Spanish Fort

  In 1763, the Spanish government took control of the New Orleans area and, in the 1770's, the fort was considerably strengthened by Baron de Carondelet, who later became Governor of the Province.  Since the Spanish were not popular with the many French residents of the area, it's hard to say whether they were fortifying the site to protect the residents from outside invasion...or to protect themselves from the residents!   The French flag flew over the region once again, but only for a very brief period, when the Louisiana Purchase took place and New Orleans became part of the United States.  

   During the War of 1812, in an attempt to prevent the British from reaching the city by way of Bayou St. John, the fort was garrisoned by Major Plauche's Battalion, made up of not only white soldiers, but, also, free men of color. A volunteer company of light artillery under the command of Lt. Wagner, also, occupied the fort.  The British took a different route and met their defeat south of New Orleans, in Chalmette.

   When Congress first allowed the sale of obsolete military sites in 1823, Spanish Fort was sold to Harvey Elkins, who built a hotel there.  There's some argument as to whether it was called the Bayou St. John Hotel or the Pontchartrain Hotel, but it became a popular place for New Orleanians to get away from the city and catch the lake breezes during the summer months.  This was, in fact, the first resort to open in the region.  Eventually, it was purchased by John Slidell, who renamed it the Spanish Fort Hotel.

   According to an article in the journal of the Louisiana Historical Society, the first torpedo boat [submarine] ever built was constructed at Spanish Fort on the banks of Bayou St. John, where..."it was made by Captain Hunley and two a test, it sunk at the mouth of Bayou St. John, three sailors losing their lives. The same parties erected another torpedo boat at Charleston, SC, which, after making a couple of successful attacks against Federal gunboats, sank one day.  The one at Spanish Fort [after being displayed from 1880-1908 at the fort's resort] was eventually given to the Soldiers' Home and now rests in the Louisiana State Museum, identified as the 'Pioneer.'

Today, Bayou St. John flows languidly through the heart of New Orleans, a favorite place for people to jog, fish or use the shade of the trees along its banks to wax their cars on sunny summer days.  But, for many decades after the bayou was discovered by French explorers, Bienville and Iberville, it was the vital means of transportation between Lake Pontchartrain (with its access to the Gulf of Mexico) and the Mississippi River, where it began, at the spot where the city of New Orleans had been founded in 1718.

   It's not surprising that the first fortification the French established in the area was at the mouth of Bayou St. John, where it flowed into the lake, probably constructed in about 1701.  The fort was originally called Fort St. John of the Bayou or Fort San Juan del Bayou, later shortened to St. John Fort and, eventually, it became known to New Orleans residents simply as Old Spanish Fort.  The last name remains in use today, more than 180 years after the fort itself was decommissioned and after its use as a hotel, a fashionable resort and an amusement park.  The park closed its gates in 1926 and the fort has been abandoned since then, allowing nature to re-claim much of its own and reduce the structures to crumbling ruins.The casino 
 at Old Spanish Fort was built in 1881 and destroyed by fire in 1906

  "[The first fort] was probably nothing more than a wood palisade, of which all traces have disappeared. When Spain took possession of the Colony, this fortification was strengthened.  There still exist traces of a shell concrete foundation which supported a wood palisade.  No documents of the French and Spanish period have been found describing this fort, although there are, in the Papeles Procedentes de Cuba in the Archive General da Indias in Seville, letters referring to the forts and a letter in 1799 containing instructions to the Commandant of San Juan del Bayou, by which name the fort was known."


A hotel, located on the site of the fort, operated successfully from 1823 to 1878, when the property was purchased by Moses Schwartz, who added, over time, an amusement park, a casino, a theatre, a dancing pavillion, a cabaret and several fine restaurants.  These attracted well-known entertainers, orchestras and opera companies, as well as, many noteworthy guests from all over the country.  Before long, Spanish Fort became known as the "Coney Island of the South."  Among the restaurants wereOver the Rhine - a German restaurant and beer garden,Tranchina's RestaurantTokyo Gardens and a cabaret calledThe Frolics

 In 1906, a massive fire destroyed many of the buildings.  A new owner re-opened the site strictly as an amusement park, adding a roller coaster and ferris wheel and, also, constructing an electric railway from the city to the park.  But, by the mid-1920's, West End Resort and Amusement Park, also, on the lake, had wooed many of Spanish Fort's customers away and, in 1926, the Old Spanish Fort closed its gates and ceased to either protect or entertain the people of New Orleans from that time forward.

   It sits today, crumbling, long abandoned and, for the most part, unnoticed.  People pass by on their hurried errands every day, never knowing the rich history of a site where the founder of New Orleans first made encampment in 1699;  where, in turn, French, Spanish and American flags flew over the first military fort established in the area;  where tense soldiers maintained silent vigils alert for the enemy's approach;  where, armed for battle, American farmers, shopkeepers (and a pirate or two?) prepared to face the British in 1814;  where, in its later incarnation, New Orleanians and many others from around the country and the world, sailed and dined and danced their way through a hundred years of history...and where the fort has been a silent witness to yet another hundred years.

Except for the muted sound of traffic rushing by on a nearby thoroughfare, the only sounds that can be heard are the bayou's breezes dancing through the branches of the ancient oaks.  Today, the fort's only inhabitant is the occupant of a solitary grave.  The unmarked grave sits inside of a rusting wrought iron fence.  A soldier, perhaps, who's been left by his comrades to stand guard alone.  The grave is rumored to be the resting place of a Spanish officer, Sancho Pablo, who fell in love with the daughter of a local Native American chief.  The chief, who opposed the union, is said to have ended the romance by murdering the dashing Spanish soldier.  Is the legend true?  Legends in New Orleans are as common as magnolias in the month of May, so, really....who's to say? 

Nancy Brister



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