Remembering the glory days of West End
For as long as any 19th-century New Orleanian could remember, West End Park was little more than an embankment 800 feet offshore in Lake Pontchartrain at the end of the New Basin Canal. Still, as early as 1838, the area was a lure for New Orleanians seeking to enjoy the lake and its cool breezes. With the introduction of rail service to the area around 1876, the development of West End — previously called New Lake End but changed to “West End” in 1880 — took on new life, with construction of a wooden platform over the water, a hotel, restaurants and all sorts of amusement attractions for families to enjoy. Fun-seekers could get there on a steam train operated by the New Orleans City and Lake Railroad; the destination would be a hot spot for decades to come.
Present-day West End Park is a beautifully landscaped oval with a wealth of live oaks that form a canopy over the roadway. The Southern and New Orleans yacht clubs are nearby, as are boating-related businesses and spots where boat owners can moor their vessels. The tranquility is a far cry from the hubbub of the second half of the 20th century, when the park was surrounded by seafood restaurants that drew crowds, especially on weekends. Those restaurants eventually fell victim to hurricanes, most notably 1998’s Georges and 2005’s Katrina.
- For years, West End was a popular music venue, which Joe “King” Oliver commemorated with “West End Blues,” a tune later popularized by Louis Armstrong.
- One of the park’s other big attractions was a fountain that shot dozens of multicolored jets of water more than 50 feet into the air.
- At one time, the park had a rose garden with 6,000 bushes containing 16 varieties of roses.
- A center row of magnolia trees was planted in the park and dedicated in 1934 to Joyce Kilmer in recognition of his poem “Trees.” The trees, then 30 years old, were dug up from a plantation on the West Bank and transplanted in West End. They cost $1.50 each.
- Starting in 1896, entertainment in the park included movies, which were shown on a big canvas screen in front of the bandstand. A month after their debut there, the screenings were relocated to a storefront on Canal Street. Dubbed Vitascope Hall, that theater is recognized as the world’s first permanent, for-profit movie theater.
- A stone bridge over an artificial lagoon in the park was made of paving blocks removed from Tchoupitoulas Street when it was repaved with concrete.
- The city stepped up development of West End Park in 1909 to compete with an amusement area being built around then in the Spanish Fort area. Most notably, a seawall was built 500 feet out into the lake and filled with sand to form the present-day park.
- For folks whose idea of an evening’s entertainment consisted of more than seafood, Club My-O-My offered drag shows. The club, which stood on pilings just east of the New Orleans-Jefferson Parish line, arrived in 1936 because its owner, Emile Morlet, had been told that his club was a menace to young people’s morals, so he wanted to get as far away from the police as possible. Originally called the Wonder Club, it was destroyed by fires in 1948 and 1972. It wasn’t rebuilt after the second blaze.
West End Park has changed over the years, but is has been creating fond memories for generations of New Orleanians. Those of a certain age can remember when it was a big event to pile into the family car and head out to West End for dinner at seafood restaurants such as Bruning’s and Fitzgerald’s, which were built on pilings over the lake. Those with appetites for racier entertainment could go to Club My-O-My. Those places are gone, but the park remains. So do the memories. In 2014, Jordan Urrate, who grew up with seven siblings on the West Bank, said that a rare trip to Bruning’s was “an extra-special occasion.” Each visit, he said, “created moments that would one day become very special memories.”