NOLA 300: New Orleans’ lakefront through the years

NEW ORLEANS -- Lake Pontchartrain has been shaping New Orleans' history even before the city was officially founded 300 years ago.

"Lake Pontchartrain has hosted settlements on the shoreline for thousands of years," says Chris Cook, Director of the New Canal Lighthouse at West End. The Lighthouse holds a museum of the history of the lake.

"The French, when they arrived--being in the days of sail--they recognized right away it was a key backdoor to the Mississippi River that would allow for much greater commerce," says Cook.

French ships could enter Lake Pontchartrain through passes leading to the Gulf of Mexico rather than sailing up the river. Then, they could send cargo to the city by way of Bayou St. John.

But, it wasn't all business a the lakefront.

"Think about in the days before air conditioning. The breezy lakefront was kind of an essential oasis for residents of the city. And, people would flock here," says Cook.

The entertainment at the lake included hotels, resorts, and amusement parks. Music was also a big draw. One of the famous early jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong is titled "West End Blues."

In the 1930s, the shoreline of the lake was extended to provide flood protection for the city. It was a massive project that forever changed the lakefront.

"It brought the shoreline more than a half-mile out into the lake," says Cook. "The shoreline would have been approximately where Robert E. Lee Blvd is now. So, this lighthouse and the other one at the end of Elysian Fields would have been further offshore."

All the construction and increased usage of the lake had negative effects as well.

"Our impact on the lake became apparent in the 1970s when pollution concerns closed the lake to swimming. And, the health of the estuary system that is Lake Pontchartrain was in jeopardy," says Cook.

"One of the major problems was the dredging of the rangia clams," he adds. "A healthy population of rangia clams can clean all of the water in Lake Pontchartrain every three or four days."

The rangia clams are the familiar white shells that appear in the foundations of homes and sidewalks all over the region when the land sinks around them.

"The suspension of shell dredging was one major step and also identifying sources of pollution on the rivers that flow in to Lake," he adds.

Cook sees a bright future for the lakefront as a destination for locals.

"I would say the lakefront itself is enjoying another boom time," says Cook. "There's been more restaurant openings. There's been more expansion of recreational opportunities. So, I think that we are in another golden age of recreation on Lake Pontchartrain."