There are three cemeteries in Louisiana named “St. Louis Cemetery’. The first and most famous one opened in 1789, replacing the St. Peter Cemetery as the main graveyard in the city after it was redesigned after a fire in 1788. The Saint Louis Cemetery is located on the north side of Basin Street, eight blocks from the Mississippi River, one block from the inland French Quarter border, and it borders the Iberville housing project.
St. Louis Cemetery #1 is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, and it has been active ever since it was founded. For the most part, those buried in the cemetery were part of prominent and well-to-do New Orleans families, particularly Creoles. In the early years of the St. Louis Cemetery, it was divided into three sections: one for Catholics, one for non-Catholics, and one for “Negroes”, what they may have been referring to as slaves.
By the late 18th century, St. Peter Cemetery began to fill up, and the town’s development had gotten to a point where it surrounded the graveyard, not allowing it to expand. Because of this, the Cabildo wanted the cemetery far away from the center of the population to ensure contagion and disease did not spread from the cemetery into the people.
Since New Orleans had swampy and below sea level terrain, any higher ground was extremely valuable; since the living could benefit from it, a graveyard could not be put on the land. The Cabildo chose a swampy site on St. Louis Street – a decision they would come to regret.
On August 14th, 1789, a new cemetery was created under the Spanish Royal Decree. It was located 40 yards behind the Charity Hospital. A canal was built adjacent to the cemetery in 1796 as a way to transport goods and drain the swamp. The first burials were done in such a way that the graveyard was not organized whatsoever, and it quickly became a maze of tombs and aisles.
Originally, bodies were buried below ground, but, a rise for the cemetery’s use came up, and the dead had to be in tombs above ground on top of the already buried. Since it was built on a swamp, the St. Louis Cemetery was subject to flooding often. Sand and shells were added to the site in order to fight the rising waters.
In 1816, the Macarty Crevasse’s waters flooded the cemetery so badly that it temporarily had to close, and burials needed to take place across the river. By the early 1800s, New Orleans had grown greatly, while the cemetery had remained the same and was in the way of further expansion.
Many Americans, mostly Protestant, came into Louisiana after the Louisiana Purchase, and the impending statehood. The problems were fixed in 1822 when the city created a new site in the Faubourg St. Marie that would be used as a Protestant burial grade that would later be called Girod Street Cemetery.
In 1923, St. Louis Cemetery #2 was built to alleviate the first cemetery. St. Louis Cemetery #1 remained in use, but the richer Creoles and Benevolent Societies were buried in the second cemetery, as they received the more ornate tombs. The first cemetery began to shrink as New Orleans grew. The pyramidal Varney monument, for instance, was once at the center of the site, but with the city’s expansion, now is at the entrance.
During the late 1800s, the surrounding area of the cemetery had become mostly residential. In 1898, “Storyville” was created using the sixteen square blocks, including the cemetery. It lasted until 1917 when the Navy ordered that it closed. In the mid-20th century, many significant changes started to take place.
In 1930, the construction on the Municipal Auditorium began, and the canal was filled by 1938. Storyville’s remains were destroyed for the Iberville Housing Project that came in during the 1940s. Louis Armstrong Park was created in 1976 in order to rehabilitate the area. The St. Louis Cemetery had gotten a bad reputation of being an extremely dangerous site, and the people avoided it. The place became neglected and overgrown as a result.
Now, the cemetery is a tourist destination that has been deemed safe for tourists. The Save Our Cemeteries Organization, which runs both non-profit and commercial, offers tours for a fee to raise funds to help preserve the cemetery. Acclaimed Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau is said to haunt the cemetery, often seen with a snake around her neck. The cause for the other hauntings in the cemetery is the fact that thousands of bodies are layered upon one another in a small block.