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NOLA History: Sailing Lake Pontchartrain at West End

Sailboats at West End, 1910s

Merchants who set up businesses on the “American” side of Canal Street after Louisiana became part of the United States didn’t want to have to transport goods from the turning basin of the Carondelet Canal on the “Creole” side of the city, so they incorporated a company to build a canal connecting the uptown side of the city with Lake Pontchartrain. In 1838, the New Basin Canal was opened, and the area where the canal connected with the lake became known as “West End.” While West End was never the amusement/entertainment hub along the lakefront that Spanish Fort was, the area was still a popular day trip from the city.

Map courtesy of the New Orleans Public Library's city archives

This map section from the city’s archives shows West End in 1883. A lighthouse was constructed at the head of the New Basin Canal in 1838. Its location is marked in red on the map. The land ends on this map more or less where present-day Robert E. Lee Blvd. is located. The water in between the lakeshore in the map and the lighthouse was reclaimed and filled in over time.  The “Lakeshore” subdivision now occupies that watery area on the map.

The Lake House Hotel, from a late 1860s photo

The Lake House was one of the first resorts built at West End, dating back to 1860.  The New Orleans City Railroad Company ran steam train service out to West End in the 1880s, which was replaced by electric streetcars in 1895.  Streetcars ran down West End Blvd. to the lake until 1948, when they were discontinued in favor of bus service.

A small amusement area was opened at the beginning of the 20th Century. This 1912 postcard shows the fishing piers and bath houses, with the Ferris Wheel and other rides/attractions off to the left.  The building next to the rides is the Southern Yacht Club.

Aerial view of West End, circa 1922

This aerial view of West End is a Franck photo from 1922. The Southern Yacht Club (SYC) is the building furthest out into the lake, with the New Basin Canal Lighthouse located at the end of the jetty to the right of the club.  The amusement area and hotels were gone by the time this photo was taken, and the West End area was a public park.  The Southern Yacht Club eventually constructed a marina to the west of the club building, and the city expanded that facility by building a breakwater out to the same distance as the SYC.  The Municipal Yacht Harbor was built between the park and the breakwater.  These facilities made West End the sailing and sport boating hub of the lakefront.

The harbor area at the bottom right of the photo became an important part of the United States’ war effort in the 1940s.  That area is where Andrew Jackson Higgins set up his facilities for construction the landing craft used for D-Day and across the Pacific.  The landing craft were built here at West End, then tested on Lake Pontchartrain. After the war, the area used by Higgins Industries was re-developed into the Orleans Marina, increasing the number of slips for recreational boating at West End.

West End’s famous restaurants, such as Bruning’s, Fitzgerald’s, Jaegers and others, were just a bit further west of this photo, out of the picture on the bottom right.  Many of these restaurants were severely damaged (if not destroyed) by Hurricane Georges in 1998.  Sadly, what little remained after that was obliterated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The New Basin Lighthouse was blown apart by Katrina, but the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation acquired the broken structure from the US Coast Guard, and is raising funds to re-build and restore it.  Efforts are moving forward on a number of fronts to return West End to its glory days.

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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