In 1836, there were the three communities of Mechanickham (New and Old), Gretna (also, New and Old), and McDonoghsville (just one). The latter of which was named after John McDonogh, and exists on the former plantation he purchased when he crossed the Mississippi River to its west bank in 1815. I just learned that, as the plantation was subdivided, McDonoghsville’s first inhabitants were free people of color Mr. McDonogh gave or rented the land to. All of this to say – I think there’s enough here for an adventure of its own.
In 2018, my bicycle and I were riding the ferry across the river for two reasons: 1) I had to walk a dog (gotta make the money somehow!); and 2) I wanted to explore the City of Gretna, which was created in 1913 when the aforementioned communities joined together – first as a village, and then, later that summer, as a city — to protest the neglect it felt from Jefferson Parish.
When I first moved to New Orleans in June 2009, there was a ferry that would take you directly from Jackson Avenue to Gretna. There are still vestiges of that ferry line today, but in September of 2009, the route, which had run since around its founding, was discontinued.
Gretna and Mechanicsham were first settled because of their existence as stops along three different railroad lines. In downtown Gretna, we can still see evidence of two of those lines today!
Currently called the Huey P. Long Commons, in 1901 it was a new station built for the Texas Pacific train line.
Also downtown, near Fourth Street, a train depot built in 1906 for the Southern Pacific Railroad still stands as a gift shop.
Today, however, the only ferry from New Orleans takes you to Algiers Point. In 1882, a mule-drawn streetcar line was built to go between Algiers Point and Gretna and, while that no longer exists, I was able to take a really nice bike path along the river levee, which took me past the Zatarains Plant, which has operated as one of Gretna’s largest employers since 1889.
Arriving in Gretna, it’s immediately apparent this is a town awash with history. Looking down from the Mississippi River levee, I can spot the Huey P. Arch, built in 1923, built as a memorial to Jefferson Parish’s veterans – the names of those who lost their lives in the Civil War, the Spanish-America War, and the two World Wars are carved into the monument. Behind it is Gretna City Hall, built in 1907, and now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The street that cuts away from the river, through downtown — connecting the Arch, City Hall, and the evidence of the city’s train-stop past — is called Huey P. Long Avenue, named after our powerful former Governor. Surrounding the avenue is an array of restaurants, bars, government buildings and public squares.
One of those bars, the River Shack Tavern, is an open, two-story establishment full of lots of people, lots of light, and a long, beautiful wooden bar. The smell of half-price appetizers filled the air as I ate decadent pulled pork nachos and drank a beer from their list of a dozen craft options.
The other bar was almost exactly the opposite, and that’s where I spent most of my time. I was taking a picture of it from the Texas Pacific train depot, when a woman came outside with a lit cigarette and big hair and said, “Ain’t we pretty?”
I’m pretty self-conscious when it comes to taking pictures, but I did my best to suppress my embarrassment and pretend like I knew what I was doing. “Beautiful!” I yelled from across the street.
“Well come on inside, then, instead of sitting out there with our pictures.”
The Gretna Tavern
The Gretna Tavern was windowless and dark, filled with cigarette smoke and gambling machines, with just about every patron in the bar being someone who worked there or had worked there. Beer selection was limited to the Buds, Coors and Millers, and there was no food for sale.
And it was awesome.
“So what’s with the pictures?” the woman outside, whose name was Kathy and happened to be the bartender, asked.
“I’m just doing this thing where I go on an adventure every day and write about it,” I explained.
“What?! And Gretna’s an adventure?”
“Yeah! It’s been great so far!”
“Hey, Ronnie,” she hollered at the man two people down from me at the bar, “this guy’s writing some story about us and he wants to know about Gretna!”
“Yeah?” Ronnie swiveled toward us in his stool. He looked like he was in his 60s, and he had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth “What’s he wanna know?”
“I – “
“He wants to know what it was like in the olden days,” Kathy smirked.
