Monday, March 8, 2021

Slidell Historical Overview

 In May of 1994 David Markum Moore, a student at the University of New Orleans, produced a research paper examining and proposing possible avenues of revitalization of Olde Town Slidell. The first section detailed the history of the Slidell community, especially the central business district. Here are several excerpts from that 148 page document.

Slidell History

While most of the recorded history of Slidell and surrounding St. Tammany Parish details the conquests of and settlements by the French, English and Spanish beginning in the late 1600s, it is rarely recognized that the area was already populated by Indians of the Muskhogan, Tangipohoas and Acolapissa tribes. During his first expedition, journals recount the meeting of Messieur deBienville, second in command of Fort Maurepas in Biloxi Bay and later to become the Governor of Louisiana, and the chief of the Acolapissa nation on May 22, 1699.

During a period in 1707 in which foodstuffs were in extreme short supply, deBienville even resorted to sending his men to live with the Acolapissa and Natchitoches tribes in order to survive. Far from being dangerous savages, the Indians openly welcomed and helped the foreigners and thus unknowingly contributed to their own eventual assimilation into the more aggressive European culture. Despite the Indian's original claim to the land and their rich culture, little remains as evidence of their existence in St. Tammany Parish.

Many of the current day names throughout the area, however, originated from Indian words or names, and thus in a small way remember the early heritage of the area. Bonfouca, which is the name of the bayou running through Slidell, is of Choctaw Indian origin meaning "river residence." The Parish name, St. Tammany, was taken from the name of a Delaware Indian Chief, Tamenen, who helped the new settlers and taught them how to make medicine from herbs and roots, and who was considered a patron saint of the new republic.

The land which encompassed Slidell, was originally part of the Mississippi Valley territories which were claimed by France in 1682. In early 1699, the French began to actively explore the territory and make contact with the various Indian tribes in the area. In 1762, Louisiana was ceded to Spain through a secret treaty, with the St. Tammany area being part of what was referred to as West Florida.

In 1769, West Florida came under English rule following a civilian rebellion. The ownership of the land changed again in 1779 when the Spanish and colonists joined forces and attacked and overran the British forts in Baton Rouge and Manchac. The area was then renamed Spanish West Florida. In order to expedite settlement of the area, land grants were given out profusely to immigrants from Georgia and the Carolinas.

On September 23, 1810, a rebellion resulted in the surrender of a Spanish-held Baton Rouge fort and the creation of the Free and Independent Republic of West  Florida. On October 27, despite the republic's declaration of independence and written constitution, President James Madison ordered the Governor of the Territory of Orleans, W.W. Claiborne, to take possession of the Republic of West Florida. On December 10, 1810, having averted a war through diplomatic avenues, the republic became part of the Louisiana Purchase.

During the 1820s shipbuilding began to emerge as a significant industry along the deep-water bayous that run through Slidell. The bayous were a favored location for shipbuilding due to their proximity to Lake Pontchartrain which provided further access to the Gulf of Mexico. During a twenty-year period through the 1840s it is recorded that eleven schooners and other smaller boats were constructed along Bayou Bonfouca.

In 1852, the first settlements slowly began to appear around Bayou Bonfouca bringing a modicum of change to the area as logging, raising cattle and fur trading increased in scope, providing a livelihood for the impoverished immigrants. Surrounding land was also being occupied by settlers with Spanish and French land grants.

The Age of the Locomotive

An event of immense proportion was also gaining momentum in America in 1852, the age of the locomotive. At the time, there were only 9,000 miles of railroad track throughout the United States. By the end of the decade there would be more track in the United States than in the rest of the world. This explosive expansion of the rail system throughout America would eventually become a historically significant factor in the birth and growth of many small towns and Slidell was no exception.

With shipbuilding a firmly established industry along the bayous, coupled with an increase in the area population, other businesses opened to supply the growing needs of the traders, settlers and craftsmen. During the 1880s the first sawmill began operation along Bayou Vincent (part of Bayou Bonfouca) at a location very near the present railroad depot. A boat landing and general store were also established at the location named Robert's Landing.

As the national railroad network continued to aggressively connect major cities, the section from Jackson, Mississippi to New Orleans was identified by the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad Company as a critical link. In 1881, surveyors led by Daniel Fremaux began the task of laying out the required rail line which would eventually cross Lake Pontchartrain. The surveyors made encampment on a relatively high piece of land from which they conducted their operations.

