Fishing and fighting. Gambling and jazz. Boatbuilders and booze.
All figure into tales of early Bucktown, the seafood sanctum in the northeast corner of Metairie in Jefferson Parish just minutes from New Orleans’ Central Business District. How much of it is true? Well, that just makes today’s Bucktown all the more charming. Even the origin of the village’s name is not settled.
Bucktown began as a tiny cluster of camps - houses built on stilts over the water - in the middle of the 19th century on the finger of land extending into Lake Pontchartrain north of what is now the intersection of Old Hammond Highway and Orpheum Avenue. In 1853, the Jefferson and Lake Pontchartrain Railroad opened, delivering passengers from what is now the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line to a long wooden pier where lake steamers could take them into or across the lake.
More camps and docks were erected along the lakefront and the 17th Street Canal, enhancing Bucktown’s reputation for fishing. Residents built boats, made nets, trapped crabs year-round, hauled in shrimp in the spring and summer, worked in seafood processing plants, hunted ducks and deer in the winter, rented boats to visitors, operated a grocery store and a hardware store and ran saloons and dance halls that attracted fun-seekers from New Orleans.
The Prohibition era might have been Bucktown’s heyday. Informal histories conjure speakeasies, whorehouses and gambling parlors that regular spawned drunken brawls. "Bucktown Bounce” by Johnny Wiggs and “Bucktown Blues” by Jelly Roll Morton captured the spirit in song.
By that time, one hurricane, in 1915, had already leveled Bucktown. The village made a comeback but was hammered again by a 1947 storm. The lakefront levee was then raised, eliminating most camps on the shoreline. The last camps in the 17th Street Canal were removed in 1988.
During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Bucktown flooded with a foot or more of water. It quickly drained, in contrast to the other side of the 17th Street Canal: The canal’s eastern floodwall failed, unleashing a juggernaut of water that destroyed blocks and blocks of houses and submerged the New Orleans’ Lakeview area for weeks.
At least three stories purport to explain Bucktown’s name. One attributes it to the preponderance of mature male deer that residents hunted in the marsh to the west. Another cites the “young bucks” who visited the village on weekends looking for “another kind of ‘dear’,” Ned Hémard wrote in an article published by the New Orleans Bar Association.
The most personal legend focuses on William Wooley, who moved into the area, became its night watchman and was “invested by the witty inhabitants with the nom de guerre of Buck Oliver,” according to a 1921 newspaper article quoted by the Tulane University scholar Richard Campanella. That begat Buck’s Town. Yet a 1936 article unearthed by Campanella describes Buck Oliver as a short-tempered cowboy who drove cattle to the area for shipment across the lake, “only to end up spending more time in the village slammer.”
Hémard has a different take on this colorful figure. He writes of Oliver “Buck" Wooley, “who shot a large buck and hung the antlers on the bridge crossing the canal. Folks who came to his boat rental business began calling the area ‘Buck’s Town.’ An even more far-fetched explanation has ‘Buck’ Wooley carving a ‘W’ on the buttocks of a man who dared to dance with a coquette [whom Wooley] was courting. He is said to have defiantly staked possession of ‘Buck’s girl in ‘Buck’s town’.”
When you visit Bucktown, ask around; you might hear more tales of its namesake and the legacy he left behind.