Milneburg, Alexander Milne’s port on Lake Pontchartrain.
‘Winter in the South’ – Article from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, December 1858. Woodcut engraving ‘The Light-House-Lake Pontchartrain’. (h/t Pontchartrain.net)
Milneburg – Port village on Lake Pontchartrain
A short drive or bus ride from downtown out to the campus of the University of New Orleans brings you back to one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, Milneburg. The area is all commercial-use now, but it began as port area, then resort, then an important part of the city’s contribution to the war effort in the 1940s.
The area at Elysian Fields and the Lakefront was swampland when the French established New Orleans near the Mississippi River. The Spanish colonial government, seeing little value in the land, sold it to a Scottish businessman, Alexander Milne. Milne came to New Orleans in 1776, where he started a brick making business. That business became quite profitable after the great fires of 1788 and 1794, when the Spanish ordered the city be rebuilt with brick structures, rather than the wooden ones built by the French. Milne worked to develop his lakefront property, particularly on the eastern side of the city. By 1830, he had encouraged a group of businessmen to form the Pontchartrain Rail-Road Company, which built a five-mile right-of-way, connecting Faubourg Marigny with Milneburg.
Bypassing the Mississippi River
Fishing camps along the lake in Milneburg, 1923 (photo: public domain)
Milne constructed a small port on the lakefront, building a pier which extended out into the lake far enough that ocean-going ships could dock there, and their cargo could be taken by rail to the city. The path from the Gulf of Mexico, through Lake Borgne, to the Rigolets Pass, into Lake Pontchartrain and finally to Milneburg, was attractive to ship captains, since it was faster than coming up to New Orleans from the mouth of the river. To improve safety at the port, the Port Pontchartrain Lighthouse was constructed in 1834.
Theresa Gallagher and her husband, Conrad Freese, at Milneburg, New Orleans c. 1880 – 1890 (Photo: public domain)
Milneburg was the terminus of the Pontchartrain Railroad. The trains ran down what is now Elysian Fields Avenue, to the company’s station at Elysian Fields and Chartres, in the Marigny. The Pontchartrain Railroad operated for over a century.
Quarella’s Restaurant, Mlineburg, 1914 (photo: public domain)
Commercial use of Milneburg boomed during the antebellum years, and continued through the Civil War. The U.S. Navy so totally dominated the Confederate forces in 1862 that New Orleans surrendered without a land battle. Milneburg’s use as a commercial port waned in the late 1800s, but the area continued to be a popular day trip from the city. Saloons, clubs, and restaurants popped up in Milneburg as early as the 1840s. By the 1900s, the area was a network of fishing camps, resorts, and restaurants.
Milneburg also became known for its music. In his biography of Edward “Kid” Ory, Creole Trombone, John McCusker writes of Ory’s memories of busking for tips in Milneburg. Ory and his band would come into the city from LaPlace, and would head out to Milneburg during the day, going from fishing camp to fishing camp, playing for tips. Perhaps it was Ory and his band that influenced a number of Italian-American boys like Sharkey Bonano, who lived in Milneburg to play Jazz. Either way, Jazz stayed in Milneburg even after Ory’s band became well-known and played paying gigs uptown and in Storyville. Younger musicians would ride the “Smokey Mary” (as the Pontchartrain Rail-Road was known locally) out to the resort area, hang out, and play.
Milneburg in 1921 (photo: public domain)
Food and music kept Milneburg popular long after its usefulness as a port had diminished. The railroad continued passenger operations until 1932. When land reclamation projects around Bayou St. John and Spanish Fort pushed Pontchartrain Beach further back from the the lake shore, Harry Batt persuaded the city and the WPA to build bath houses and a beach area at Milneburg. He re-opened Pontchartrain Beach at the end of Elysian Fields in 1939.
NAS New Orleans, Pontchartrain Beach, and Camp Leroy Johnson, 1947. (Photo: courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Milneburg at war
World War II changed the character of Milneburg and the overall lakefront dramatically. The War Department appropriate the land on either side of the amusement park. Naval Air Station New Orleans opened on the western side of Pontchartrain Beach. On the other side, the Army built Camp Leroy Johnson, a supply depot. The aircraft manufacturer, Consolidated Vultee, built an aircraft factory at the end of Franklin Avenue. Consolidated built PBY seaplanes there. The assembly line ended at the lake. The planes rolled right out into the lake for testing.
After the war, the Navy moved the air station down to Belle Chasse. They returned the Lakefront base to the Orleans Levee Board. The OLB leased it to LSU. The school opened Louisiana State University in New Orleans, now UNO. The Army gave back the western section of Camp Leroy Johnson to the OLB. The board developed that parcel into what is now the Lake Oaks subdivision. The Consolidated Vultee aircraft plant on Franklin Avenue became an American Standard factory. The Army also gave the eastern portion of Camp Leroy Johnson back to the state. That area became the University of New Orleans “East Campus.” That parcel is now home to the UNO Lakefront Arena and the Privateer Park baseball stadium. The Department of Defense retained the eastern section of the Army base. It’s now home to the Army and Navy Reserve centers, and the local FBI headquarters.