The temporary camp expanded over time, taking on a sense of permanency, as it soon became the base of operations for the construction crews building the rail line.
 
The impact of the rail line on industry and commerce in the area was significant. A creosote plant was built at the location formerly known as the "Robert Brick House" to treat the timber and pilings which were to be used to construct the train trestle across the lake (Martin 1957, 4). Saloons and hotels sprang up on the main street as did a general mercantile store. The logging industry, taking advantage of the pine stands of St. Tammany Parish, flourished as it supplied the large quantities of lumber necessary to build the railroad.

In 1883, the base camp and surrounding land was surveyed and mapped. It was called Slidell Station by the railroad financier Baron Erlanger in honor of John Slidell, a Confederate diplomat and, not coincidentally, his father in-law.    In that same year, on October 15, the first train passed through Slidell on its way from Jackson, Mississippi to New Orleans.   

https://2.bp.blogspot.com/-Kecyrr08tj4/XFD_L88p7vI/AAAAAAAAmcY/GkkLMSuQbcQgthJdeGi9PGc1vtCrOAD1ACLcBGAs/s1600/JohnSlidell.jpg

In 1884, taking advantage of the new transportation mode, Fritz Salmen opened the Salmen Brick and Lumber Company, and Colonel Pete Schneider, the St. Joe Brickyard. In the midst of accelerating growth the town of Slidell was incorporated on November 13, 1888. The original charter delineated an area of 2,320 acres.By 1890, the population of Slidell had reached 375. Industries such as brick making and ship building provided employment opportunities solidifying the town's economic stability. By all accounts, it was considered a boom town.

The population increased to 1,129 by 1900 and to 2,958 by 1920, making it the largest city in the parish. In 1907, a promotional brochure boasted of Slidell's many amenities such as electric lights, banks, telephones, graded public schools, telegraph and churches.    By the 1920s stores selling furniture, clothing, food, tools, hardware, medicines and general merchandise were prevalent.

Tourism also contributed to the accelerated growth of Slidell and can be traced back to the late 1800s.    St. Tammany Parish exhibited two significant natural resources, ozone and spring water. People came to the area to avail themselves of the "medicinal nature" of the wells and springs, and for the clean air, which had been certified by physicians to produce favorable effects on respiratory diseases.

The area was also touted to be the surest refuge against the summer plagues that regularly swept through New Orleans. Claims even indicated that people too ill to walk were carried to Slidell and after a brief stay walked away in perfect health. At one point in some promotional literature, Fritz Salmen even wrote that Slidell was one of the healthiest communities in the world. Slidell thus became known as a health resort which drew tourists from around the state. Many of the visitors eventually became permanent residents.
 
Dating back to the period when the railroad was being constructed, catering to the construction workers, the streets of Slidell were soon lined with saloons. Sporting as many as 14 saloons at one time, Slidell also became a destination for residents from Mississippi. After Mississippi voted itself "dry" in 1895, the "jug trade" increased dramatically. One entrepreneurial Slidellinian even built a bar on a barge and moored the vessel on the Pearl River opposite the Mississippi state line.

The construction of the Watson-Williams bridge in 1928, which replaced steamship ferry service, provided the first public toll bridge across Lake Pontchartrain. This more immediate access to the North Shore, facilitated commuting to New Orleans but did not appear to impact the Slidell area population. It did, however, heavily influence the central business district of Slidell.

U.S. Highway 11, by way of the bridge, connected New Orleans and points east. Businesses located along the highway thus enjoyed excellent exposure and maintained a relatively consistent customer base and financial stability.

In the early 1960s, Interstate Highway 10 was completed. Even with the interchange to Slidell the impact on the city was dramatic. Commuting time to New Orleans was reduced sufficiently to induce people to live in Slidell and work in the city, turning Slidell into a pseudo-bedroom community. Additionally, the new NASA Michoud Facility in east New Orleans, the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and the NASA computer center in Slidell all resulted in a massive influx of residents into the city of Slidell.

