The bittersweet history of Lincoln Beach in New Orleans
For decades, the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park stood over the end of Elysian Fields Avenue, beckoning to New Orleanians. The catch: For much of the park’s existence, only half of the city’s residents could answer that call, as it operated as a white-only facility during the segregated Jim Crow era. So, in 1954, city officials cut the ribbon on a new 17-acre Lincoln Beach amusement park along Hayne Boulevard in the Little Woods area of New Orleans East. Though smaller, remote and in most ways inferior to Pontchartrain Beach, it gave black New Orleans a summertime playground of its own, complete with swimming pools, a restaurant, amusement park rides and other amenities.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Bill became law, ending legal segregation. Just like that, the need for Lincoln Beach vanished. With black patrons able to go to the bigger, more centrally located Pontchartrain Beach, Lincoln Beach withered. It closed later that year and was left to molder. Talk of redeveloping the site has never become reality. To this day, crumbling, haunting remnants of Lincoln Beach still exist, vandalized and largely reclaimed by nature.
- The forerunner of Lincoln Beach came in the form of a small sand beach and a few unimpressive rides built on a 2.3-acre tract deeded to the city in 1938 by United Fruit Co. President Samuel Zemurray and then purchased by the Orleans Parish Levee Board. Much of the original recreation site — located across a set of railroad tracks from the beach — was earmarked for parking when work began on the new 17-acre Lincoln Beach.
- Complaints about the condition of the old beach area, including pollution from nearby fishing camps, prompted construction of the new park, which cost an estimated $2 million to build in total. About half of that was spent by the Levee Board and the rest put up by a private company that leased and operated Lincoln Beach.
- To connect the new Lincoln Beach parking lot to the beachside amusement area, planners excavated a pedestrian tunnel under the railroad tracks.
- While the white-only Pontchartrain Beach had the better rides, Lincoln Beach had by far the better musical acts. Among the notable acts to perform there over the years were Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Josephine Baker, the Ink Spots, Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, and Guitar Slim.
- Talent shows and beauty contests sponsored by local radio stations were also among the live entertainment offered at the park.
- The main swimming pool at Lincoln Beach was named after Nolan McNeal, a former slave and minister who became a captain in the Volunteers of America and a leader of religious social work at the turn of the 20th century.
- Coupons for free rides at Lincoln Beach were distributed inside packages of Sunbeam Bread. Various candy companies also arranged to have wrappers from their products exchanged for free admission to the park.
- The dedication of the new Lincoln Beach was held on May 8, 1954, and was attended by Gov. Robert F. Kennon and Mayor deLesseps Morrison. The Booker T. Washington High School band provided music.
- For years after the park closed, local residents — white and black alike — would make their way through the dilapidated amusement area to spend time on the still-sandy beach.
There’s no way around the fact that Lincoln Beach, while separate, was far from equal to the white-only Pontchartrain Beach across town. That, after all, was the hallmark of America’s segregation area. “We would drive by Pontchartrain Beach and marvel at the Zephyr roller coaster since Lincoln Beach’s was much smaller,” former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial told The Times-Picayune in 2014. To that extent, it was a cruel reminder of the status quo at the time. Still, for a decade Lincoln Beach was a place of fun, sun and family memories for countless New Orleanians — even if those memories were often bittersweet.