Lake Pontchartrain has been many things to many people – an ancient trade route, a commercial
asset, a source of food and great pleasure. It is a beautiful, often tranquil, body of water that has raged with wind driven
waves countless times before recorded history and many times thereafter. Each time the lake overflowed its boundaries determined
members of the surrounding communities saved whatever they could and built their lives anew because there is a love for this
place that is stronger than even the most powerful storm.
Hurricane Katrina will not be remembered by most residents around Lake Pontchartrain as “The Storm”.
It was not the storm that resulted in the massive devastation in this area but rather it was “The Flood” (New
Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose aptly coined it “The Thing”). After the hurricane winds passed over
most residents took stock of the relatively limited damage, said a silent prayer of thanks, and gleefully commented to each
other, “We dodged the bullet”. Then federally engineered man-made levees and canal walls broke allowing storm
driven Gulf of Mexico waters which had been pushed into the lake and canals to inundate the area.
It has been said that New Orleans has more canals than Venice. The first major
governmental project near Lake Pontchartrain was the construction of a canal in 1795 to connect the city of New Orleans (near
the Mississippi River) to Bayou St. John which served as a trade route to the lake – from the lake vessels would pass
through the Rigolets and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. This route, shown to French explorer Pierre LeMoyne Sieur d'Iberville
in1699 by members of the Biloxi and Bayogoula tribes, was easily navigable in both directions as opposed to the longer path
to the gulf via the river and the practically impossible upriver trip against the tide in the days before the invention of
the steamboat. This first man-made channel commissioned by and named for the Spanish governor Carondelet also served to aid
drainage of the low lying swamps between the city and the bayou.
During the early 1800’s a proposed canal connecting the Carondelet Canal basin to the river was never built but
leant its name to the street on which it was planned – Canal Street. The second major canal, this one constructed under
American rule, connected the city (not far from the Carondelet Canal basin) to the lake at West End. The New Basin Canal
was dug during the 1830’s, primarily by newly landed Irish laborers. The workers risked mosquito transmitted diseases
while toiling through the swampy quagmire and many died; they were hired because their lives were considered by the builders
to be less valuable than those of their slaves. Upon completion, the New Basin Canal and the shell road along side it allowed
another route for trade via the lake and gave city dwellers a new path to the lakefront (the Pontchartrain Railroad had already
begun its run along Elysian Fields Avenue to Milneburg in 1832).
Through the years, as the city of New Orleans expanded toward the lake, more canals were dug. The London Avenue Canal
was commissioned by Alexander Milne during the mid 1800’s to be used primarily for navigation to and from the lake but
also as a means to drain outlying swampland. The notorious 17th Street Canal (formerly called the Upperline Canal)
is said to have been dug, not primarily for drainage but to build a bed for the Jefferson and Lake Pontchartrain Railroad
tracks from the City of Carrollton to the lake.
The U.S. Corps of Engineers completed the Industrial Canal in 1921. It was the first to actually connect the river to
the lake and subsequently to the Gulf of Mexico. By 1965, the Corps had completed the bisecting Mississippi River Gulf Outlet
(MRGO). This problematic channel provided yet another short cut between the river and gulf – this one between the Gulf
of Mexico and the Industrial Canal but it was later "realized” that it also allowed saltwater intrusion from the
gulf into St. Bernard Parish and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin resulting in the loss of protective freshwater marshes and wetlands.
Due to erosion and lack of maintenance, by 1989 the MRGO was three times wider than its
original 650 foot design. In recent years it handled an average of one vessel per day. In August, 2005, the MRGO allowed
Hurricane Katrina’s gulf surge a direct and amplified path to communities along its sixty-six mile route, to residences
and businesses along the Industrial Canal, into Lake Pontchartrain, and subsequently to surrounding areas.
All those canals and channels were created to “get to the lake”.
And so we do:
Surrounded by six parishes -- Orleans, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, St. John
the Baptist, St. Charles, and Jefferson -- Lake Pontchartrain is said to be the second largest salt-water lake in the United
States (the Great Salt Lake is the largest); this is disputable because Lake Pontchartrain is also considered a brackish estuary.
It encompasses 630 square miles running approximately 40 miles (east to west) at its widest point and 24 miles (north to
south) between Metairie and Mandeville. Its average depth is 12 to 14 feet but was considerably deeper in centuries past.
It has been estimated that Lake Pontchartrain is 2,500 to 4,000 years old and it is the home of over 125 species of fish.
Beginning on the south central shore and running clockwise
around the lake can be found: the unincorporated community of Metairie which includes Bucktown and the southern terminus of
the world’s longest over-water span (the Causeway); the city of Kenner, the Bonnet Carré Spillway which diverts
water from the Mississippi River into the lake during high river tides; Pass Manchac which connects to Lake Maurepas; the
city of Madisonville at the Tchefuncte River; Mandeville (the northern terminus of the Causeway); Fontainbleau State Park;
and Orleans Parish which includes Fort Pike at the Rigolets, Pointe Aux Herbes at the southern end of the Maestri/Five Mile
Bridge, the Chef Menteur Pass which leads to Lake Borgne, Little Woods, Lincoln Beach, the New Orleans Lakefront Airport,
the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal/Industrial Canal, Pontchartrain Beach, Bayou St. John, and West End.
We begin this pictorial history where Bayou St. John met the lake because it
was there that Iberville decided to settle and…the rest is a glimpse of the modern history of Lake Pontchartrain.
Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, and Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote about it. Simple fishing camps and elaborate resorts were built
along its shores. The first submarine and WWII Higgins boats (“The boats that won the war”) were built and tested
near and on its waters. Elvis was there as were many of the early Jazz greats. There was a fort with an amusement park.
Now there’s a technology park with a lighthouse. There was a rousing lakefront town that found itself a half mile
inland a century later. The first lighthouse built outside the thirteen original colonies was on Lake Ponchartrain. The
second railroad in the United States connected the lake to the city of New Orleans. Three times Lake Pontchartrain was able
to claim having the world’s longest bridge. Local legend tells of a brewery that offered $10,000 to the winner of the
"Jax Golden Gill Fish Hunt”. It is a colorful history.
Much of what you’ll see here is gone now due to “progress”, Mother Nature’s wrath, human error,
or some combination thereof. The only real constant is and has been the struggle to survive and thrive near this bountiful
lake which provides so much beauty and pleasure.