“Well you gotta ask Erika over here,” Ronnie slapped his hand in front of the middle-aged woman between us. She looked at Ronnie, took her cigarette out of her mouth, then turned to me and Kathy. “She’ll tell you what this town was like in the 1800s!” This made Erika shake her head.
“What, is she a historian or something?” I asked, sending Erika, Ronnie and Kathy into a fit of laughter.
“No, honey,” Erika said to me, still laughing, “Ronnie’s just being a dick and sayin’ I’m old. I been livin’ in Gretna since I was born.”
For the next hour, they told me A LOT of stories. They told me about how, when the bar was open 24-hours, released prisoners from the Parish jail would walk over and ask for “their free beer, free cigarette and free call.”
“Damned if I know how they got the idea that was a thing!” Ronnie laughed, “But they always came here and asked.”
“We don’t even have pay phones here!” Erika added.
They told me about what they remember it being like in Gretna before Katrina. “You just knew everyone,” Kathy said.
“And after the storm,” Erika said, creating the only solemn moment of the exchange, “not everyone moved back.” The four of us drank our beers in what would have been silence, if it wasn’t for the sound of video poker machines and Tom Petty.
Ronnie eventually broke the silence. “And then you got a lot of people from New Orleans moving over here. It’s just different.” I couldn’t tell if he meant it in a way that invoked memories of the blockade that stopped Katrina victims from escaping New Orleans for the west bank, or if he meant it in the sense that home prices in downtown Gretna have skyrocketed, forcing many long-time residents, like Ronnie and Kathy, to move between nearby towns.
They also all, individually, told me about the police in Gretna. “Listen,” Ronnie said, “the police here are rough, and a huge pain in the ass, but you ain’t gonna see no trouble down here from anyone. If I call in a problem at this bar, the cops’ll be here in less than two minutes.”
After hearing about the police from nearly everyone I spoke to, I looked it up and learned Gretna’s police department was making arrests at a rate about 14 times the typical city. And that doing so had brought in more than five million dollars to Gretna.
But mostly they just told me about what their lives have been like in and around this small city, within earshot of a much larger one.
Kathy told me about the old places she used to be a bartender in town, where they’d host these big, illegal betting pools on the Preakness Stakes and the Kentucky Derby.
“Were you afraid of getting caught?” I asked.
“Hell no!” she laughed, “Our congressman was the guy leading the pool!”
Erika told me about the flower shop down the street that burned down the other day after being open since 1958. “We used to always get our flowers there,” she said. “I know they’ll be back.”
And Robbie told me about how he worked as a ship builder, and then on oil rigs for decades, but also about the time he tried to walk down 4th street and stop at every bar between Marrero and Gretna. “Cops picked me up and took me to the station, just down the street,” he pointed in the direction of all the Parish government buildings.
“But you know the crazy thing,” he continued, “is how when they released me at midnight they said, ‘Go to the bar down the street. They’ll give you a beer, a cigarette, and a phone call.’ I was like, ‘No way, man, stop telling that lie! I work there and it’s not true
We were laughing and I asked, “How did they get that idea?”
“I have no idea!” he smiled, taking a sip of his beer. “Well, I mean…sometimes if it’s a quiet night I’ll give ‘em a beer, and a cigarette, and a phone call.” He thought for a second. “So maybe that’s how.”
The Little Pumper
I biked downriver a few blocks to the Gretna Historical Society. The sign on the door indicated they were open, but when I rang the doorbell like it instructed, no one answered. I rang again. Nothing. A third time. Nada.
So I opened the door into an open room that, with its pristine wooden floors, array of flags, and abundance of framed pictures covering nearly every available inch of wall space.
“Hello,” I said to no response.
I walked in and looked at the walls. Black and white photos of families posing in rows on the town green. Photos of parades down Huey P. Long Avenue. Photos of old houses that don’t look much different from the current houses.
