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.”
Prytania and Fourth in the Garden District. WPA photo from the 1930s. The entry in the LOUIS database is amusing for the Lafitte reference:
B&W photo, date unknown. An Antebellum mansion in the New Orleans, Louisiana Garden District. Also known as the “cornstalk fence” house. Written on photo: This antebellum mansion is a grand example of the opulence of the sugar boon before the Civil War. This wrought-iron fence is famous for its corn stalk design. Local legend says that Jean Lafitte forged this iron work in his blacksmith shop which was located on the corner of Prytania and Fourth Streets.
The contrast between the architecture of the French Quarter and the Garden District is stark. The Quarter has lovely houses whose courtyards and interiors rise to the same level of opulence as these large homes in the Garden District. The Spanish/Moorish design hides that opulence behind large walls facing the streets. You have to get past the wall and gatehouse and enter the courtyard, then you realize you’ve stepped into a place of elegance. The walls conceal the beauty from passersby on the street.
There were many reasons the Anglo-Irish chose to settle into neighborhoods upriver from Canal Street. House design was one of them. The neighborhood is very British. Big front lawns, Most of the houses have low fences that allow those walking by to admire the lawn and garden. The homes display the owner’s tastes for all to see. There is a good mix of house types in this area. Some shotguns and creole cottages pop up on the smaller lots, but the big houses are, for the most part, English-influenced.
There so many wonderful stories about these homes. A guided tour of the Garden District is great, so you can learn some of the stories behind the houses. Grey or Loki can tell you all about it if you book one of their tours.
1841 New Orleans color engraving. “New Orleans. – Taken from the Opposite Side a Short Distance above the Middle or Picayune Ferry.”
1841 New Orleans – The nation’s second city
I spent Sunday researching Krauss stuff, and came across an engraving that was used by an author writing about the Jewish community in New Orleans. It was a lovely scene of 1841 New Orleans, drawn from across the river in Algiers. Since some of the buildings on the other side of the river are fuzzy, I put the article up on the “Ain’t There No More” group on Facebook. It’s a great group of folks, who like to help out. I received a great response. My friend Carlos “Froggy” May came right back with a link to the Commons. It was a link to a color engraving of a similar scene.
So, it turns out that the black and white sketch I found was drawn by someone named A. Mondelli. Then the sketch was then turned into a color engraving by William J. Bennet, and published by Henry I. Megarey of New York.
Here’s Froggy’s entry in the Commons for this engraving:
View looking from Algiers (probably about where Mardi Gras World is now) looking across the Mississippi River. On river are a variety of sailing ships, steam ships, row-boats, and a flatboat. Across the river is the skyline of the “American Quarter” of New Orleans, with the dome of the first St. Charles Hotel prominent just left of center. The French Quarter to the right is mostly obscured by ships, but the towers of St. Louis Cathedral can be recognized behind ships’ rigging near the right edge. In the foreground along the river batture are seen, left to right: two men in top-hats and prosperous outfits of the time with a dog; a small group of African Americans (likely slaves), both men and women, working taking soil from the river edge and putting it in wheel-barrows (presumably building up the high-water levee a short distance inland); two white men in working garb seated on a log with barrels; two large metal anchors; and two men moving a small sailboat which is tied to a post on the bature (presumably either about to put it back in the water or almost finished dragging it on land).
The original sketch
the original A. Mondelli sketch
Here’s the original sketch. While the color engraving keeps the spirit of the orginal, I love that Mr. Bennett did not simply colorize the sketch. He let a bit of time lapse. Notice that the flatboat in the river is now past the domed building on the east bank. The artist stands a bit to the left, which reveals the robust shipping traffic along the river at this time.
New Orleans before the Civil War
This scene depicts typical river traffic from the antebellum period. Most coastal and trans-Atlantic ships still used wind power. We start to see larger steam-powered ships in the 1840s. New Orleans at this time was a bustling port, tying the South to Baltimore and New York City, as well as Havana and Europe. Ocean-going ships docked at New Orleans, then steamboats took the cargo from Europe into the center of the United States. The need to transfer cargo, first to riverboats, later to trains, was critical, and it’s why the Union took seriously the capture of the city at the beginning of the Civil War.
I’m sure others end up down these oooh-shiny rabbit holes as well. I started out looking at a bill of lading for bales of cotton and end up reading about a Jewish cotton factor who was a leader in the community. Any connection to the city’s Jewish community naturally leads me back to looking for connections to the Krauss family, for my book on their department store. One thing to another to another and I’m through the looking glass.
