New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
Friday, March 24, 2017
Ride and seek: Pontchartrain Beach - 15 years later.New Orleans Magazine, August 1998 v32 n11 p128(1)
Ride and seek: Pontchartrain Beach - 15 years later.
(amusement park memories)(Streetcar)(Column) Errol
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 New Orleans Magazine
Once was enough on the Wild Maus. After the little cart I was belted into
made a few innocent tums along its track, it suddenly began to accelerate,
pushing my head back as though gravity had delivered a punch. Speeding,
speeding, faster, faster, the cart was jetting toward the end of the track where
the faint sight of the New Orleans skyline was in the distance. A headline was
in the making: "Boy Peeled Off Hibernia Bank Tower After Being Hurled
I would live to write about it only because right at the track's edge the Maus
made a quick, sharp turn to the left and then sped in another direction, racing
toward another edge but always turning just in time.
Some people were more squeamish about rides at the old Pontchartrain
Beach Amusement Park than others. I belonged to the "more" category. I
never did ride on the Ragin' Cajun, having a lifelong resistance to rides that
turn me over full circle. I did ride the Zephyr roller coaster several times,
always with apprehension, but usually enjoying it more than I anticipated.
Once, I even went back for a second ride on the same night.
It doesn't seem possible that the amusement park has been closed 15 years
this month. The season of '83 was a melancholy one. Old-fashioned
amusement parks had become outdated in the era of the slick theme parks.
New Orleanians were flocking to Disney World where a new development,
EPCOT Center, was going to open a year later. The next year was going to
bring competition to New Orleans as well -- the '84 World's Fair. An
amusement park just couldn't compete.
What comes to mind most vividly when I think about "The Beach," as New
Orleanians most commonly referred to the amusement park, is the midway.
Remembering it 15 years later, it occurs to me that the midway always was
about mereories. It was not something experienced for the moment but for
the past. When I walked it in '83, I remembered it from years earlier when
the smell of fried onions would drift from the burger stand and when the
ultimate in beach kitsch, a towering clown's head, stood at the entrance to the
fun house. I remembered marching along the midway with the Boy Scouts
each Flag Day, thousands of boys lured to a patriotic ceremony by the
promise of free rides after the speeches were done.
Another generation remembered different males in uniforms. During the war
years, the Beach was a pastime for fly boys from the near-by naval air base
looking for love and thrills along the midway, some, having found both, getting
cozy on the Ferris wheel.
One ride that transcended the generations at the Beach was also my ride of
choice: the Bug. While some of the thrill rides were leased by the amusement
park, the Bug was one of the original possessions of the Batt family who
owned the park. The ride cleverly provided just enough thrills and jostling
while still compensating for the wimp factor among its passengers. Riders sat
in a train of round cars, each painted to look like the link in some sort of
centipede. Within each car, passengers held on to the rim of a fixed metal
wheel in the center. The Bug raced along a track that had its ups and downs
and a few fast tums but nothing like the smash-face horrors of tine Wild
By Labor Day weekend of '83, even the Maus was tamed. The culprit could
be seen in the very skyline into which the Maus always seemed to be taking a
plunge. The city in the distance was changing; the population was shifting. A
member of the Bart family once lamented to me that in the early days theme
parks were built on the outskirts of towns, where the land was cheap, but as
the cities expanded they absorbed the outskirts, and land values shot up like
the Zephyr racing up its track. The times just weren't right anymore.
There were fireworks during that last weekend as the Beach buffs gathered
for their last bout of making memories. My nostalgia supply was already
overflowing, including thoughts of those long summer weekend nights when
parents would put the kids in the back seat of a Chew and go for a ride along
the lakefront. The path would eventually parallel the Beach, where the car
would be slowed enough so that we could watch the Zephyr slowly making
its climb toward that highest peak. Like good drama, it would gradually build
to a crescendo. As the lead car reached the top, it would begin to point
downward, preparing to lead the other cars in the sudden swoosh to the low
end of the tracks. Riders would inevitably raise their arms to absorb the full
force of nature, and there would be a chorus of yells as the Zephyr plunged
toward the bottom. "Crazy people!" my mother would always say, and we all
In its lifetime the Beach provided many badges of honor, including that one
clay I too would be among the crazy with arms extended, reaching to the
summer night sky.