From horses to corpses: How Metairie Race Course became Metairie Cemetery
Founded in 1838, Metairie Race Course — established on a high-and-dry ridge along Bayou Metairie (now Metairie Road) — was for decades among the premiere horse tracks in the South, and one of the most revered in the country. With a one-mile track and a grandstand that was by all accounts just that — grand — it was a local social mecca. But when the track fell on hard times in the years following the Civil War, its owners had no choice but to sell. Among the new owners: the wealthy Charles T. Howard, who, it is said, had been previously refused entry in the Metairie Jockey Club as a non-Creole — and a Republican, to boot. The spurned Howard had the last laugh, though. He was a board member of the group that purchased the facility in 1872 — and laid the track to rest once and for all by converting it into a cemetery.
Metairie Race Course is long gone, but a key trace of it can still be found around the cemetery — literally. The original racing oval was incorporated into the design of the cemetery by architect Benjamin Morgan Harrod, serving as the outermost of the concentric ovals at its heart. Although cross-streets, lagoons and landscaping disguise it from the ground, the original oval is unmissable from above.
- Metairie Cemetery isn’t in the Jefferson Parish community of Metairie. Rather, “metairie” comes from a French word that was used to refer the tenant farms, and the high-lying land on which they were established, dating to the 1700s.
- Naturally, Howard is buried in Metairie Cemetery, but so are a legion of notable New Orleanians, including seven governors, six mayors and nearly 50 former kings of Carnival.
- After he died on an 1889 visit to New Orleans, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis was interred in a Metairie Cemetery tumulus built for Civil War veterans by the benevolent association of the Army of Northern Virginia, Louisiana Division. Davis’ remains were later moved to a permanent grave in Richmond, Va.
- Others buried in Metairie Cemetery include former Gov. P.B.S. Pinchback, the first man of color to serve as a U.S. governor; noted World War II boat building Andrew Higgins; musicians Al Hirt and Louis Prima; Major League Baseball Hall-of-Famer Mel Ott; Popeye’s fried chicken magnate Al Copeland; and famed Storyville madam Josie Arlington, who was once eternal neighbors with former Mayor Martin Behrman, who closed Storyville. (After her grave become a tourist attraction, Arlington’s remains were reportedly moved to an undisclosed site elsewhere in the cemetery.)
- Plots in the cemetery’s inner-most oval were sold to some of the city’s wealthiest residents, leading to its nickname: “Millionaire’s Row.”
- On April 1, 1854, during the track’s heyday, former U.S. President Millard Fillmore attended a high-profile stakes race there pitting horses from Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama. Known as the “North Against the South” race, it was a big enough deal to garner national media attention.
- During the Civil, the race course became Camp Walker, a Confederate training camp. The camp was abandoned when Union forces took control of the city in 1862.
Thanks to the high water table, New Orleans has become known for its unique above-ground cemeteries. Of them all, however, Metairie Cemetery stands out not just for its colorful history but for its astonishing collection of architecture and the overall artistry on display in its tombs. There’s the Story family memorial, a replica of Rome’s Temple of Vesta. There’s the Egan family plot, which re-creates a Gothic Irish ruin. There’s one that looks like a bridge. One that looks like an Egyptian pyramid. A Moorish tower, a ship’s bell — the list goes on. If nothing else, the race course’s resurrection as a de facto outdoor art museum suggests that maybe there is such a thing as reincarnation after all.