Slidell, Louisiana -- Camellia City
Slidell – The building of a Railroad – The building of a City
Finding a Site
Following the close of the Civil War, in 1868, George Ingram organized the “Mandeville and Sulphur Springs Railroad Company.” Due to Ingram’s death in 1870, the Charter was acquired by Captain William H. Hardy who changed the name to “New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad Company” and began planning a new route between New Orleans and Meridian, MS.
After a decade of difficulties, in 1880, the St. Tammany Farmer reported: "Able engineers have pronounced it practicable to build a line directly across Lake Pontchartrain, about 22 miles". In May 1881, the same paper reported that the preliminary survey had been completed and that the railroad would cross Lake Pontchartrain to Mandeville by crossing the lake on a trestle.
Ultimately, the project included 21 miles of trestlework with 16 miles of approaches that required creosote treatment to all the pilings, cross-ties, and bridge timbers. This necessitated a creosote works being constructed near-to-water access and being proximate to the proposed rail-line roadways. Thus, another route change was made with the decision to build the railroad tracks through the eastern part of the parish where land acquisitions were cheaper in addition to access to an inland harbor on Bayou Bonfouca where a creosote plant could be accomodated.
Contracts were let all along the proposed route between New Orleans and Meridian creating a continuing requirement for creosote processed products. Contracts were also let for the bridge across the Pearl River and other bayous and streams.
Overall, this resulted in an early inland settlement at Robert's Landing on the banks of Bayou Bonfouca. Reportedly the ferry crossing was located just behind the present railroad station. Early commerce took place there with the import and export of lumber, cattle and wildgame in exchange for needed supplies. With the entrance of increasing numbers of railroad employees, Robert's Landing became the headquarters site for the work crews. Work commenced on the northshore on December 3, 1881, and on January 7, 1882, at Meridian, Captain William H. Hardy was the principal speaker for ground breaking ceremonies in announcing the opening of road constructions. All the road clearances and grading were performed by hand with men using axes, shovels, and wheelbarrows. Where water access was not available, oxen's carts pulled hand-hewn timbers to road sites and bridges.
At Robert's Landing, engineers, foremen, and work crews made camp for the next three years. The encamped workmen bought their food, clothing, and large quantities of whiskey, thereby generating several new business enterprises located near the campsite. These establishments later became the rudiments for the town of Slidell.
The railroad stop was named Slidell Station during the first months of 1882, and a building that was built near the current depot site was called the Robert Brick House. It was not long before other construction sites were developed into hotels and boarding houses.
Newspapers reported that "at the creosote works, there is quite a town being built, called Slidell, and a great deal of land in the vicinity has been bought by speculators. Several houses and stores have been put up lately, and town lots are selling at good prices."
The local economy grew as farmers were able to sell all the cows and hogs they could raise and all the produce they could grow to feed the construction crews. Any able-bodied man who wanted a job could get one.
On October 15, 1883, the first train from Meridian completed the long awaited trip to New Orleans. Later that year, on November 18, 1883, the first passenger train ran the Queen and Crescent Route between New Orleans and Cincinnati.
When completed, Captain Hardy had accomplished building the world’s longest bridge. Hardy later became known as a Railroad Magnate as he followed his first railroad construction with that of the “Gulf & Ship Island Railroad” which created the city and the port harbor facility at Gulfport, Mississippi. He also named the town of Hattiesburg for his wife, Hattie Lott.
Who was John Slidell?
After the tracks were laid, a train depot was built and the station was named Slidell following the request of Baron Emile Erlanger, one of the financial backers of the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad. Erlanger was John Slidell's son-in-law through his marriage to Mathilde Slidell. By 1884, not only was the railroad completed, but the first telephone and telegraph line had been extended from Mandeville.
John Slidell migrated to New Orleans from New York City to become a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, a U.S. District Attorney from 1829 to 1833, and was elected to the U.S. Congress from 1843 to 1845, followed by election to the U.S. Senate, 1853 to 1861.
When Louisiana seceded from the Union, he resigned from Congress and was appointed the Confederate Commissioner to France charged with seeking aid from England and France.
However, once in England, he was denied permission to return to the United States. Slidell died in exile at Cowes, England on July 26, 1871, and was interred in a private cemetery near Paris, France. He was never a part of the little town, but in all probability, his life story would have faded into oblivion except for the naming of the town in 1888.
The First Land Owners
Land ownership of large acreage tracts were owned by the Guzman and Robert families in addition to Joseph Laurent's large domain that was located on the west side of Bayou Bonfouca where later developments were made.
Prior to building the railroad, the dirt road to Mandeville crossed at Bayou Vincent and then forked into two roads, one pursuing northward to Pearl River and the other continued southeasterly – called the Rigolets Road, which later became the foundation for part of Hwy 190.
The vast 5000 acre John Guzman Tract was first owned by Vincent Rillieux, the namesake for Bayou Vincent. Besides Bayou Bonfouca, Bayou Potassat also has a colorful name. A son, John E. Guzman, owned a brickyard, a hospital, a ferry, and a store in the vicinity of the present bayou bridge crossing. It was he who received the first telephone message that was sent over the newly constructed telephone line from Mandeville to Slidell on July 7, 1884. Streets that intersect near Bayou Potassat were named Guzman and Cary after the husband and wife team who produced 10 adult children.
