After the Louisiana Purchase, an act of Congress allowed the sale of all obsolete military sites. So Harvey Elkins made his own purchase and bought Fort St. John in 1823. He erected the Pontchartrain Hotel, a rather nice place with a gallery that overlooked the lake and some beautiful formal gardens. It became a popular place for city dwellers who wanted to escape from the heat and partake of the cool breezes of the lake.
The Duke of Saxe-Weimar was one of the earliest famous visitors entertained there. He wrote of his arrival at the bayou after a trip from Mobile, Ala., and mentioned the Hotel in his Travels in North America written in 1825.
The property changed hands several times, and eventually was acquired by John Slidell who renamed it the Spanish Fort Hotel. A subsequent owner, the Canal Street, City Park, and Lake Railroad Company, provided transportation from downtown New Orleans to the hotel on a steam train built in 1877. And when the enterprising Moses Schwartz bought the property in 1878, he turned it into a splendid resort with a casino, pavilion, a theater, restaurants, gardens, bathing piers, and picnic facilities for families.
The casino, built in 1881, was a place for high-class entertainment and world-renowned visitors such as Oscar Wilde, who lectured there while on a tour in 1882. The theater was built two years later and was a grand place to go for band concerts and light opera. And one of the fine restaurants was the Over the Rhine where notable guests such as William Makepeace Thackeray and Ulysses S. Grant were entertained. In addition, folks could take a steamboat across Lake Pontchartrain to the Northshore. Pretty soon, Spanish Fort was calling itself the "Coney Island of the South."
But steam train service was discontinued in 1903, and a fire in 1906 destroyed many of the buildings. The property was then bought by the New Orleans Railway and Light Company. They built an electrified rail line to the site and rebuilt the resort as an amusement park, complete with a roller coaster and Ferris wheel.
Nevertheless, the park was unable to compete with its rival, West End, and in 1926 it closed.
Shortly thereafter, the Orleans Levee Board began a project of land reclamation, and in 1928 the first Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park opened across the bayou from old Spanish Fort on filled land newly reclaimed from the lake. At the "Old Beach" there were rides, concession stands, lunchrooms, a bathhouse and a boardwalk.
But then came the Depression, and in spite of improvements, the park was destined for failure. However, in 1933, the Batt family took over the operation of the park and five years later moved it east to Milneburg at the end of Elysian Fields. And in 1939, old Pontchartrain Beach was demolished.
"New" Pontchartrain Beach closed in 1983 and is now the home of the University of New Orleans Technology Park. And all that is left of Spanish Fort are the foundations of the old fort, three stone structures -- relics of fountains from the elegant resort that once flourished there -- and an unknown grave surrounded by an iron railing. My favorite legend connected with the grave is that it is the resting place of Captain Pablo, a Spanish officer who dared to love the daughter of Wah-he-wawa, an Indian chief. It seems that the chief caught his daughter Owaissee and the foolish captain at their trysting place nearby, and slew him on the spot.