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NOLA History: Audubon Park

Audubon Park in New Orleans is the site of the wonderful Audubon Zoo, and has a rich history all its own, dating back to the early 1800s.

One of the most common suggestions we regularly offer visitors to New Orleans is, “Go to the Zoo!” This is great advice, of course, because the Audubon Zoo is an educational and entertaining experience for all ages. But we shouldn’t forget the park which encompasses the zoo, with its rich history and a fascinating story all its own.

Audubon Park (Photo: Rebecca Todd)

The “Upper City Park,” as Audubon Park was first known, was first the Boré family plantation. The plantation’s primary crop for years was indigo, but as the price for that plant dropped (due to competition from plantations in Central America), the family’s patriarch, Etienne de Boré, switched to sugar cane. Etienne not only grew sugar cane, but built a sugar mill on the plantation, and researched sugar refining techniques. Working with a team of Cuban sugar cane growers, he was the first planter to produce granulated sugar, radically changing the dynamics of the sugar industry.

By the time of the Civil War, the Boré family plantation was part of the City of Carrollton. Both sides used the open land as a staging area for troops. Local units of the Confederate Army, such as the Washington Artillery, set up Camp Lewis on the site after Louisiana seceded from the Union. When the city was occupied in 1862, the Union Army took over the site. After the war in 1866, Camp Lewis became the staging area for the 9th U.S. Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers), as they headed west to man forts on the country’s western frontier.

The Boré plantation was annexed by the City of New Orleans in 1870, as part of a larger annexation move to absorb the Greenville and Jefferson City neighborhoods. The city purchased the land outright, planning to convert the open space into a proper public park. The park was named “Upper City Park,” to distinguish it from City Park, located on the former Allard Plantation in Mid City. Minimal development was done on Upper City Park in the 1870s, but the area received a great deal of attention and improvements when it was chosen as the site for the 1884 World’s Fair, celebrating the World Cotton Centennial. The fair closed in 1885, and most of the buildings were demolished and sold for scrap, but the improvements to the area as a whole left Uptown New Orleans with a solid foundation for an urban park. The park was re-named to honor artist/ornithologist/naturist John James Audubon in 1886.

The Fly at Audubon Park (Photo: Rebecca Todd)

The city appointed a formal governing board in 1894. The board hired New York architect Charles Olmstead to redesign Audubon Park, based on Olmstead’s success with New York’s Central Park. The city’s governing board was superseded by a full State-level commission, formed by the Legislature in 1914. The Audubon Commission began work on establishing a zoo in the park, constructing a large flight cage in 1916. Full development of the zoo did not take place until the 1930s, when Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds made their way to the park. In addition to the Zoo, WPA funds financed a swimming pool, renovation of the park’s lagoons and construction of a swan boat attraction. Other attractions were added, which included a carousel and a miniature railroad.

Those WPA-financed structures in Audubon Zoo were either demolished or re-purposed during the major overhaul that took place in the 1970s. Zoo expansion also forced the closure of the miniature railroad. From the 1980s forward, the Zoo has been considered to be one of the best in the nation.

Golf has been a part of the Audubon Park experience since 1898, when the course was opened. The course was renovated and expanded in 2002. In addition to golf, baseball, softball and soccer fields were constructed in the park’s “Riverview” section, between the back of the zoo and the river. The ring road which runs the park was closed to auto traffic in the early 1980s, creating a 1.7 mile jogging track. A 2.2-mile dirt jogging track was later added to the perimeter of the park, to accommodate the increased number of walkers and runners.

Because it is on high ground right next to the river, Audubon Park has weathered the various hurricanes and storms which have challenged the city through its history. Audubon Park is much more than just the zoo. If you’re staying downtown, take the St. Charles Streetcar line (the green streetcars) from Stop #1 at St. Charles and Common Streets, all the way until you reach Loyola and Tulane Universities. Alight from the streetcar, and enjoy a walk through Audubon Park on your way to the zoo.

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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