Milneburg the port was long gone by the end of the 19th Century. Milneburg the resort vanished by World War II. Pontchartrain Beach closed in 1983, so now all that’s left of the original town is the lighthouse. Well, that and “Milneburg Joys.”
Labor Day is considered the traditional end of summer. In New Orleans, that meant it was the last weekend of the year for Pontchartrain Beach, the beloved local amusement park.
Main Gate of the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park, 1929
Pontchartrain Beach opened on the east side of Bayou St. John in 1929. Harry J. Batt, Sr, had observed the highs and lows of the Spanish Fort venues on the other side of the bayou. His family’s ice manufacturing business supplied ice to many lakefront businesses, and Batt decided to start his own amusement park.
At Pontchartrain Beach
Bath House built by the WPA at Pontchartrain Beach
The Great Depression actually gave Pontchartrain Beach a customer base, as locals didn’t have a lot of money to take out of town vacations. Works Progress Administration construction projects helped improve the infrastructure of the city, including a new bath house on Lake Pontchartrain at the end of Elysian Fields. That bath house prompted Harry Batt to move his amusement park from the bayou to Milneburg.
Works Progress Administration badge in the sidewalk at Marigny St. and Gentilly Blvd.
Not only did the WPA build the bath house at the end of Elysian Fields Avenue, but they also improved many streets in Gentilly. The WPA turned Elysian Fields Avenue from a shell road into a 4-lane boulevard with a wide neutral ground, leading right to Pontchartrain Beach.
Because Pontchartrain Beach was a segregated facility that used Federal funds, the city was required to build a “separate but equal” facility for African-Americans, Lincoln Beach, in what is now New Orleans East.
NAS New Orleans, on Lake Pontchartrain
World War II saw a huge amount of development along Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. One of the big facilities on the lake was Naval Air Station New Orleans. It was right next to Pontchartrain Beach. While the base was important to the war effort, it was not very useful for the Cold War. The base is now the main campus of the University of New Orleans.
Margie Johnson Thienemann, 3-June-1949 (Courtesy K. G. Thienemann)
While the Batts traveled the world to find quality rides for The Beach, the mile-long beach area was one of the main attractions. Hanging out on the beach was a great way to relax on a summer weekend. Margie Johnson Thienemann was one of many folks who soaked up the summer sun at the Beach.
The Bali Hai at Pontchartrain Beach
Since food at The Beach was basically carnival-midway fare, the Batts also operated the Bali Hai, a “Tiki” restaurant next to the amusement park.
New Orleans Holocaust Memorial, along the Riverfront (photo courtesy Ari Bronstein)
I don’t know of a direct New Orleans connection to Elie Wiesel, but his passing should be noted by the city where the National World War II Museum is located. From the New York Times:
Mr. Wiesel, a charismatic lecturer and humanities professor, was the author of several dozen books. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But he was defined not so much by the work he did as by the gaping void he filled. In the aftermath of the Germans’ systematic massacre of Jews, no voice had emerged to drive home the enormity of what had happened and how it had changed mankind’s conception of itself and of God. For almost two decades, the traumatized survivors — and American Jews, guilt-ridden that they had not done more to rescue their brethren — seemed frozen in silence.
When my younger son was between his freshmen and sophomore years at Brother Martin High School, the “great read” for that summer was Wiesel’s incredible work, Night. I have a serious block when it comes to Holocause literature and movies. I took World History in my sophomore year with the legendary “Uncle Pat” Schayot. Mr. Schayot showed us some of the US Army Signal Corps films of the army’s entry into the concentration camps. Nothing I’ve seen or read has quite topped the horror of the reality, and that includes “Schindler’s List”. So, when the school suggested Night, I demurred, with my usual plea of PTSD.
Night by Elie Wiesel
One positive thing to come out of viewing that primary source material: I have NO PATIENCE for Holocaust deniers of any stripe! Revisionist history of the worst kind! It’s not even good conspiracy-theory stories. With the uptick in white supremacist noise and foolishness in the wake of Mr. Trump’s campaign, we can all learn something from Mr. Wiesel’s story.
RIP, Mr. Wiesel. I’ll read Night this week, in your honor and memory.
This week’s Maroon Monday takes us back to World War II.
Maison Blanche ad from the Loyola Maroon, October 27, 1944.
