Before Pontchartrain Beach, there was Old Spanish Fort
In the 18th century, when the French and the Spanish kept passing New Orleans off to one another, the spot where Bayou St. John meets Lake Pontchartrain may have seemed like a good one to build a fort. After all, the bayou was integral to trade in the region, and New Orleans saw a lot of trade. Yet, the French built Fort St. John, and then the Spanish built a larger fort on the same spot, and the area — now called Old Spanish Fort — never saw battle. So, in 1823, the land was sold to developer Harvey Elkins, who decided to build a hotel on the site, transforming it into a resort and amusement area that included a casino, live music, rides and other attractions.
As much activity as the area saw during the 1800s, that changed in the 20th century when the shoreline of the lake was moved farther from the site of Spanish Fort as part of a land-reclamation effort to bolster the lakefront area. Then, the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park opened just a few minutes away. The former fort and resort transformed again — into a sleepy public park. Only a few brick walls remain on the site of the Old Spanish Fort. Occasionally, nearby residents will picnic in the shade of the oak trees or overlooking the nearby bayou.
- Spanish Fort was a popular day-trip and tourist attraction during the 1800s. The breeze off the lake was cooler than that in the French Quarter, and visitors could enjoy the lakefront in addition to the attractions. Often people would come by steam-powered train that would bring people from Canal Street to the lake.
- Attractions at the resort included restaurants and casinos, as well as bars and cabarets. As jazz grew in popularity, many of the musicians at Spanish Fort began playing it.
- The original French fort, Fort St. John, was established in 1701. This was only two years after Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville first explored Bayou St. John and 17 years before the founding of New Orleans.
- During the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson prepared for a British attack by sending artillery gunners to the Spanish Fort, however the British did not enter Lake Pontchartrain, and the fort never saw battle. The fort’s canons remained, even when the spot became an amusement park.
- As the war went on, Andrew Jackson called for help fighting the British. Supposedly, some of Jean Lafitte’s privateers, who were stationed at Spanish Fort, ran from the outpost to Jackson Square. Today, the New Orleans Track Club holds the annual Jackson Day Race, one of the oldest road races in the country, which ostensibly follows their 9-kilometer route.
- An entirely different attraction at Spanish Fort was a former Confederate submarine. The sub was found when the bayou was dredged in the 1870s. It moved around the region during the 20th century and is now on display in Baton Rouge.
- Before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the park was not only good for picnicking, but it was also a popular place to fish and swim in the lake. Unfortunately, in the 1970s, people were forbidden from swimming in the lake due to the high levels of pollution. Today, that section of the bayou has pump and flood controls, so it still unsafe for swimming.
- The land is completely different from the way it would have looked when the original fort was built. Then, the fort overlooked the lake, and the bayou spread wider across the land. In an effort to prevent flooding, the Orleans Parish Levee Board worked to reclaim land from the lake in the 1920s. Almost 2000 acres were reclaimed. Since then, construction of neighborhoods and the park have vastly changed the geography of the region.
The Spanish Fort is a mishmash of all kinds of New Orleans history. It is a reminder of New Orleans military history, but it is also a place where New Orleanians went for entertainment, to have a good time. Now, it’s a small but pleasant public park. If nothing else, it reminds us that this is a city of transition. In a city of near-constant flux, the Old Spanish Fort keeps changing with the times.