New Orleans enthusiasts will find that much of the city’s rich history remains encased in the distinct neighborhoods of the city’s past and present. One such area is Milneburg, one of the oldest in New Orleans and once an active commercial and industrial center. But today, this area looks vastly different compared to its social heyday, memorialized by the still-standing Milneburg Lighthouse on the campus of the University of New Orleans.
Milneburg began as an area of swampland where Elysian Fields Ave meets Lake Pontchartrain. Scottish land developer Alexander Milne purchased the tract of land that would later bear his name from the Spanish colonial government, which at the time didn’t consider the marshland to be of any value.
Milne developed the neighborhood in part through profits from his brick-making business. That business’ success had catapulted after major fires in 1788, and 1794 prompted the Spanish government to have the city rebuilt with brick buildings rather than wood, as the French had originally constructed them.
By 1830, Milne approached a group of businessmen to join him in founding the Pontchartrain Rail-Road Company, which constructed the Pontchartrain Rail-Road, known locally as “Smoky Mary.” The five-mile Smoky Mary railroad connected Milneburg to the Faubourg Marigny, a neighborhood just east of the French Quarter.
Milne also built a small port and pier along the lakefront, which created a new and easier path for ship captains transporting goods and people to New Orleans. In 1834, the Port Pontchartrain Lighthouse, also known as the Milneburg Lighthouse, became another new lakefront feature and boosted port safety.
Milneburg grew as a commercial hub during the antebellum period and through the Civil War, especially as a day trip destination for those who wanted a break from the city. By the 1840s, the area saw an influx of restaurants, clubs, and saloons to support business growth at the port.
But as Milneburg’s days as a commercial port came to an end in the late 1800s, the neighborhood evolved into a series of fishing camps and resorts. These establishments thrived alongside the community’s dynamic restaurant and entertainment scene, where jazz music particularly flourished. And when land reclamation projects relocated the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park to Elysian Fields, those day trips to Milneburg and “The Beach” became even more common.
However, Milneburg’s character and façade changed significantly with the arrival of World War II. The Army and Navy claimed land on both sides of the amusement park for military bases and supply depots, particularly aircraft manufacturing. However, the military groups relocated their operations from Milneburg following the war.
The University of New Orleans (UNO)—previously Louisiana State University in New Orleans—and the Lake Oaks subdivision in the Lakeview neighborhood now stand where Milneburg used to lie. The federal government still owns part of the old neighborhood as well, which now houses FBI and Army Reserve facilities.
The Milneburg Lighthouse remains on the UNO campus, preserved for posterity within the university’s Research and Technology Park, nearly two centuries later. Today, Milneburg refers to a specific subdistrict of the Gentilly neighborhood slightly south and inland of the original historic town.