The New Orleans Riverfront, antebellum
Not that I’m complaining, mind you, this is a lovely little engraving. The illustrator is on the west bank of the river, looking back at the city. The spires are a bit indistinct. The one on the left could be St. Patrick’s. The number of churches visible indicates this is a view that is uptown from Canal Street. I’ll edit this post after I put it up on the ATNM group, to see if anyone can make more sense of those church spires than I.
The traffic on the river is a typical mix. on the left, heading downriver, is a small schooner. In the middle of the river (and the engraving) is a flatboat. He appears to be going upriver, but it’s more likely that the boat is trying to simply cross the river. The current would make it difficult for such a craft to travel far upriver, so the man on the tiller is likely trying to make his way from one side to the other. The main ship in the scene is a two-masted brig. This is a typical sort of ship you would see making coastal runs along the Gulf Coast, to Havana, and possibly up to Baltimore or New York. On the right side, we see several vessels at anchor on the west bank.
From 1836, an illustration by G. W. Sully of the riverfront in Faubourg Marigny. You can see the station for the Pontchartrain Railroad on the left side of the illustration. The railroad was chartered in 1830, and began operations in 1831, so this was just five years into its existence. The purpose of the Pontchartrain Railroad was to connect the city, specifically, Faubourg Marigny, Faubourg Treme, and the French Quarter. Alexander Milne developed the area at what is now Elysian Fields Avenue and the lake into a port district, which became known as Milneburg. In addition to coming up the Mississippi River, much of the city’s ocean-going ship traffic came to New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico, through the Chef Menteur Pass or the Rigolets Pass, into Lake Pontchartrain. Once in the lake, the larger ships were unable to go down Bayou St. John and the Carondelet Canal. Milneburg made it easier for the ships, since all they had to do was dock on the lakefront.
New Orleans’ First Railroad
The only catch was that the city was five miles away! The solution was simple, though, build a railroad. The planning/discussions for the railroad began in 1828. The first train, pulled by horses, left the station on April 14, 1831. Steam locomotives took over for animal power in June of 1832. This connection was a major path for commerce and goods up to the Civil War. After the war, as rail service to New Orleans began to expand, the Pontchartrain Railroad was acquired by larger rail concerns.
Sail to Steam
Notice that, in this illustration, the vessels are all powered by sail. That would change dramatically, as larger ships were constructed with steam engines and side paddlewheels, to speed up the journey from New Orleans to Havana, and various ports in along the American coast and Europe. These heavier ships were unable to use the passes into Lake Pontchartrain. This cut back on the shipping traffic docking at Milneburg, and the railroad no longer transported the goods it once did. Like many port areas, Milneburg became more of a recreational area than commercial, and the railroad then began to carry more passengers than goods. In the 1830s, though, it was all about commerce.
From Queen of the South, 1853-1862, the journal of Thomas K. Wharton. Captains of Mississippi riverboats overloaded their steamers, then bragged about it, as you can see here, The Henry Frank carries 9226 bales of cotton, arriving at New Orleans from upriver. Upon arrival at New Orleans, the riverboats were unloaded, and the cargo transferred to oceangoing vessels.
Cotton was exported from the Southern plantations to textile mills up the Atlantic coast, and to Great Britain. This is why “cotton was king” in New Orleans and across the South in the mid-19th Century. It’s the main crop that sustained the institution of slavery in the United States. The planters drove their slaves to pic the cotton and bale it for transport. The riverboat captains took great risks to get that valuable cargo to the second largest port in the country. Only New York was a larger port than the Crescent City. Steam power made Mississippi Riverboats an important part of commerce.
But here’s the catch with moving such large numbers of cotton bales–fire! That stuff burns! So many flammable goods came together on the Mississippi River levee at New Orleans. While the fires of the late 18th Century wiped out large portions of the city, the threat of fire didn’t go away just because the Spanish used brick and stone to rebuild. Wharton notes in his journal that there were many waterfront fires in the city. Still, King Cotton moved out to New England and Great Britain.
IPEVO document camera
I’ve been experiementing with this IPEVO document camera a bit. It’s going to be solid for lectures where I need to show a book, but as a copy camera, it’s a bit weak. I’m going to look at getting a document/book mount for my digital SLR for going up to UNO and exploring the Krauss archives. I haven’t assessed that stuff yet, but the archivist told me a lot of what they have is in scrapbooks. I’m not going to be able to get those onto a flatbed scanner, so I’ll come at it from the top!