A History of the Park and Zoo

Audubon Nature Institute Ron Forman

A History of the Park and Zoo

Information derived from “Audubon Park: An Urban Eden” with text by Ron Forman, Joseph Logsdon and John Wilds.

With all that the Park and Zoo have to offer, it is easy to see how it evolved into the center of life for so many New Orleanians. However, the plot of land that stretches from St. Charles Avenue to the Mississippi River levee and is bordered by Walnut Street and Exposition Boulevard, had humble beginnings. It took contributions from several key figures and plenty of support from the community to become what it is today.

In the middle of the 19th century the land that would become Audubon Park was home to a sprawling, unprofitable plantation surrounded by swampland. At the time, habitable ground was scarce in New Orleans and usable space was confined to a narrow strip of land along the natural levee of the Mississippi River.

The idea to turn a swath of land six miles from the central city into a park came late in a story with rich, romantic twists and turns. Some important names in New Orleans history had been involved with the property. Etienne de Boré, the first mayor of the city, was an owner in the early days. Local historian Charles Etienne Gayarré, who inherited the land, famously watched Tennessee and Kentucky troops led by Andrew Jackson march away to defeat the British in the Battle of New Orleans from a perch atop one of the property’s oak trees. Later, Pierre Foucher and his wife, Francois Boré, owned the plot.

Under the stewardship of Etienne Boré, the plantation produced the first commercially successful granulated sugar crop in the United States. The land was composed of rich alluvial deposits left by the Mississippi River, making it fertile ground for ambitious planters. However, punishing hurricanes, river overflows and hot summers played havoc on the crops and the people tending them. The plantation ultimately failed, leaving this rich, fertile ground open for new endeavors.

When Louis Foucher took over the property upon the death of his father, he looked for ways to turn a profit on the land. A racetrack was built to lure gamblers and rail track was laid to help them make the six-mile trip from the city. This project failed but the rail line remained a convenient mode of transportation for people who wanted to visit the site. The land would not fall into public hands until 1850, when a philanthropist willed it to the city. There was no rush to turn the land into a park. It had more history to live through before it could become the urban Eden we know today.

The park grounds played a key role during the Civil War, spending time as an encampment for both the South and North troops at different points during the conflict. The property was also part of a reconstruction land buying scandal in the 1870s. All this tumult transformed the property into an eyesore and it wasn’t until the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition of 1884 that the city developed the motivation to turn the land into something that could attract visitors. By the early 1900s, the Audubon Park and Zoo area was well on its way to becoming a tranquil retreat and with the help of committed community members and Audubon Nature Institute President and CEO Ron Forman, it has continued to grow with the times.