Locals have been making day trips to New Orleans’ lakefront for more than 150 years. While the amusement areas at West End and Spanish Fort, as the song says, “ain’t there no more,“ you can still enjoy a day on the lake with echoes of the past at the New Canal Lighthouse.
The “New Canal” is what we usually call the “New Basin Canal.” It’s called “new” because the Carondelet Canal, which ran from Basin Street in Faubourg Treme to Bayou St. John, was the first canal dug to connect New Orleans to Lake Pontchartrain. The new-to-the-city Anglo-Americans wanted access to the lake on their side (the “uptown” side) of Canal Street, so they dug a canal from South Rampart Street to West End. In 1837, Congress approved $25,000 (no paltry sum!) to construct a lighthouse to guide ships into the canal from the lake. The land negotiations and purchases were completed that year, and an eight-sided structure built of cypress was built.
The 1838 lighthouse fell apart by the 1850s, so Congress put up additional funds in 1854 to rebuild it. That building lasted until 1890. The lighthouse serviced the canal and West End harbor continuously, with the exception of the Civil War years of 1863-64, when General Sherman ordered it extinguished.
By the 1890s, the 1855 building was in bad shape, so the lighthouse was again rebuilt. It was painted white with a red roof. This building was the two-story structure remembered by many in New Orleans, and it lasted until 2005. The roof was slate, rather than wooden shingles, because the smoke and ash from steamships entering the canal was a threat to a wood roof. The lighthouse survived the devastating Hurricane of 1915 (that storm had no name; giving hurricanes names began in the 1950s). While a utility building and one bulkhead were destroyed, the building itself was OK.
Prior to the 1930s, The lighthouse itself was never really a focal point of activity. Most folks would take the streetcar out to West End and picnic in West End Park, enjoying music at the bandstand there. Others would go to the various restaurants and nightclubs in the area. One of the biggest jobs projects of the Great Depression was the construction of the seawall along the south shore of the lake. Now that the lake shore itself wasn’t swampy and mushy, and Lakeshore Drive offered easy access to the lake by car, a day along the lakefront was possible.
The New Basin Canal’s importance to the city diminished over time, particularly after the Industrial Canal in Gentilly and the Ninth Ward was opened in 1923. That canal was much wider, and directly connected the lake and river. After WWII, commercial use of the New Basin Canal had dropped off to the point where the decision was made to fill it in. Several blocks of the canal remain, as the Higgins Industries site at West End was converted to a public marina. The lake end of the canal provides access to boat slips for the various marinas operating there.
Along West End Boulevard, there have always been several restaurants on the east bank of the New Basin Canal. Boaters can pull right up on a Sunday afternoon, have a cocktail at one of these places and even stay for dinner.
The modern New Canal Lighthouse rose up from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, and is privately owned by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. The LPBF had been negotiating to take control of the lighthouse since the 1990s. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita did so much damage to the 1890 structures that LPBF went on a campaign to completely rebuild. The lighthouse beacon was re-lit in 2012, and shines nightly, but the project to restore the facility is ongoing. LPBF restored the communications building next to the lighthouse. It’s now used as an education center. Other plans call for rebuilding the dock, and additional funds are needed for ongoing upkeep. Check out the LPBF’s website, and buy a personalized brick to support the lighthouse.
To get to the New Canal Lighthouse from downtown, take the Canal Streetcar line (the red streetcar) to the Cemeteries Terminal. Transfer there to the Lakeview bus line. Get off at West End and Robert E. Lee Boulevards, and walk to the lighthouse.
For more great old photos and history on the lakefront, be sure to check out Catherine Campanella’s book, Lake Pontchartrain, part of Aracadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series.
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is also author of Legendary Locals of New Orleans. Branley’s latest book, New Orleans Jazz, is now available in bookstores and online. Edward is also the NOLA History Guy, online and on Twitter (@NOLAHistoryGuy).