We’re keeping things lakeside for the time being here at Lagniappe and Other Essentials. Maybe it’s the winter weather up in my neck of the woods, but I’ve found myself daydreaming lately about watching a spectacular Lake Pontchartrain sunset on some balmy New Orleans evening. Since I touched on the West End and New Canal Lighthouse briefly in my last post, this week’s post will highlight a historic New Orleans neighborhood that would have been especially nice on just such an evening: Milneburg.
Pronounced Mill-en-burg, this over-the-water development started out as a port championed by developer Alexander Milne. As mentioned in the previous post on New Orleans’ transportation canals, access to the lake provided an important shortcut for East/West shipping along the gulf coast. In 1830, work began on a railroad to connect the river and the lake. The Pontchartrain Railroad, which ran in the neutral ground of Elysian Fields Avenue, utilized horse-drawn carriages until 1832, when it became the South’s first steam locomotive powered railway. Tracks extended over the lake on a long pier to aid in the quick unloading of large ships docked at the new Port Pontchartrain.
Various temporary lighthouses marked the end of the pier, 2,100 feet from shore, until a permanent lighthouse, funded by the federal government, was completed in 1855. Shooting off from the pier, businesses catering to sailors and the shipping industry were built over the water. Though commercial shipping going through Port Pontchartrain began to decline at the end of the nineteenth century, the easy access to the lake that the railroad provided made the Milneburg pier a popular destination for recreation, especially on warm summer evenings. In addition to the saloons and hotels branching off from the pier, private camps and rental houses were also constructed over the water, connected via a web of raised walkways.
It was as a resort that Milneburg made its most lasting contribution to New Orleans. The camps at Milneburg were one of several important locations for the communication of jazz across the color line. Though segregated, the dancehalls, saloons, and rented camps were so densely packed in along the waterfront that it would have been impossible for musicians to avoid hearing each other. Milneburg became one of the few venues where white and black musicians could learn from, and compete with, each other directly, thus allowing for the transmission of early jazz to white musicians and audiences. In 1923, integrated jazz bands were still virtually nonexistent, but in that year in Chicago, Leon Roppolo and Paul Mares of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings engaged in a rare and historic collaboration with Jelly Roll Morton. The pair had sought out Morton after a stretch of playing in New York, and hoped that the sessions with Morton in Chicago would help them to capture the “hot” sound coming out of New Orleans. In the session that followed, the trio wrote and recorded “Milneburg Joys,” commemorating the area’s contribution to early jazz. The session was one of the first in which black and white musicians were recorded together, and the song remains a standard in New Orleans music.
A land expansion project in the 1930s buried Milneburg as it pushed the boundary of New Orleans northward into the lake. Ridership on the Pontchartain Railroad (with its antique steam engine nicknamed “Smokey Mary” by locals) had been declining as more New Orleanians purchased cars, and the last passenger run for the railway was in 1932. For the next three years the railroad hauled earth and materials for the land building project that would make it obsolete. In the late 1930s, the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park was relocated from its original Bayou St. John location to the historic location of Milneburg, where it remained until closing in 1983. Today, the only vestige of the past in Milneburg is its old lighthouse, once located at the end of a long pier, now about one hundred yards inland from the shore.