I was the only one in the building, so I walked out the back into a courtyard, relatively barren on this crisp winter day, and then saw a door cracked open to what appeared to be a firehouse. I went inside and found a stout, suspendered man polishing an old steam pumper.
“Hey there!” the man said, walking over to me with his hand outstretched. “I’m B.J. Leblanc and this guy’s “Little Pumper.”
“Good to meet you both,” I said, shaking his hand, but admiring the pumper.
“We bought her in 1864,” he said, getting back to polishing. “Mechanicsham used to have a horse we could pull her with, but there were so few fires in town, we decided the horse wasn’t worth the cost. Guys would just pull and push ‘er around town.”
I hung out with B.J. for the next 90 minutes, and if I tried to write down a quarter of what he told me, this blogpost would go on forever. So here’s what I will say: check out the Gretna Historical Society. It was a lot of fun and gives you great insight to the many faces of Gretna. I also found fun to see New Orleans from this position, as an outside actor looking in. In my mind, she’s normally the center of the story.
He took me from one building to the next. He told me about how the David Crockett Fire Department, founded in 1859, is the oldest active volunteer fire department in the country. He told me about the folks who used to serve in the force, and about how – as the river slowly eroded the bank along Gretna in the late-1800s, they had to move the building to its current location, now a few more blocks from the Mississippi.
As we walked to the residences on each side of the firehouse, he taught me about the Strehles and the Whites – the two families who lived in those homes for generations. In their personal stories, we learn about the emerging city as a whole. In the political offices these families held, we learn the political history of Gretna. When they sent children off to war, we learn about Gretna’s role in those wars. The residences were a window into how many in Gretna lived throughout its first 100 years.
Just before B.J. closed up, we went over to the Gretna Green Blacksmith Shop, which is still an active shop, offering classes. Gretna Green received its name as a nod to Gretna Green, Scotland, which is on the southern border with Scotland. In England, beginning in 1754, a Marriage Act was passed that allowed any parent who disproved of a match, to veto their child’s wedding. This prompted many a lover to elope to Scotland, and Gretna Green happened to be the first town they’d get to. In Scotland, anyone could marry a couple (as long as their were two witnesses) so weddings would often take place at the blacksmith shop by “anvil priests.” Richard Rennison, for example, is said to have performed 5,147 ceremonies!
It is suggested that Gretna got its name because of a play about Gretna Green being performed in New Orleans at the time. I’m not sure about that, but there is evidence that the blacksmiths in Gretna, Louisiana took on a similar role to their Scottish counterparts. In the early 20th century, George Trout performed 18,985 marriages in 28 years.
Jesus, that sounds like a lot. I have no idea if the number’s actual true. But, even if it’s not, I’m sure it’s a bunch more than is normal.
Even now, on Valentines Day, Gretna Greens Blacksmith Shop remains a very popular place for couples to get married. B.J. told me that on one particular Valentines Day, one blacksmith was scheduled for 36 weddings at the Green. It was an exciting day, except that there was a champagne toast after each wedding – a nice touch for the couple, but a daunting task for the blacksmith who attempted to (but failed) to imbibe in each toast. “They had to carry him out,” B.J. told me, and we switched to something non-alcoholic for the blacksmiths moving forward.”
B.J. had to close up, so he showed me out. “Are you heading home?” I asked.
“Oh no,” he ran his hand over his head. “We have monthly Historical Society meetings here, so I need to set up for that.”
“Wow! That many people show up for a historical society meeting?”
“Oh yeah,” he laughed, “this place is like living in Mayberry.”
And, with that, I biked back along the old mule-drawn streetcar line and jumped on the ferry across the river. The sun had set, the air was crisp, and New Orleans colorful lights led the ferry’s path back to Canal Street.
It was an interesting thing, learning about a town just a few miles from my home. Not only did I get to learn about Gretna, but I also got to see New Orleans in a new and different light. Might like I was on the ferry ride home.