When my parents moved to our area of Gentilly in 1948, I believe it was a brand new area. I remember the drug store and soda fountain, a beauty parlor and a pool hall on one side of the street and a grocery store, dance studio and more on the other side. Things changed over the years, but I was wondering about the original makeup of our little area at St. Roch and Prentiss avenues. I also remember many neighbors parking their cars on the ramp of McDonogh No. 39 for hurricanes, and the cars were not flooded. You should see where the water came up for Katrina! When was the school built?
Your little area has a name: Milneburg. Located between Elysian Fields, Peoples Avenue, Leon C. Simon Drive and Fillmore Avenue is the intersection of St. Roch and Prentiss avenues. The neighborhood has an interesting history.
Alexander Milne was a Scottish footman who came to New Orleans just before the American Revolution in 1776. He started off in hardware, but then turned to making bricks.
A wise choice it was, too. New Orleans needed lots of bricks because it was trying to rebuild after several huge fires. Milne made a fortune and invested it in land along the lakefront and near Bayou St. John all swampland. But he had a vision, and eventually his holdings extended from west of the Jefferson Parish line to the Rigolets and included your neighborhood. No one was interested, however, except fishermen who sailed from along the Gulf coast to Lake Borne and on to the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, and ships carrying freight.
But then came 1829 and the formation of the Pontchartrain Railroad Corporation. This company got permission to build a railroad from the Mississippi River down Elysian Fields Avenue to Lake Pontchartrain. Some of the land was owned by Milne, who was happy to sell. So on April 23, 1831, the railroad opened, with the first train using real horsepower. Its destination was Port Pontchartrain, but Milne convinced the City Council to change the name to Milneburg. The next year, the train was pulled by a steam engine, and freight was moved into the city at a ferocious rate. The port was a success, the railroad was a success, and Milne became quite rich as the value of his property increased.
The railroad company recognized the value of a resort on the lake to city dwellers who wanted to get away from the heat, so the first resort opened in 1831. They built a tavern on a pier, a hotel, three bathhouses, more restaurants, hotels, saloons and camps.
The Civil War brought an abrupt halt to trade and fun as Milneburg became a port of entry for Federal troops and supplies. Even after the war, activity never resumed its former pace. A new railroad running from Mobile, Ala., to New Orleans began operation in 1870, and the port became obsolete.
But city folks kept coming, and they rode the passenger train called Smoky Mary to the beach to enjoy picnics, bathing, fishing and dancing. And a new sound was heard it was called jazz. You can only imagine what it was like to hear the magic performed by Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and Danny Barker. Milneburg was a mecca, and it was immortalized by Jelly Roll Morton, Leon Ropollo and Paul Mares in the famous "Milneburg Joys."
Milneburg closed in 1930 and was replaced by the Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park. Land was reclaimed from the lake upon which was created Lake Terrace and Lake Oaks. Your neighborhood didn't really take off until the period between 1949 and 1965. And it was during this period, in 1951, that McDonogh No. 39 was dedicated at 5800 St. Roch Ave. It was the last school built with money from the McDonogh Fund, and later was renamed Avery C. Alexander Elementary School in honor of the civil rights activist.