James Gallier Sr. and the Sinking of the Evening Star

On Friday, May 20, at 6 p.m. the Gallier Historic House will host a free public lecture by historian Sally Asher about the 1866 sinking of the Evening Star, a luxury steamship en route from New York to New Orleans that encountered a hurricane off the coast of South Carolina. Of the nearly 300 passengers, an estimated 24 survived, making the maritime disaster one of the most deadly prior to the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Fatalities included noted New Orleans architect James Gallier Sr. and his second wife, Catherine Maria Robinson, along with a French opera troupe, a circus company from New York, and dozens of trafficked prostitutes destined to work New Orleans’ brothels. Public reaction and newspaper accounts of the era elicited both sympathy and scorn for those who died at sea.

A federal investigation into the shipwreck concluded that Captain William Knapp could have averted the Atlantic storm. He was further faulted for an understaffed crew that lacked proper training in rescue operations. One prominent preacher, noting the large number of prostitutes on board, stated the ship was destined to sink since it was “loaded down with iniquity.”

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Portrait of James Gallier Sr., attributed to Charles Octavius Cole, courtesy of the Louisiana State Museum.

James Gallier Sr. was considered the preeminent architect of 19th-century New Orleans. His commissions included Gallier Hall, the St. Charles Hotel (destroyed by fire in 1851), and St. Patrick’s Church. His son, James Gallier Jr., became a renowned architect in his own right. He designed his French Quarter residence, ca. 1860, at 1132 Royal Street (site of the lecture). It was acquired in 1996 by The Woman’s Exchange and operates as a house museum in partnership with the Hermann-Grima House.

Asher discovered the largely forgotten story of the Evening Star while conducting research for her book, Stories from the St. Louis Cemeteries of New Orleans (2015, The History Press). The book chronicles both the notable and the notorious who are memorialized at the three archdiocesan “cities of the dead,” including the Galliers whose grave marker is etched with the following epitaph: “They were lost in the Steamer Evening Star which foundered on the voyage from New York to New Orleans, October 3, 1866.”

Asher is a writer and photographer living in New Orleans. Her first book, Hope & New Orleans: A History of Crescent City Street Names, was published by The History Press in 2014. She is currently at work on a book about Prohibition in New Orleans to be published by LSU Press in 2017. Asher has a master’s degree in English and liberal arts (with a concentration in history) from Tulane University. She regularly lectures on New Orleans history though the Louisiana State Museum. Her photography has appeared in many local, national and international media outlets, including Newsweek, U.S. World News, and New Orleans magazine. She has been the public relations photographer for Tulane since 2008.

The Woman’s Exchange purchased the Hermann-Grima House in 1924 and acquired the Gallier House in 1996. Their mission is to continue the legacy of the Christian Woman’s Exchange, established in 1881, by restoring and maintaining the houses and interpreting their contribution to and place in New Orleans. Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic Houses are a leading authority on historic preservation, offering educational, entertaining and interactive programming in the French Quarter.

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