I have always been curious about the history of Park Island, the neat residential retreat nestled in the middle of Bayou St. John. Is it man-made, and if so who was the original developer?
The connection of Bayou St. John with Lake Pontchartrain was a major factor when the French chose to settle here because the bayou, with a fairly short and easy trip overland, connected the lake to the Mississippi River.
But when New Orleans founder Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville and company made their way up Bayou St. John, Park Island didn't even exist. Navigation was difficult, and a sharp curve in the bayou kept filling up with sand and branches. The point acquired the nicknames "the Devil's Elbow" and "the Devil's Slough" from the frustrated men who tried to navigate the waterway.
In the mid-1800s, action was taken to make the bayou easier to navigate. On the east side of Park Island is a narrow channel, the original bed of the bayou. Plans were to excavate land on the west side of the bayou, thereby making a deeper channel that would be easier to navigate. Digging began in 1861 but stopped when attention turned to the Civil War. After the war, work started up again, and the bayou was straightened. The island was formed from the soil dug up for the new channel.
In 1859, the island was given to New Orleans surveyor Claude Jules Allou d'Hemecourt for his excellent work, and the island was called Isle d'Hemecourt. Born in France in 1819, d'Hemecourt came to New Orleans with his family in 1831 and acquired a reputation as an outstanding surveyor. In 1866, d'Hemecourt sold the island to James Joseph Demoruelle, whose family maintained ownership until 1905. Called Demoruelle Island during this time, it was used for hunting and later a city dump.
During the first half of the 20th century, Bayou St. John underwent many changes. It was used less as an industrial waterway and became a haven for recreational boathouses, small shipyards and squatters.
In 1952 Demoruelle Island was briefly owned by a law firm of five partners who considered dividing the island into five huge plots on which they would each build a house. Instead they sold it to a corporate buyer.
We first heard about the new project to create an exclusive residential area in 1953 when it was revealed that the island in Bayou St. John would be developed into residential sites selling for $18,000 each. The unique settlement overlooking City Park would have 24 lots facing the water, four interior lots and a bridge to access the properties.
The corporation that subdivided the island was called Park Island Inc., and its officers were Joseph Schiro, Livingston S. Hiern and Jacques Fortier. The lots were 80-by-140 feet, except for one, a triangular lot 290 feet long with a private driveway.
Although the road to the island now begins at St. Bernard Avenue, the original plan was to build a bridge from Wisner Boulevard, which runs between the bayou and New Orleans City Park, but park authorities objected.
The first houses were built in 1957, and the last in 1973. Several of the houses were designed by renowned New Orleans architect Albert Ledner. One in particular is called the "ashtray house" because of an architectural feature that incorporates 1,200 amber ashtrays. This house belongs to former Mayor Ray Nagin, who has put it on the market for $729,000 — and that includes an air-conditioned garage.