At the beach, at the beach: Remembering New Orleans’ fling with Pontchartrain Beach
Thousands of people showed up on Sept. 24, 1983, to say a final farewell to Pontchartrain Beach, a lakeside attraction in New Orleans for decades. Declining attendance at the aging amusement park had taken a toll on the place, but folks turned up for one last ride on the Zephyr roller coaster, the Wild Maus, the log flume, the haunted house ride and more. For the day, visitors soaked up the nostalgia, and — if only briefly — the park returned to its former glory. Then, at 11:30 p.m., the Zephyr made its last run. That was followed by a midnight jazz funeral in the parking lot.
Pontchartrain Beach isn’t there anymore. Today, the University of New Orleans’ Research and Technology Park occupies the former site of the old amusement park. The sand beach itself was accessible after the park shut down, but back-to-back drownings in 2012 highlighted the hazards of the lake and convinced the university to fence off the area. The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation has plans to restore the beach; it has been raising money to bring in white sand and improve other facets of the beach, like removing dangerous underwater debris and renovating a pier.
- Pontchartrain Beach was originally opened in 1928 on the present-day site of the Lake Terrace subdivision. In the early 1930s, it moved to the foot of Elysian Fields, where it remained until its 1983 closing.
- The park was founded by Harry Batt Sr. who spent the off-season traveling the world and looking for new and exciting rides to add to the park.
- The Zephyr, one of the park’s trademark rides, was added in 1939. It was made of wood and reached the soaring height of 68 feet at its highest crest. That crest, painted white with the world “Zephyr” emblazoned on it in big red letters, is on display in Veterans Park in Kenner, right next to City Hall.
- The city of Kenner owns a few other random bits of Pontchartrain Beach memorabilia: a mummy’s sarcophagus, a papier mache elephant, a ghostly car from the haunted house, and a few other odds and ends. Several items were to be auctioned off in 2015, but calls and emails from citizens delayed the sale.
- The Bali Ha’i tiki restaurant was a beloved restaurant at the park. It served Chinese food at a time when such cuisine was still seen as relatively exotic in New Orleans. Many people’s memories of the restaurant are as rich as the park itself. It quickly became the go-to place for many an important family celebration.
- In 1955, Elvis Presley performed on-stage at Pontchartrain Beach. He hadn’t hit it big yet and was performing in the “Hillbilly Jamboree,” a country music event hosted by WBOK. Months later, he signed with RCA — and the rest is history. He returned to perform at the park in 1956.
- The last day of the park’s 1983 season was Sept. 5, but it reopened for one day later than month, on Sept. 24, as a fund-raiser for the Contemporary Arts Center. The following day, the dismantling of the rides was scheduled to begin.
- Two in-ground pools were constructed in the park in the 1960s so patrons could still escape the heat when Lake Pontchartrain had a high pollutant count.
- During World War II, the parking lot around the park served as a drill field for the Naval station. That station is now UNO.
- For its first 25 years, Pontchartrain Beach was for white patrons only, with Lincoln Beach — a separate but inferior park — catering to black New Orleans in the eastern part of the city. Desegregation opened the park up for black residents in 1964.
- Some of the wilder acts at Pontchartrain Beach included live animals. One such show included wild Bengal tigers. The performers would walk the tigers along the midway before the show to rouse business.
- Actor Bryan Batt, grandson of the owner Harry Batt, spent much of his childhood at the park. He once climbed the Zephyr’s catwalk that ran alongside the track. When his family found out, he was grounded.
For New Orleanians who grew up during its heyday, Pontchartrain Beach was a key part of their youth. In Facebook groups like “Pontchartrain Beach Memories 1928-1983,” locals frequently post images of memorabilia, old photographs, and reminiscence about the park, recalling with fondness the neon lights of the rides, the soft-serve ice cream, and the acrobatic performances. Children of the ’60s and ’70s can recount with clarity the anticipation of a field trip to the park where the Zephyr awaited them. Even though Pontchartrain Beach is gone, the collective memory is a testament to how much people of New Orleans value a good time.