When Smoky Mary was queen of the Pontchartrain Railroad
On April 23, 1831, the Pontchartrain Railroad made its first run down the middle of Elysian Fields Avenue from the riverfront to the Lakefront town of Milneburg, which was later absorbed into New Orleans. This journey of about 5 miles came a year after the company got its charter as the first railroad west of the Alleghenies. The first cars were horse-drawn. Steam power came in June 1832, but steam-propelled cars shared the right-of-way with horse-drawn cars until 1861, when the last horse-powered car was phased out. The train, which carried passengers and freight, got its nickname from the sooty exhaust the steam engine belched forth, forming a black film on passengers’ clothing. Despite that nuisance, the train sparked a boom in Milneburg: A pier was built for ocean-going ships, and hotels, saloons and bathhouses were set up for New Orleanians seeking fun, entertainment and lake-borne breezes during torrid summers.
Smoky Mary’s last passenger run was on March 15, 1932, after Milneburg’s resorts were closed for a land-reclamation project. Freight runs stopped in 1935. The last remnant of Smoky Mary is a milepost on the Elysian Fields Avenue neutral ground near North Roman Street. A barely legible inscription contains the Roman numeral “I” and the words “1 Mile From the River,” the Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella wrote in “Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics Before the Storm.” The stone was, he said, probably one of five such posts designed to show travelers how far they had come.
- Smoky Mary or Smokey Mary? There is no consensus.
- Smoky Mary Beer was introduced in 2011 by the New Orleans Lager & Ale Brewing Co. Promotional material describes it as a Rauchbier – Rauch means “smoke” in German – with a 5.3 percent alcohol content.
- Smoky Mary brought jazz fans to the Lakefront to hear the likes of Louis Armstrong and Danny Barker perform in Milneburg nightspots.
- The train is immortalized in an enormous Carnival float that appears annually in the Krewe of Orpheus parade. It resembles a train, led by a red locomotive labeled “Smokey Mary” and which tows six double-decker train cars.
- In an 1844 interview, John White, a train engineer, told The Daily Picayune about dealing with drunks, who, he said, accounted for most of the passengers on the last run of the day: “We made seven or eight trips a day between the river and the lake, and the last one on Saturday night was always a riot. We’d pile all the drunks on the last coach and stop at the police station on Dauphine and Elysian Fields and leave ’em there until they sobered up the next morning. One night they got to tearing up the car and the flagman put the air brake on me, so we just cut the car out on a switch track above the cemetery and left them out there to sober up.”
- Milneburg was named for Alexander Milne, a land owner and developer. The Milneburg area, which later housed Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park, today lingers only as the name of that neighborhood, which encompasses Lake Terrace and Lake Oaks and the University of New Orleans.
Soot stains notwithstanding, Smoky Mary helped spur New Orleanians’ interest in the Lakefront and its potential by taking them beyond the city’s traditional boundaries. It also was a force in the development of jazz through the musical equivalent of cross-pollination: Musicians who had gigs in Milneburg would see what other performers were doing, jam with them and, as a result, challenge them to do better. Milneburg lives on in the Jelly Roll Morton composition “Milneburg Joys,” which he recorded in 1924 with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and which has been covered by, among others, the Dukes of Dixieland, the Frisco Syncopators, Tim Laughlin’s New Orleans All-Stars, Albert “Papa” French and His Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, and Dr. John.