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NOLA History: Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans

The Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans is one of the city’s most sought sites, the resting place of famous New Orleanians like Louis Prima and Al Copeland.

Exploring cemeteries is one of the best ways to learn the history of a town, city, or region. New Orleans’ cemeteries are beautiful and grandiose, serving as one of the city’s most alluring visitor attractions. One of the best New Orleans cemeteries to tour is where some of the most famous, wealthiest, and notorious people of the past are buried – the Metairie Cemetery.

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“Weeping Angel” in the Hyams family tomb, Metairie Cemetery (Photo Courtesy: Marcus Moseley)

Metairie Cemetery is located on a high section of ground known as the Metairie Ridge. The Ridge followed the course of Bayou Metairie, which is roughly the path of modern-day Metairie Road. Metairie Ridge was high ground, a rare commodity in the below-sea level areas away from the Mississippi River. In 1838, a group of investors chose this location to build a horse racing track and club, naming it the Metairie Race Course. The race track thrived in the antebellum decades. The track and clubhouse were on the western bank of the New Basin Canal, which connected Uptown with Lake Pontchartrain. New Orleans became the premier horse racing city in the country by the 1850s. The Civil War put a serious damper on horse racing. The track was converted to a camp (Camp Moore) for the Confederate Army. After Admiral David Farragut and the Union Navy invaded and took possession of the city in 1862, the camp was abandoned.

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1904 map of Metairie Cemetery, showing the old race track layout at the bottom. (Courtesy Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane University)

The war gave one New Orleanian the opportunity to make good on a promise he made concerning the race track. A wealthy man from Baltimore, Charles T. Howard, moved to New Orleans before the Civil War. He built a splendid house on St. Charles Avenue, and made sizable donations to charities. These were not enough to gain him membership in some of the city’s more exclusive clubs, particularly the Metairie Jockey Club. Howard did not take these slights from the locals lightly, vowing to get revenge. In the case of the Metairie Jockey Club, Howard vowed he would buy the race track and clubhouse and turn them into a graveyard. With the war closing the track, and Reconstruction putting serious constraints on the city’s economy, Howard bought the property in 1872. If you look at a map or an aerial photo of the cemetery, you can still see the original oval of the racetrack.

Howard and his partners didn’t envision Metairie Cemetery as a commoners’ burial ground. The interior portion of the race track’s infield was sectioned off and sold to wealthy families in the community. The elaborate tombs built in that section became known as “Millionaire’s Row.” As streets were constructed around the oval, smaller plots were sectioned off and made available to less-affluent families. In addition, immigrants such as the city’s growing Italian community pooled the resources of many families, forming benevolent societies that purchased land in Metairie Cemetery and built large mausoleums where they could lay their members to rest.

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Postcard from the early 1900s, showing ladies strolling past the Army of Tennessee, Louisiana Division, tumulus. (Courtesy Infrogmation)

Two of the largest burial sites in Metairie Cemetery were built by and for veterans of the Civil War. The Army of Northern Virginia, Louisiana Division, Benevolent Association, built a tumulus in the eastern curve of the race track’s infield interior. Atop the tumulus stands a 38 foot column, upon which is a statue of Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The tumulus was dedicated on May 10, 1881. When former Confederate President Jefferson Davis died while visiting New Orleans on December 6, 1889, he was buried in one of the front vaults of this tumulus. (Davis’ remains were transferred to a permanent burial place in Richmond, VA in 1893.) The other large military tumulus was built by the Association of the Army of Tennessee, Louisiana Division. They chose a spot near what was originally the cemetery’s main entrance, at the corner of Metairie Road and Pontchartrain Boulevard. The association commissioned sculptor Albert Doyle of New York to design and sculpt an equestrian statue of General Albert Sidney Johnston, who commanded the Army of Tennessee, and was killed at the Battle of Shiloh. The highest-ranking officer buried in the tumulus was one of Johnston’s best generals, PGT Beauregard.

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Tomb of Bandleader Louis Prima, with the words of his song, “Just a Gigolo” inscribed on the stone. (Photo: Ed Branley)

In addition to the massive military tombs, Metairie Cemetery is the final resting place of New Orleanians from all walks of life. Politicians, clergy, businessmen from all sorts of industries, including musicians such as Louis Prima and Al Hirt. Restaurateurs Jules and Roy Alciatore (Antoine’s), Leon Galatoire (Galatoire’s), Owen Brennan (Brennan’s), and Arnaud Cazenave (Arnaud’s) all rest in Metairie. Baseball Hallweeping-of-Famer Mel Ott, Popeyes Fried Chicken magnate Al Copeland, and the third Rex, King of Carnival, William Pike, are all in Metairie’s number.

Getting to Metairie Cemetery from downtown New Orleans is simple. If you’re driving, just go straight up Canal Street to its end at City Park Avenue. The modern entrance is on Pontchartrain Blvd., just past I-10 exit for City Park Ave. You can also take the Canal streetcar line (the red streetcars) to the Cemeteries terminal at City Park Ave. Be sure to get on one of the streetcars whose rollboard says “CEMETERIES.” From the streetcar terminal, walk to the corner of Pontchartrain Blvd and Metairie Road, where you can take the steps up into the original entrance of the cemetery. Cars are allowed inside the cemetery, and you can follow the Louisiana Heritage Trail’s markers to view some of the most notable tombs. The cemetery’s main gate closes at 5:00 p.m. After that time, visitors must enter and exit through the gate near the Lake Lawn Funeral Home on the north side of the property.

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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