When St. Tammany Parish became a health resort
For much of the 19th century, people who could afford to leave hot, humid New Orleans in the summer did so, heading to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain by buggy or boat to enjoy the countryside, to marvel at the piney woods and gurgling springs, and to escape the “bad air” believed to cause the seasonal scourge of yellow fever. This had been a refuge mainly for the well-heeled until June 26, 1887, when the arrival of the first train of the East Louisiana Railroad in Abita Springs made St. Tammany Parish an accessible refuge. A year later, the line was extended to Covington.
The piney woods and gurgling springs are still potent attractions, and the Causeway and Interstate 10 have made them easier to reach from New Orleans. People have responded to the siren song of what has become known as the Ozone Belt by staying beyond vacations and weekend visits: According to the latest population estimate, St. Tammany, with 239,163 inhabitants, is the fifth most populous of Louisiana’s 64 parishes.
- In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, St. Tammany and its nearby parishes became known as the Ozone Belt, the Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella wrote in The Times-Picayune, although, he said, no one is sure about the origin of that term.
- When Tammany tourism was starting to take off, Campanella wrote, people thought the parish’s abundant pine trees “charged the atmosphere with balsam, a fragrant resin in woody vegetation often used as medicine.”
- Another perceived asset of the parish, according to a 1900 newspaper article Campanella cited, was the electricity in the air, which had “intense powers of oxidizing and decomposing organic substances and purify(ing) the air by destroying malignant microscopic organisms.”
- A circa 1900 ticket for the East Louisiana Railroad, which opened up in 1887 connecting New Orleans to Abita Springs and, later, to Covington. Businesses used the word “Ozone” to promote their enterprises. Mandeville boasted Ozone Motor Company Chevrolet Dealers, and the Ozone Bath House was on the Mandeville lakefront, in front of Bechac’s Restaurant. John H. Davis, who built a lumber mill in Lacombe, also established the Davis Tobacco Factory, whose output included Ozone cigars. They sold for a nickel apiece.
- Abita Springs was built around a bubbling spring that was supposed to have medicinal powers. The name Abita — once known as Abeta, according to some sources — is supposed to be Indian, but the meaning is disputed.
- The enterprising Mrs. F.A. Bossier was one of the first to cash in on the Tammany tourist trade. According to a May 1880 issue of The St. Tammany Farmer, she turned her dwelling into a boarding house near the springs in Abita. The rates seem reasonable — $1.50 per day (nearly $38 in today’s dollars) for room and board — with stabling for horses and buggies provided, along with horse-drawn shuttles to and from the boat landing near Covington.
- In 1888, a year after regular train service began, Abita Springs had four hotels, according to tammanyfamily.blogspot.com. Artesian wells that were drilled were found to have “almost the identical properties” as the Abita spring.
- Mandeville grew, too. With a bow to its French heritage, it celebrated Bastille Day to commemorate the 1789 storming of the Paris prison that triggered the start of the French Revolution. According to newspaper coverage of the 1893 festivities — an event replete with cannon fire, bonfires and fireworks — an artilleryman identified as H’y Ricau “was so unfortunate as to have his arm very badly lacerated by the premature discharge of the cannon.”
- The East Louisiana Railroad became central to a landmark case on desegregation when Homer A. Plessy refused to move from a first-class carriage reserved for white patrons, giving rise to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision.
St. Tammany Parish may owe its initial boom to its reputation as a sylvan retreat with therapeutic waters and plenty of fresh air, but more and more people have decided to become full-time residents, with a surge coming after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the New Orleans area south of Lake Pontchartrain and forced people to look northward if they didn’t want to leave southeast Louisiana altogether. Despite the changes since the first train arrived 130 years ago, Abita Springs’ spring still bubbles, and there is no shortage of spas throughout the parish to minister to those seeking all manner of curative treatments.