New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
Friday, June 14, 2024
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The Zephyr Rollercoaster (or, rather, what's left of it)
















Memorial Day is usually a quiet holiday in New Orleans. There are some traditional veterans' activities, such as laying wreaths on the Mississippi to honor those in the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard who gave their lives for our country. The cemetery at Chalmette Battlefield (which is the final resting place for a large number of 'colored troops' who fought valiantly in all wars from the Civil War forward) is ablaze with the red, white, and blue colors of the small flags planted on each grave. The lakefront is active with families barbecuing and people having a good time on the seawall and the lake itself.

Time was, however, that Memorial Day meant something very unique and very New Orleans. It used to be the opening weekend of Pontchartrain Beach. School is just about over by Memorial Day, and the long weekend was the best time for the Batt family to open their amusement park located at the end of Elysian Fields. The location was one of the three traditional resorts along the lakefront that could be reached by electric train from the downtown area in days gone by. There was West End on the western edge of New Orleans, then Spanish Fort along Bayou St. John, and then Milneburg (the original name of the Gentilly neighborhood that includes Pontchartrain Beach.

The land at the end of Elysian Fields Avenue was a lakeside resort until the 1930s, at which time it became part of the New Orleans Naval Air Station. During the war, this station was used as a training facility as well as a test site for the boats constructed by Higgins Shipbuilding. Higgins built many of the thousands of landing craft and PT boats used during WWII. The Navy abandoned the property after the war to the state. The Orleans Levee Board leased the bulk of the site to the Louisiana State University system, who opened up LSUNO. The section of the property that fronted the lake was leased to the Batt family, who developed it into an amusement park. That park had rides from one end of the midway to the other, but the most popular was by far the wooden rollercoaster called the Zephyr.

The Zephyr wasn't as fancy as many of today's coasters, but it sure was fun to ride. After waiting in line in the art-deco terminal section, you boarded a classic coaster train, went through a small tunnel, then began the climb up the first, large coaster hump. From the top you could look out over the college campus into Gentilly and down towards the Quarter and the river. That first descent led to a second smaller hump, then curved into a fairly wicked turn. After the turn, the train went through a fast series of smaller bumps and returned to the terminal. While many Beach afficianodos may argue that the Wild Maus or one of the other rides were more exciting, I'll stick with the Zephyr. It had character, soul, and New Orleans style.

That coaster was an icon for me, having spent so many years going to school in the Gentilly area. Brother Martin students had a special affinity to Pontchartrain Beach. It was a good, cheap date. We learned to drive in its parking lot, and the best beer I ever had in my life was a hard-earned Dixie I shared with my teammates on the Brother Martin Drill Team after one particular afternoon of practice in the fall of 1973. Through all of that, the Zephyr looked down on us, reminding us that it would be there for us the following summer for another few months of fun. Pontchartrain Beach closed in 1984, a victim of the oil bust and a lack of interest in local attractions that just didn't measure up to parks like AstroWorld and Disney World. When the decision was made to close the park and turn the land back to the Levee Board, everyone knew that the Beach would be converted into something other than an amusement park. Those suspicions were confirmed when plans were unveiled to develop the site into a research park for the University of New Orleans. While those of us who graduated from UNO were excited that the school was expanding again, we were still disappointed to see a place that held so many memories for several generations fade away. The rides that could be dismantled were removed and sold to other amusement parks. The Zephyr wasn't going to be able to be re-sold, being an old wooden coaster, so it was scheduled to be demolished. Enter Aaron Broussard, then Mayor of Kenner. Then-mayor Broussard (he's now the Chairman of the Jefferson Parish Council, a very powerful position in parish politics) talked the Levee Board and the Batts into giving him some of the structures from the Beach to place in a small park he was developing across the street from Kenner City Hall out on Williams Blvd. At the time, everyone thought that Broussard was being a bit of a packrat, but now we've come to appreciate this bit of preservation. The top of that main hump of the Zephyr sits to this day in that park in Kenner, so if you're in a nostalgic mode, head out to Kenner City Hall (1800 Williams), and you can walk past this little memory, as well as the entrance to the Bali Hai restaurant and several other structures. It's a great way to re-kindle some wonderful memories.