The rise and fall of fishing camp culture in New Orleans
Once upon a time, the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain consisted of so much unused swampland. Then, in 1831, the Pontchartrain Railroad began running, covering the five miles from Faubourg Marigny to the lakefront village known as Milneberg. In addition to becoming a booming entertainment district, as well as a cradle for the burgeoning art form of jazz, Milneburg by 1900 had spawned a sprawling colony of fishing camps built on piers over the lake. In its heyday, and well into the 20th century, hundreds of camps lined the shoreline along the lakefront, offering locals a taste of escape from the city and — given the lack of beaches in south Louisiana — giving rise to a uniquely New Orleans form of weekend and summer retreat.
While fishing camps still proliferate on the north shore of the lake and along various South Louisiana bayous, the days of camp life on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans proper — just a 15-minute drive from downtown — ended in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the last of the camps there, finishing a demolition job started by 1998’s Hurricane Georges. Where an assortment of camps once lined the shores, all that was left after the storms were naked pilings, open water and wistful memories of a bygone era.
- By the 1920s, Milneberg — or “Milenberg,” as locals pronounced it — fell victim to plans by the Orleans Parish Levee Board to build a new seawall on the lakefront. But that didn’t mean the end of the camps. Those located between present-day West End and the Industrial Canal were relocated eastward, stretching along Hayne Boulevard from what is today Downman Road to Little Woods.
- Many of the camps along Hayne boasted colorful names, including such monikers as Dude’s Rest, Petticoat Junction, Two Crabs, Gris Gris and White’s Castle.
- Gov. Huey P. Long reportedly frequented a camp along Hayne Boulevard, as did mayors Robert Maestri and Chep Morrison, and the colorful local restaurateur “Diamond” Jim Moran.
- Also owning a lakefront camp was the family of Cathy Campanella, the author of the photo-filled nonfiction book “Lake Pontchartrain.” Its name: Camp-a-Nella. In a 2007 interview with The Times-Picayune, she remembered camp life: “As the sun would go down, we’d fish off the back walk, we’d pull in croaker after croaker, trout and redfish. And we’d put out crab traps and haul them in. We had boiled crabs every night, stuffed crabs, marinated crabs, crab salad, even fried hard-shell crabs.”
- South shore fishing camps have hosted presidents and kings — or at least one of each. The president was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who once reportedly visited a Little Woods camp. The king was Elvis Presley, who filmed parts of his 1958 movie “King Creole” at a Hayne Boulevard camp.
- According to a 1981 story in The Times-Picayune, the people drawn to the camps tended to be of the more humble variety, including many 9th Ward residents. “That’s because they were close and because they were the kind of people that liked that kind of thing,” camp regular Dorothy Hanafy said. “Uptown was always supposed to be snootier. The camps were considered the classiest way to socialize.”
- By 1981, The Times-Picayune estimated there were then 105 camps along Hayne, with another 40 in Little Woods. By 1998, an estimated 70 camps remained along Hayne, and 25 in Little Woods.
- Of the Hayne camps, only six survived Hurricane Georges. Twenty survived in Little Woods. After 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, only one camp was left along the entire stretch.
- After Katrina, federal cleanup efforts included plucking the old pilings that once supported the fishing camps there out of the lake bed, erasing what was left of the once-thriving subculture.
If the Mississippi River can be considered New Orleans’ front door, then Lake Pontchartrain can be considered its back porch, its swimming hole and a detached kitchen all wrapped up in one. For generations, locals on both the north and south shores have been drawn to the lake, whether for its cool breezes, its bounty of seafood or to spend time relaxing out on the water. While locals are still very much connected to the lake, camp culture — at least in New Orleans proper — has largely faded into memory, just one more entry on that ever-growing list of things that “ain’t there no more.”