoration of St. Louis Cathedral and to offer French officials additional time to travel.

  In the meantime, the U.S. entered World War I and it became apparent that a celebration of this scale would be difficult to execute in wartime and not in the proper taste. In an editorial that ran the same day as a news story headlined "NO BICENTENNIAL CELEBRZATION (sic) UNTIL THE WAR IS OVER," The Times-Picayune noted, "It was not patriotic to hold a festival at this time, when we are engaged in so gigantic a struggle, and when so many Orleanians are absent from their city in the service of their country and unable to take part in the ceremonies."

  Most Mardi Gras celebrations also were canceled that year.

  Little was left of plans to salute the city's 200th anniversary, and celebrations largely were symbolic. A last-minute celebration was planned for Dec. 20 at the Cabildo, featuring appearances by Louisiana civic and business leaders, the French consul and Archbishop John W. Shaw as well as music and more. But it's not clear if this more subdued party actually happened. No record of it survives in the paper.

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