In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Lakefront—known then as Milneburg—was a thriving resort destination for New Orleanians
by PATRICK MCDERMOTT
Summer VacationLocals tend to think of the Lakefront as an everyday and convenient spot for recreation. For New Orleanians of the 19th century, however, the Lakefront was an exotic and exciting destination. Aside from typical activities like fishing and swimming, the area was also known for dining, drinking and music. The area known as Milneburg was once a thriving resort spot, drawing travelers and the well-to-do of city society alike.
Alexander Milne came to New Orleans in 1790 a poor Scottish immigrant, but soon became a successful businessman dealing in hardware and brick, an attractive building alternative at a time when fires were all too frequent. With his wealth, he in turn bought up large sections of land along Lake Pontchartrain and Bayou St. John. But the city of New Orleans was still a fair distance from the lake. Without reliable roads or speedy transportation, the area on the lake seemed too far and inaccessible.
This all changed when the Pontchartrain Railroad was completed in the 1830s, connecting New Orleans with the lake. The railroad, which also had Milne’s hand behind it, ran from the French Quarter along what now is Elysian Fields Avenue. The line became known colloquially as the “Smoky Mary,” the name of the train’s steam engine.
The goal for the railroad was to develop Milneburg’s port as a shipping nexus, which already handled cargo traffic from Mobile, Ala. But with visitors and locals now taking the five-mile train ride, a resort community popped up.
Hotels, bathhouses, restaurants and saloons helped give Milneburg resort status, overshadowing the industrial port connotation. Later the area would become famous for music, especially as a spot to hear early jazz. Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and Danny Barker all stopped by to perform there. The area was even commemorated in a song by “Jelly Roll” Morton.
The popularity of Milneburg began to wane by the 1930s. Prohibition, WPA projects and the closing of the train line all contributed to the decline.
Unfortunately, not much of the resort exists today. The Milneburg Lighthouse still stands, although now known as the Port Pontchartrain Lighthouse. The rest only lives on in memory and nostalgia. •