One of the most popular day-trips for New Orleanians at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries was to head out to Spanish Fort. From the 1880s until about 1920, the area where Bayou St. John met Lake Pontchartrain was privately-owned and developed as an amusement park. Day-trips out to the lakefront were very popular at the time, since families could sit out along the lake, picnic, and enjoy the breeze that came in from the water on a hot summer afternoon.
Spanish Fort carried the entertainment a step further than West End. The amusement park included several restaurants, a beer garden, casinos, and even a couple of cabarets. As Jazz began to develop as a music form, musicians playing at the restaurants and cabarets at Spanish Fort naturally began to pick it up. The area become one of the hottest spots for hearing the Jazz of Armand J. Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra as well as Papa Celestin’s band. There were even several rides installed in the park.
One of the most popular places at Spanish Fort was Over The Rhine, a restaurant and beer garden. In addition to Over The Rhine, Tranchina’s Restaurant advertised heavily in tourist guidebooks, hoping to lure visitors from downtown out to the lakefront. By 1919, the amusement park boasted attendance numbers of over 14,000 people going out to Spanish Fort on Sundays.
One of the attractions at Spanish Fort was a Confederate submarine that was recovered during an 1878 dredging of the bayou. It was moved to the Camp Nicholls Confederate Home on Moss Street in 1908. The sub came into the ownership of the Louisiana State Museum in 1942. It was displayed at various points around Jackson Square until 1957, when it found a more permanent home in the ground-floor arcade of the Presbytere. It remained there until 1999, when it was brought to Baton Rouge, underwent an extensive restoration, and is now on display there.
The easiest way for folks to get out to Spanish Fort was to take the steam train that ran from Canal Street. The steam railway was replaced with electric streetcars in 1896. By the 1910s, the New Orleans Railway & Light Company ran Morris cars like the one above to the amusement park. In the summer, the day-trippers were so many that the transit company ran tandem cars to carry hot New Orleanians out to the lake. Fare at the time was five cents.
By the 1920s, the Orleans Parish Levee Board began to reclaim land at the lakefront, pushing the shoreline of the lake well out past the Spanish Fort amusement park. Since it was no longer directly along the lakeshore, the park’s popularity waned, and Pontchartrain Beach at Elysian Fields became the lakefront’s primary amusement destination.
From the 1920s until Hurricane Katrina, Spanish Fort was a minor historical attraction. Lake Vista residents used the park area around the fort for picnics and swimming until the Lake was closed to swimming in the late 1970s. In the post-storm era, the area around the fort is still a good picnic area, but swimming and fishing in that part of the bayou is no longer permitted because of the extensive pump and flood control installations.
For more history and photos of the lakefront over the years, be sure to check out Catherine Campanella’ s wonderful Images of America book, Lake Pontchartrain.