Lakefront Drive-In Theater, in 1940.
“Drive-in Theater” on Canal Blvd, 1940.
Lakefront Drive-In Theater
Last year, I presented a lecture at the National World War II Museum, entitled, Winning the War on the Lakefront. The talk started at West End and the New Canal, then moved along the lakefront to the Industrial Canal. Every time I’ve presented this lecture, folks in attendance asked about a facility in what is now the East Lakeshore subdivision. Turns out, it was a Lakefront Drive-in Theater.
The Army and Navy hospitals.
Aerial photo of Lagarde Army Hospital (bottom), and Naval Hospital New Orleans (top), 1940
The Orleans Levee Board reclaimed a great deal of land along the lakefront in the late 1920s. For reference, around 1910, the Mount Carmel Convent on Robert E. Lee Blvd had a fishing pier out front. It extended into the lake from almost the front door. The OLB reclaimed the area from there, up to where Lakeshore Drive is now.
The WPA made major improvements to the lakefront in 1938-1939. They built the seawall and Lakeshore drive. The reclaimed land belonged to the city. So, when the US Army and US Navy looked to build hospitals in New Orleans, the lakefront area appealed to them. The Army built Lagarde Army Hospital in what is now West Lakeshore. The Navy built Naval Hospital New Orleans on the other side of Canal Blvd. The breeze off Lake Pontchartrain cooled down the area at a time when air-conditioning was not ubiquitous. While the hospitals had different missions, they both benefited from the location.
What’s that thing?
Ad for the “Drive-in Theater,” 1940
I found some good aerial shots of the lakefront in 1940. They show the WPA improvements and the hospitals nicely. They also show a facility with a bunch of arcs, right behind Naval Hospital New Orleans. I dismissed it as maybe some kind of outdoor amphitheater, perhaps for concerts and other entertainment. Folks asked, “What’s that thing?” I replied with the outdoor entertainment answer.
Well, that answer wasn’t exactly wrong! I shared an Infrogmation photo of the bus stand at Canal and Robert E. Lee a couple of days ago. Arthur “Mardi Hardy” Hardy, musician, teacher, and local Carnival expert, replied to that image. Arthur said there was a drive-in movie theater, there on the other side of Canal Blvd, from the bus stand. He shared the ad (above) in the comment thread. The name of the place really was just, “Drive-In Theater.”
DING! That must be the “thing” behind Naval Hospital New Orleans. It makes sense, the quarter-circle pattern of the facility. Everything converges on the point of the right angle. That’s the screen. Public transportation to get out to the hospitals was limited (just the West End Streetcar). So, most folks drove out to there for work. Maybe stop and catch a movie before heading all the way home? Makes a lot of sense.
Movie Theater Project
I know Arthur has a book in progress on local movie theaters. So, I have yet another reason to buy it when it’s done. Thanks, Arthur!
Spanish Fort Streetcar
Tracks running out on the Spanish Fort fishing pier, 1911. (Franck Studios)
Spanish Fort Streetcar
The amusements at Spanish Fort entertained New Orleanians, from the 1880s, up to the first incarnation of Pontchartrain Beach, in 1929. Going to the fort was a day trip, and a train service brought folks out to the lake. The train service ended in the late 1890s. Streetcar service began in 1911 and ran until the 1930s.
Heading out to Spanish Fort, 1912.
Fort Saint John, known to New Orleanians as the Spanish Fort, guarded the mouth of Bayou St. John at Lake Pontchartrain during the Spanish Colonial Period. While it never saw action, the fort played an important role in the War of 1812. Because Jackson assigned Lafitte’s gunners to the fort, the British chose to come at the city from Lake Borgne and St. Bernard Parish. They made no attempt to come down the bayou and Carondelet Canal. The US Army pushed the city’s defenses further out, building forts at the Rigolets and Chef Menteur Pass. By the time of the Southern Rebellion, Spanish Fort was a tourist attraction.
Spanish Fort in New Orleans, “The Coney Island of the South”
After the end of Southern Rebellion, civilian government returned to New Orleans. Streetcar lines expanded across the city. Mules pulled these streetcars. The streetcar companies experimented with steam locomotives, but residents along the lines complained of the noise and smoke. Electric streetcars came to New Orleans in the mid 1890s.
Mules weren’t practical for getting out to the lakefront. To make the trip to West End or Spanish Fort in the 1870s-1880s, folks took steam trains. The railroad companies made the locomotives look like streetcars.
The Spanish Fort amusement area was popular. The location offered cool evening breezes. In general, temperatures were lower near the water. The combination attracted folks to come out for a swim, and to hear jazz, opera, and other music in the evenings.