The net result of the new interstate and industries on Slidell was a population increase of 153 percent between 1960 and 1970. The death knell of the Slidell central business district sounded with the completion of Interstate 10. Until this time, U.S. Highway 11, which was routed directly through the central business district, ensured a continuous flow of traffic past the historic origin and focal point of the city. All business activity had been centered around this
area for over 140 years.    

The emergence of shopping complexes along interstate corridors, ease of accessibility to New Orleans and the rerouting of significant portions of traffic away from the central business district, however, combined to create a formidable obstacle to continued economic vitality of the area. Under this scenario, in which the identity and character of Slidell was becoming increasingly vague, Olde Towne slowly evolved.

The original home-rule charter for the city of Slidell was enacted on October 25, 1969 providing much needed local authority to quickly address the pressures brought on by massive building in the area. Still, most of the efforts by local government remained reactive in nature. As pressures for development continued, the attention of local officials was primarily fixed on the problems, of infrastructure and annexation. Since Slidell's incorporation the land mass has increased by 146 percent.    The city's resources were naturally dedicated to capital improvement projects in these newly annexed properties.

It was during this period of expansion beginning in the 60s that the role of the central business district became obscured. With the obscurity came neglect by the local government. The neglect fostered complacency in the business population and the cycle which has stifled economic growth in Olde Towne has remained in effect for over 30 years.

Demographics

    Historical census data for Slidell is as follows:
    Year    Population    Year    Population
    1890    364              1950    3,464
    1900    1,129           1960    6,356
    1910    2,188           1970    16,101
    1920    2,958           1980    26,718
    1930    2,807           1990    24,124
    1940    2,864    
    
The population of Slidell has shown varying degrees of upward movement with the exception of the period of the Great Depression during the 1920s, and the    recessionary 1980s, both of which evidenced population declines. A comparison of the 1960, 1970 and 1980 population data reflect the dramatic changes brought about by the completion of the interstate and the new ease of mobility, the location of federal facilities such as NASA to the area and the growing job market.

The 1990 census indicates that the race of approximately 88 percent of the residents of Slidell is white.    The median age of persons living in the area is 34.1 years. The median household income is $34,492. Approximately 10.1 percent of the residents of Slidell, or 2,391 individuals, live below the poverty level.

Location and Topography

Slidell, which has a land mass of 5,506 acres, is located at the southernmost tip of. St. Tammany Parish and is surrounded by lakes, bayous, rivers, wetlands and swamps. It is wedged between the state of Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, forming a peninsula which extends in a south-easterly direction. The topography is generally flat with surface elevations ranging from six to 16 feet above sea-level.

It is strategically located at the intersection of three major interstate roadways, I-10, 12 and 59, representing major north-south and' east-west transportation routes. The significance of the interstates and their potential to spur the economic growth of Slidell is found in the level of activity along each highway. In a 1991 study by the Regional Planning Commission the following average traffic counts were recorded in or near the Slidell area.

Interstate    Average Daily Traffic
I-10    42,616
1-12    33,083
1-59    16,549

Counts along U.S. Highways were also conducted, indicating the intensity of traffic movement throughout not only the interstate system, but the primary roads as well.

U.S. Highway    Average Daily Traffic
    U.S. 190    24,154
    U.S. 11      17,187

It should be noted that the traffic count on U.S. 11 was taken at a point near the intersection of Front and Fremaux Streets. This provides an indication of potential customers which pass by Olde Towne businesses on a daily basis.

Traffic counts along U.S. 11 and in the interior of Olde Towne were also conducted by the Department of Transportation and Development during the late 1970s and
early 1980s.    

The traffic count on U.S. 11 in 1980, at a location near the count station in 1991, was 12,170. The count thus shows an increase of 5,017 vehicles per day over an eleven-year period of time. Counts along Fremaux Avenue in 1979 showed traffic volume at 13,470 vehicles per day. This number is expected to increase significantly with the completion of the Fremaux/I-10 interchange in 1996.

Traffic counts were also conducted on interior roads of Olde Towne in 1981 and vividly showed that they were far less traveled. At a point along Carey Street a count of 1,580 vehicles per day was recorded. Cousin Street traffic counts were 662 vehicles per day.

 
John Slidell, from the Louisiana Encyclopedia 1909

 

See also:

Slidell's Train Station  

Early Photos of the Slidell Train Depot 

Slidell Flag Plaza

Indian Village Adventure