Spanish Fort experienced two periods of time during which it served as an entertainment and recreation center.
Bayou St. John was a tributary to Lake Pontchartrain that was used as a portage by the Indians and later the French. Near its mouth, the French built a small fort in 1701, before the founding of the City of New Orleans. After Louisiana passed to Spanish control, a larger brick fort was constructed at the site of the neglected old French fortification. Louisiana passed back to France and then to the United States in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase.
The fort was decommissioned in 1823, and the land was bought by private developers, and became a popular amusement park, known as "Spanish Fort" or "Old Spanish Fort".
Lake excursions were wonderful outings that were made aboard ferries and luxury boats.
1885 view of the Cape Charles Car and Passenger Ferry which ran between Spanish Fort and Mandeville.
Spanish Fort featured several restaurants, a casino, a resort hotel, dancing pavilions, an alligator pond, and in its later decades amusement rides such as the roller coaster. A steam railway, and later an electric streetcar system, connected the lakeside resort with the center of the city. It was especially popular during the summer for the cooling breezes of the Lake.
Spanish Fort reached its heyday from the 1880s to around the 1920s. During this period Orleanians traveled out to the lake by rail to spend their leisure time swimming, eating, drinking, gambling, listening to bands and light opera. It was billed as the "Coney Island of the South."
After a fire in 1906, the New Orleans Railway and Light Company purchased the property, built an electrified rail line to the site, and rebuilt the resort as an amusement park, complete with Ferris wheel and roller coaster. This initial Spanish Fort Era closed in 1926, when rail lines stopped running and the Orleans Levee Board's lakefront reclamation projects began.
Although Spanish Fort had brief moments of grandeur, the flood-prone park frequently fell on hard times, while during this same period, West End prospered.
A New Era -- Pontchartrain Beach #1
The second "Spanish Fort" Era took place in 1928, located further north along Bayou St. John on newly reclaimed land that had been filled by dredging from the Lake as supervised by the Orleans Levee Board. It was named Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park. It featured a boardwalk, a bath house and rides. However, many locals still referred to it as "Spanish Fort".
But hard times of the Depression hit the new amusement park hard, in spite of improvements (including a seawall to replace the boardwalk and a vehicular bridge over Bayou St. John) --- the Batt family took over management and operations in 1933.
This postcard shows the Wildcat coaster (pictured distant center) opened in 1928 at Pontchartrain Beach, in New Orleans.
"Over the Rhine", a German restaurant and beer garden was a popular attraction, as were Tranchina's Restaurant and Brown's Ice Cream Parlor often featuring live bands. The park had two cabarets, "Tokyo Gardens" and "The Frolics".
In 1938, when development (with the help of the WPA) of Lake Vista began just next door, the Batts took advantage of the opportunity to move the park farther east along the lakefront to Milneburg, and the "Old Beach" was demolished. This photograph of the entrance to the park was taken on March 7, 1939, shortly before demolition began.
As a youngster, the Spanish Fort area at the lake was referred to as "Old Beach." It was still a great area to go swimming in, but without life guard protection. In highschool, we use to have hay rides that left from the Carrollton section. The large rented truck carried us out to Spanish Fort where the truck parked beneath the highrise bridge crossing Bayou St. John on Lakefront Drive. "Over the Rhine" was famous for us since we could go there to get a few beers without regard for our ages. We would cross the levee from the fort on a wooden foot bridge to the other side of the Bayou. And even as a young adult, we would cross the same old bridge while riding horses to the lakefront from Gentilly.