A second large tract was called the Robert claim which consisted of nearly 1300 acres located north of the Guzman property and east of Bayou Bonfouca where the family plantation home was located near present-day Bayou Lane and Cousin Street – just west of the railroad tracks. Pierre Robert had two boat docks on his property, one for schooners and one for lighter boats, in addition to operating a maritime supply retail store, a small sawmill, a brick plant, a tar mill, in addition to raising cattle and horses. His son, Junot, sold the initial lands that Leon Fremaux laid out to form the original town of Slidell, now called Olde Towne.
Entering a period of rapid growth, on November 13, 1888, the town was incorporated while it was still but a fledgling flag station. The town was described as spanning 3 miles from north to south and 2 miles east to west in the form of a reversed "L-shape." Corporate limits shortly thereafter increased by incorporating a northeastern portion of the John Guzman tract. Roughly, the expanded street boundaries were Fremaux Avenue to Fifth Street, then Cousin Street to Carey and to Front Street, then back to Fremaux Avenue.
Fritz Salmen – The Builder
One of the early arrivals to Slidell was Fritz Salmen, who arrived in 1884 to buy some of the Guzman lands near the tracks. Salmen had spent a number of years in Handsboro, Mississippi, now an historic region of Gulfport. During the years spent at Handsboro, the Salmen brothers had learned the technical advances in lumbering, shipbuilding, and brickmaking.
Having developed such skills, it wasn't long before Salmen established his brickworks using the high quality clay found in the area. His original brickyard was located just north of the train station on Front Street. With his acquired profits he purchased more land and in 1887, he sent for his brother, Jacob, to join him, and in 1890, a second brother, Albert, joined the group in uniting their forces and business acumen.
In 1890, the Salmen sawmill was added to their growing property acquisitions between the railroad tracks and Bayou Bonfouca. About the same time, Salmen Brick and Lumber Company added a small shipyard and shipbuilding operations on the west side of Bayou Bonfouca to transport their products to nearby ports.
The company extended their operations in Slidell to include offices and warehouses in New Orleans, Tickfaw, and Onville. Their large retail yards in New Orleans dealt with a large variety of building materials, including Portland cement, lime, and plaster as well as lumber, brick, and ornamental materials. Commercial lines were also opened into Central and South America.
In 1910, the company employed 800 persons, and at its general store, twenty clerks industriously worked at the "Commissary" on Front Street which had become the largest merchandise store in St. Tammany Parish.
The company even expanded into timbering operations with its own seventy-five-mile railroad with four engines and 250 rail-cars. The track connected with the N.O.G.N. railroad giving it country-wide access. As a full-support operation, there was a machine shop, a blacksmith shop, a two-ton capacity foundry, a carpentry shop, and a sheet-metal shop.
Growth of a Town
Saloons and boarding houses sprang up along the railroad right-of-way and the town resembled those from old west movies. It was rough and wild and there was no established town government until 1888, when a mayor was elected and a town marshal was appointed.
In typical frontier fashion, other businesses began to spring up, too. On the site which is now the corner of First Street and Fremaux Avenue, the famous Birdcage Saloon was soon doing a booming business. Its success led to the establishment of thirteen saloons along Front Street which furnished night life and entertainment for the early settlers.
Other stores were opened to offer commodities which included general merchandise, furniture, clothing, food, tools, hardware, medicines, and services. These were centered around Carey and Cousin streets. The nature of businesses occupying each of the old streets, lent each a long lasting reputation in contributing to Slidell's heritage today.
More hotels were built to meet the demands of the ever increasing newcomers, transients, and traveling businessmen
A 1901 article from the St. Tammany Farmer, a weekly newspaper printed at Covington, reported that "Slidell had six churches, three schools, a sawmill, five saloons, six stores, two brickyards, three barber shops, four fruit stands, and several other local favorites too numerous to mention."
An old saying about Slidell was that it was "two-towns-long and half-a-town-wide." Along with progress, rivalry had developed between the "uptown" and "downtown" residential areas. For years, political elections, selection of public buildings, and other local issues brought disputes which fell just short of a feud. The demarcation line was the narrow part of Bayou Potassat which was reportedly named for the small perch that filled its waters.
Homes, stores, and saloons grew like mushrooms. And, still more hotels were built to accommodate new workers employed at the various plants. In the central section, a bank, a grammar school, and the White Kitchen restaurant, replaced the former pine-covered flats.
In touring Olde Towne Slidell today, many local landmarks still abound. The Country Cubbard gained an addition in 1939. Mires' Hardware opened in 1915. The Peach Tree was opened by Gastrorondo, a French opera singer. Slidell Cleaners was built in 1939 by Joe Johnson. Olde Towne Antiques was formerly a saloon, grocery store, and meat market before remodeling. The present Slidell Museum was built in 1907 as the City Hall. The Second Story Lounge was originally a grocery store operated by the Carollo family. Other original family names associated with buildings in the area were Abney, Baker, Cornibe, Evans, Fontana, Gazano, Giordano, Neuhauser, Polk, and Pravata.
Slidell – As We Know It
Today, Slidell's main street (known through various times as Bayou, Railroad, Harvey, and Front Street) follows the course of the railroad and bayou. Front Street, linking several highways and major routes in and out of town, has essentially remained the same as the town continues to expand around it. The old depot station, continuing as one of its major landmarks, has been renovated and now houses “The Times Bar and Grill.” At its main entrance, the tarmac has a monument displaying eight flags that stand tall in reminding its citizens and visitors of the history that dates back to 1699, in representing the early colonial periods and evolutions of time gone by.