The train service meant a trip to Spanish Fort was a long day trip, or, if you were out for the evening, an overnight excursion.
“Plan Book” for the sale of Spanish Fort, 1911 (courtesy New Orleans Notarial Archives)
Spanish Fort declined in popularity in the 1900s. West End dominated as the lakefront destination of choice. The Spanish Fort area was sold in 1911, and the new owners convinced the New Orleans Railway and Light Company to offer electric streetcar service.
The Streetcar Line
Streetcars at the old Spanish Fort railroad station, ca 1911.
NO Rwy & Lt company originated the Spanish Fort line. The route:
- Start – S. Rampart, between Tulane and Canal
- Left turn onto Canal Street, outbound to City Park Avenue
- Left turn onto City Park Avenue to the Halfway House
- Right turn at the New Basin Canal, heading outbound next to the railroad right of way
- Right turn at Adams Avenue (now Robert E. Lee Blvd.)
- East on Adams to Spanish Fort.
- Left turn into the Spanish Fort Station (still there from railroad service)
The inbound/return route was a reversal of the outbound run.
The line operated seasonal service. More streetcars ran in the Spring through the Summer. In the Fall and Winter, Spanish Fort operated as “shuttle” service. Riders took West End to Adams Avenue and transferred to the shuttle cart that went to the fort. This shuttle service operated when the line started in March, 1911. The full service began in June, 1911.
When the new owners took over in 1911, they extended the streetcar tracks from the railroad station out along the fishing pier. A streetcar ran from the station stop that was usually the end of the line to the end of the pier.
Barney and Smith streetcar, ca 1905 (NOPSI drawing)
NORwy&Lt operated double-truck streetcars on the Spanish Fort line. The Barney and Smith cars ran regularly, with some American Car Company cars also used. During the busy summer season, the powered streetcars pulled unpowered “trailer” cars.
End of Spanish Fort service
Main Gate of the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park, 1929
The Spanish Fort line terminated in 1932. By the 1920s, the fort’s popularity as an amusement destination declined. When the Batt family opened their Pontchartrain Beach amusement park on the eastern side of Bayou St. John, in 1929, ridership on the Spanish Fort line spiked up again. Pontchartrain Beach heavily advertised the Spanish Fort line as a way to get to the amusement park. “Right Next to Krauss!” The park moved to Milneburg in the 1930s, though. Without either the fort or Pontchartrain Beach, there was no reason to keep the line in operation.
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Podcast #3 – Day trips out to West End and Spanish Fort, by train or streetcar. Beating the summer heat is an ongoing challenge in New Orleans!
“The Coney Island of the South” – Spanish Fort
Welcome to NOLA History Guy Podcast! We’re back, talking about our hot New Orleans summers with an edition we call Beating the Summer Heat in Old New Orleans
Hot summers in New Orleans are certainly not a new phenomenon. Staying cool in the Summer months has been a challenge since the French and Spanish explorers came Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. These days, we run from our air-conditioned homes to our air-conditioned cars to our air-conditioned offices, then back again in the evening.
Now, think about doing that at a time when there was no air-conditioning! Every work day, riding the streetcar or a bus to the office, and home again. Older homes were designed to maximize air flow, and electrification provided power for fans in any rooms in the house. Still, it got hot. You know how that goes, when the a/c is broken and you have to rely on ceiling fans!
The men who went off to work had to deal with the same heat and humidity as the women, but they were on the move more. Mom was stuck at home with the kids. Day in, day out, doing the housework, cooking the meals, supervising the kids, Mom needed an escape!
The easiest escape route for mom and the kids, sometimes even dad, if he could take a day off, was on the streetcar, heading out to the Lakefront. There were two popular escape destinations, West End and Spanish Fort. We’ll talk about the attractions at both, and how folks got out to Lake Pontchartrain.
1860 – 1880 – Summer Heat at West End
Lake House Hotel, 1860s
1880 – 1900
West End Resorts, 1892 (Charles Franck photo)
1900 – 1920
West End Lighthouse, 1910 (courtesy NOPL)
Entrance to the West End Garden, 1911 (Charles Durkee photo)
1912 Postcard of West End
Mugnier Photo (stereo), bridge connecting New Basin Canal with West End Amusement pavillions, 1900s
Confederate Submarine at Over the Rhine at Spanish Fort, 1895 (Mugnier photo)
Casino at Spanish Fort New Orleans, 1890s
Barney & Smith motorized streetcar pulling dummy cars, 1911
Spanish Fort Casino, 1890s (Mugnier Photo)
Spanish Fort midway, 1900s (Franck photo)
End of the Spanish Fort Streetcar line, at the bathhouse, 1912 (Franck photo)
Swimmers at Spanish Fort, 1900s (Franck photo)