October, 1944 – The Allies invaded Europe in June of that year, and the war in the Pacific was still hot and heavy. Still, Loyola University continued its mission, educating the men and women still at home in the United States. The Loyola Maroon, the student newspaper, still went to press. Even students needed to have a “business dress” wardrobe, for school functions, social events, etc.
“Definitely collegiate” the ad says, and that makes sense. Wool herringbone pattern fabric made for a more laid-back suit than, say, classic blue serge. Herringbone tweed is the classic “professor’s” sport coat. When I was on the Brother Martin High debate team in the mid-1970s, I absolutely loved my wool-herringbone suit. It was a dark green, and just perfect for scholarly pursuits like speech and debate. The ad’s suggestions show the level of formality of the time. Wearing a suit to “spectator sports?”
Naturally, the collegiate looking for a suit in 1944 would head to Canal Street for a suit. He’d likely pass on the higher-end men’s shops, like Porter’s or Rubenstein’s, in favor of one of the big department stores, like D. H. Holmes or Maison Blanche.
MB knew their prices would be better suited to the student budget. The young man in need of such a suit could jump on the St. Charles streetcar, ride it from uptown to Canal Street, and walk from Carondelet and Canal, cross Canal Street, then head one block up Canal to Dauphine and Maison Blanche. The men’s department of the “Greatest Store South” was on the first floor. The young man would be greeted by a salesman who would take his measurments, grab the suit that caught his eye in the proper size, and then mark it up for the tailor. It would be ready in a few days, and he would be ready for that next football game, or on-campus social function.
As a writer, this triggers all sorts of inspiration for a story. A young man, at MB, buying a suit, while other young men his age are in France and Belgium, fighting the Nazis. Why was he home? Why wasn’t he in a plane over Europe, or in a Higgins Boat, landing on islands in the Pacific, fighting the Japanese? Oh, the possibilities…
Maison Blanche Department Stores, by Edward J. Branley
For more on the fascinating history of Maison Blanche, be sure to pick up my book, Maison Blanche Department Stores.
NOPSI 830 on Bourbon at St. Peter, 1947. (Courtesy the Thelma Hecht Coleman Memorial Collection, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries)
This weekend is the annual Tennessee Williams Festival, and tomorrow will be the festival’s “Stella” yelling contest, conjuring the spirit of “Streetcar Named Desire” in the streets of New Orleans. “Desire” was a metaphor to Williams, but the Desire streetcar line was real, and an important route, tying the Upper Ninth Ward to the rest of the city.
Signbox for a 900-series arch roof streetcar. “DESIRE” sign made for the box by Earl Hampton.
Tennessee Williams (courtesy of Hotel Monteleone)
Tennessee Williams, relaxing at the Hotel Monteleone, 1950s.
“Why, they told me to take a streetcar named Desire and then transfer to one called Cemetery and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields.”
722 Toulouse Street
When Tennessee Williams arrived in New Orleans in 1938, he took a room here, at 722 Toulouse Street. Now it’s the offices of the Historic New Orleans Collection. WGNO “News with a Twist” did a great spot on the house this week.
Royal Street in Faubourg Marigny, 1951 (Franck photo courtesy HNOC)
The streetcar tracks are gone in this 1951 photo of Royal Street in the Marigny, but it’s a good idea of what riders of the Desire line saw on their way into town.
Looking down N. Tonti at Pauline Street, 1947 (Franck photo courtesy HNOC)
Looking up N. Tonti at Pauline Street, 1946 (Franck photo courtesy HNOC)
Two views of the Upper Ninth Ward from 1946 and 1947. These shots of N. Tonti Street at Pauline are a good illustration of the houses and buildings in the neighborhood serviced by the Desire line.
NORTA 29, the last Ford, Bacon, and Davis streetcar. (Edward Branley photo)
The first streetcars to run on the Desire line were single-truck Ford, Bacon, and Davis cars. NORTA 29 (ex-NOPSI 29) is the last FB&D streetcar.
NOPSI 888, running on the Desire Line, 1947 (Franck photo courtesy HNOC)
The 800- and 900-series arch roof streetcars operated on the Desire line from 1923, until its discontinuance in 1948.
NOPSI Bus on Dauphine, 1954 (Franck photo courtesy HNOC)
The streetcar tracks were ripped up in 1948, and “A Bus Named Desire” took over bringing commuters to and from the Ninth Ward to Canal Street.
The Streetcars of New Orleans, by Hennick and Charlton, 1964 (amazon link)
From 2002, a US Navy photo of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) rendering honors to the USS Arizona Memorial. The battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) is moored behind the location of the Arizona, which was sunk on 7-December, 1941, in the surprise attack by Japanese naval and air forces on the navy base at Pearl Harbor and the adjacent air base, Hickam Field.
Navy photo of a model of the USS Arizona Memorial, showing the sunken wreck of the battleship.