“The Coney Island of the South”
The Whip was added to Spanish Fort’s amusement park rides in 1919 and was immediately one of the most popular features of the park, drawing enormous crowds. It joined the already existing merry-go-round, carousel and circle swing. Airplane rides over the lake were added in 1919, followed in 1922 by Dodge ’Em bumper cars and a gigantic roller coaster that cost $50,000. The Caterpillar was added in 1924, and Custer Car Ride in 1926.
Spanish Fort, located where Bayou St. John meets Lake Pontchartrain, was built by the French in 1701 and expanded by the Spanish in 1788, but never saw battle. Henry Elkins purchased it from the government in 1823 and transformed it into a pleasure garden consisting of the original Pontchartrain Hotel, a casino, live music and rides.
In 1878, the Schwartz brothers took over and turned it into one of the most popular places in New Orleans, adding a concert hall, theater and alligator pond. Thousands would enjoy open air concerts, opera, vaudeville, boat rides and swimming throughout the 1880s.
The 1890s saw Spanish Fort fall into decline. A fire sparked by a passing towboat in 1906 burned down the casino and five other buildings.
In 1909, the New Orleans Railway and Light Co. purchased the site and rebuilt it, converting it into a beautiful lakeside amusement park in just two short years. Daily movies and vaudeville productions were interspersed with live music ranging from military bands to jazz. The swimming area – with Tranchina’s Pavilion offering dressing rooms, bathing costumes and towels – featured slides and ladders, and was very popular in the heat of summer.
But what proved to be the biggest draw during this period was dancing. A dance hall called Tokio Gardens was crowded nightly with hundreds of couples. Themed dancing contests awarded prizes to the “biggest big baby,” “flapper with the best bobbed hair” and those with the most exotic costumes.
Each year was more successful than the last. During the 1920s, many services were expanded, including a skating rink extension that was added to the dance floor. Nightly entertainment featured everything from Charley Chaplin Clown Skaters to daredevils to diving horses. The concession area featured food and drinks of all kinds, but also entertainment at stands like “Boob McNutt’s Cross-Word Puzzle House.”
At the height of Spanish Fort’s success, the New Orleans Levee Board bought 20 acres of land for a lakefront improvement project, including the amusement park property. Spanish Fort was dismantled in 1927 and is a small, quiet park today.