Visiting the shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes today, you'd never know that the rather sparse shore used to be teeming with restaurants, resorts, nightclubs, lake houses, drag bars, and even large-scale amusements for decades upon decades. Increasing amounts of pollution due to all of this human activity, as well as routine storm devastation, washed away most of the businesses that lined the lake, leaving just a handful of restaurants, boat houses, and marinas in the West End area.
One of the most beloved attractions of the lake was Pontchartrain Beach: a full-fledged amusement park that defined a generation of New Orleanians. You can probably catch one of the Pontchartrain Beach babies quietly singing the tune of the cherished park's theme song every once in a while. This bygone amusement park no longer exists, but its memory lives on strongly.
Pontchartrain Beach actually existed before it was built on the lakeshore. In the book Pontchartrain Beach: A Family Affair, co-written by Katy Danos and Bryan Batt, a native New Orleanian and renowned actor on stage and screen, the humbler beginnings of the amusement park are explained thoroughly. Batt wrote, "My father's father was an iceman, and he overcameth. As the story goes, my grandfather was in his horse-drawn carriage, delivering ice from his family's business to the stately mansions along St. Charles Avenue, when he noticed, across the neutral ground, a speeding Model T truck carrying a refrigerator. He instinctively thought, 'I've got to get out of this business.' Over the years, I'm sure some poetic license has been taken with the tale, but the outcome was just that; The iceman became a showman, and what a showman he was. He dreamed of New Orleans having a real family amusement park, and Pontchartrain Beach was born."
Harry Batt Sr. was a young man working at his family's ice-delivering company; his grandfather had built the first ice-manufacturing plant in New Orleans in 1883. He was accustomed to delivering ice blocks to the many resorts, clubs, and arcades that lined Lake Pontchartrain. When he decided to get out of the ice business because of modernization in the 1920s, he felt confident about investing in these lakeshore amusements, which always had happy customers coming in. He asked his father to sublease some concession stands and rides at the Spanish Fort amusement park, which worked well for some time and took on more and more of the park as time went on.
Batt Sr. built up his amusement park over the years, but he knew that he could capitalize even further upon the families moving into and building homes in Gentilly, a brand-new neighborhood. He leased a large tract of land where Elysian Fields Avenue meets Lake Pontchartrain and moved his massive amusements and roller coasters to the new spot in 1939. This was the beginning of the most iconic era of the park.
The coasters and rides that populated the park are still remembered fondly by those who had the chance to ride them. Danos and Batt wrote, "Pontchartrain Beach had multiple draws—swimming, shows, contests—but the stunning technology, beauty, and allure of the world-class rides were undoubtedly Harry's passion. The rides that were installed at the Beach were one or first of a kind, and they towered over others in this way. His lifelong policy of the Beach having the most modern acquisitions took him around the world in pursuit of the finest talent, artistry, and cutting-edge advances."
Other popular attractions were the Cockeyed Circus and Laff in the Dark, which were spooky walk-through funhouses with slanted floors and mirrored walls. After some years, the two were combined to become a scary haunted house ride. Screams could also be heard coming from the riders of the Ragin' Cajun steel coaster with a loop. Several of the Beach's rides have been immortalized in the Endymion parade as super-floats.
To keep customers coming back who weren't as interested in the rides, Harry booked circus acts, comedy shows, and musicians, throughout the park's history. Danos and Batt wrote, "In 1955, the Beach hosted popular local disc-jockey Red Smith's second annual Hillbilly Jamboree, with Elvis Presley billed as the top act, right along with the Miss Hillbilly Dumplin' Beauty Pageant. When he returned to the Beach the next summer [after 'Heartbreak Hotel' was released], he was the leading figure of rock and roll, and his mere presence on the Midway sent park patrons swooning. Elvis's two visits to the Beach are legendary in New Orleans summer history."
By the early 1980s, the lake was incredibly polluted, and crowds were declining in the area. Pontchartrain Beach was closed on September 23, 1983, not long before the 1984 World's Fair came to town. The Batt family adored the World's Fair, often looking to the international showcase for inspiration for their park, but it may have been too difficult to compete with it.
Vestiges of the old Pontchartrain Beach can still be enjoyed around town and around the Southern United States. Rides were sold to amusement parks in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The hand-painted horses from the carousel are now at the carousel in City Park.
Several generations of New Orleanians can appreciate the pain that comes from losing their beloved amusement park, where they spent so many fun-filled summer days and nights. Pontchartrain Beach was there for the Baby Boomers and some Gen-Xers, and Six Flags (formerly Jazzland) sits decaying in New Orleans East. New Orleans feels just a little incomplete without an amusement park.