Fort San Juan del Bayou
Photos and History of the "Old Spanish Fort"

Bayou St. John at Lake Pontchartrain
New Orleans, Louisiana
Much of the fort was already falling into ruin in 1934, when these pictures were taken.
From inside the fort, looking toward the bayou.
View of the fort from the Bayou St. John.
Front wall of battlement.
              Lower wall                                                    Original palisade
Front wall.
Excavation shows lower wall of original fort.
This photo shows three
periods of construction.
Top of battlements.
Stairs of original hotel built in 1823, after the fort was no longer in use.
National Historic Survey Report     Old Spanish Fort Resort & Amusement Park

The "Little Fort" & Sunny Schiro's Efforts to Save It       Spanish Fort Today

Back to   Index:  Old New Orleans

The Past Whispers
   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.
   We're fortunate to have the photographs and data collected during the National Historic Survey, conducted in the 1930's.  The photographs on this page are from the NHS report.  There are eleven pages in the report, to see images of the rest, as well as a sketch showing the original location of the Old Spanish Fort, click on the link directly below the following excerpt from page one.  To continue reading my history of the fort, go to the bottom of this page.  To read about the fort as a resort area and see pictures of it as it is today, click on
"Old Spanish Fort Resort and Amusement Park." -- Nancy Brister
  "[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."
  Click here to see images of the rest of the NHS report.
A visitor to the site wrote to say that the Fort's first commander was Louis Juchereau de St-Denis, uncle by marriage of d'Iberville, also, second cousin to d'Iberville and his brother, Bienville.  Later, St-Denis commanded at Post St-Jean Baptiste des Natchitoches.  Thank you, Patty!  Nancy
    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 soldiers...in 1861-62...in 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.' "   See photo below.   -- Nancy Brister

   Continued on the "
Old Spanish Fort Resort and Amusement Park" page, which contains photos of the old amusement park; and of the fort as it looks today.
Above & below, Captain Hunley's first submarine.