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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an item in the
Louisiana Historical Quarterly

published by the
Louisiana Historical Society

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

By Joseph H. De Grange

Spanish Fort was built in 1770 by Baron de Carondelet, who was in charge of these Spanish possessions.

It bore the name of Fort San Juan and was so known by the United States Government when it took possession and appeared on the various plans in their possession and in their archives as Fort San Juan. The name of Spanish Fort was given to it in later years because it was built by the Spanish Governor. A copy of the plan referred to is among the records of the Louisiana Historical Society.

Baron de Carondelet was Governor of the province from 1792 to 1797.

The fort was garrisoned in 1793. The fort was created on this site because of its being an exposed point and a defense to the artery, — Bayou St. John, — which ran towards the city.

The people at that time were not friendly to the Spanish Government so the fort was built for the protection of the Spaniards from the inside as well as from the Indians, — which accounts for its present construction.

The fort covered a frontage of 120′ and a depth of 80′, adjoining a piece of land which was originally granted to Jean Lavergne in 1771 by the Spanish crown under Governor Unzaga.

Bayou St. John was always of value as an entry to New Orleans and as a means of connecting the lake with the Mississippi river.

In 1699, Iberville, then located at Biloxi, was informed of a bayou that was an Indian route to the river and his guide piloted him in a pirogue to an Indian portage at its head waters which is now what is known as Esplanade street. Carondelet Canal was built afterwards from that point to its present terminus at Rampart street.

The Government of the United States still controls Bayou St. John.

The Choctaws, the Biloxis, Bogue Chittos and Chinchubas, made long, hazardous trips across Lake Pontchartrain in birchbark canoes. The Choctaws were renowned hunters and their haunt was Terre aux Boeufs, where the buffalo were in abundance two hundred years ago.

 p269  From this portage, now Esplanade street, was a pathway worn from the travel of Indians from Bayou St. John, who, journeying overland, carried their canoes over Bayou Road to Rampart street, thence through Hospital street to the highlands on the Mississippi river.

Bayou St. John was the route of traffic between Mobile, Biloxi and the Mississippi river.

The various tribes of Indians, — the Tchoupitoulas, Choctaw and Natchez Indians, — were wont to make an annual visit to New Orleans on New Year's day to exchange compliments with the Governor and city authorities and to receive presents stipulated by treaty.

Bayou St. John was the seventeenth landing that Bienville made after leaving Ship Island in 1717.

The Duke of Saxe Weimar in "Travels in North America" in 1825 stated that he visited Bayou St. John on the 21st of January. At that time there was a hotel called Pontchartrain Hotel at the Fort.

The Navigation Canal from Bayou St. John to its present terminus was built in 1796.

Vessels of heavier draught hailing from Europe came into Lake Pontchartrain anchoring at deep water, then estimated to be sixteen feet, and transferred their cargoes to the "Gabare," — which were transported up Bayou St. John to the then Customhouse in Grand Route St. John.

Fort St. John was strengthened by the Spaniards during the holding of West Florida by the British in 1776.

It assumed considerable importance in the War of 1812 when the United States Government garrisoned it to prevent an attack at that point by the British.

In 1814 Major Plauche's Battalion, composed of white and partly of free men of color, garrisoned Fort St. John (Spanish Fort). The garrison was reinforced by a volunteer company of light artillery under the command of Lieutenant Wagner.

In 1803 the fort passed to the United States under the treaty of cession as a military reservation and in 1823 Harvey Elkins took possession of Fort St. John by purchase through special act of Congress. He constructed Bayou St. John Hotel. It subsequently passed into the hands of John Slidell and then into the hands of the Canal Street, City Park and Lake Railroad Company, and in 1877 was sold to Moses Schwartz, who, in 1878, operated the property successfully as an amusement park.

 p270  In 1883 a theatre was built near the fort during the zenith of Spanish Fort's glory as a summer resort. A notable opera company occupied it for several seasons. This theatre was demolished about fourteen years ago. In 1881 Oscar Wilde lectured there in the casino, and the casino and theatre were burned to the ground in 1906.

Restaurants, famous for their cuisine, were established by various caterers of note at Spanish Fort and all notables visiting the City were entertained there, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant, General Barrios, who attempted the consolidation of all South America, — and many others.

In 1896 the East Louisiana Railroad built a long wharf and trestle bridge for connecting with the steamer that used to go across to St. Tammany and operated a steamer called the "Cape Charles," which plied between Spanish Fort and the resorts bordering on the north shores of Lake Pontchartrain. This boat was burned in 1896.

The Spanish Fort property has been operated by the New Orleans Railway and Light Company since 1909. They have spent a great deal of money in making a new and magnificent resort, embellishing the place, erecting new structures, filling up the waste lands and making it a place for the people to have all the benefits of the seashore and breathe the ozone without leaving the city at a very reasonable rate of transportation, the company now offering a service unequalled to reach this point.

The first torpedo boat ever built was constructed at Spanish Fort on the borders of Bayou St. John and this boat, owing to its heavy weight, was sunk in the canal. It was made by Captain Hunley and two Confederate soldiers between 1861 and 1862. It was never used, — for, in a test, it sunk at the mouth of Bayou St. John, three sailors losing their lives in trying the boat. These same parties erected another torpedo boat at Charleston, South Carolina, which after making a couple of successful attacks against the Federal gunboats, — sank one day and the whole crew, — about twenty, — never appeared again on the surface. The one at Spanish Fort eventually was given to the Soldiers' Home where it now rests in peace. It is a proto­type of the torpedo boat Hunley which sank the Federal battle­ship Housatonic in Charleston Harbor in 1864.

The four cypress trees near the Fort — right to the westward — mark the resting place of four Spanish officers. Romance has always centered around those trees and the grave under them and information of interest on this subject is found in the "Legend of the Grave at Spanish Fort," by Jos. H. De Grange, — however, those large trees  p271 stand sentinel-like over the remains of men who probably fought and died in the opening chapters of Louisiana's history.

The historical data above are as nearly correct as can be had after so many years. They were gathered from various documents and publications referring to Spanish Fort and more particularly and fully from an interesting and complete article by Lillian S. Norvell, to whom much credit must be given.​a

Thayer's Note:

a Further detailed information is found in Chapter 46 of Kendall's History of New Orleans, pp755‑757. Some further information, including on the later history of the place as an amusement park, can be found at this page at Pontchartrain.Net; the Web also yields this dispiriting group of photos.

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Page updated: 15 Apr 16