Today in French Quarter History, on August 30, 1956, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway opened to traffic. The Causeway is the longest bridge over continuous water in the world. In today’s post, we’ll explore, not so much the bridge, but Lake Pontchartrain’s connection to the French Quarter. If it weren’t for the lake, New Orleans and the French Quarter would never have come into existence.

How did Lake Pontchartrain get its name?

Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, found the mouth of the Mississippi River on March 2, 1699. Shortly thereafter, with the help of Indian guides, he began an exploration of the territory upriver. When they reached the brackish lake Okwata, d’Iberville changed its name to honor his chief proponent, the French Minister of the Marine, the Comte de Pontchartrain. He also named an adjoining, smaller body of fresh water, Lake Maurepas, after Ponchartrain’s son.

An important portage or path

D’Iberville’s guides also pointed out that the area that came to be New Orleans would be a good place to settle because of a “portage.” A portage is a path used to connect two waterways. The Indians used the portage to travel back and forth easily between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi. The portage was about a mile long and ran from the river to Bayou St. John. After carrying their canoes along the path and arriving at the Bayou, the Indians would paddle about three miles to reach Lake Pontchartrain. While the portage provided a “back door” from New Orleans to the Gulf Coast, it also provided a “back door” to Louisiana’s interior.

It would take almost 20 years to establish New Orleans at the place the guides originally pointed out. This would be accomplished by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, in 1718. Jean Le Moyne was d’Iberville’s much younger brother who had accompanied him on his journey of discovery in 1699. In 1701, at age 21, d’Iberville named him commandant of the Louisiana territory.

Trading with the Gulf Coast and French Canada

It was important to the crown to establish a connection point between holdings in Canada and along the Gulf Coast. The king also wanted to develop the lower Mississippi itself as both a trade waterway and a defense against British encroachment. Establishing a city at present-day New Orleans near Lake Pontchartrain seemed to be a logical choice.

Serious French settlement along the Mississippi would require a reliable method of supply. Fortunately, bringing in supplies through the lake from the Gulf Coast was a much shorter route than attempting to travel up the Mississippi River from its mouth. The Indians knew this long before the French arrived. The distance from the river to the Gulf Coast via Bayou St. John saved approximately 75 miles of travel.

From portage to canal

The portage route to the lake was such an important supply chain that first the French, and later the Spanish, would develop it further. It became an actual road (Bayou Road) under the French, but the Spanish took another approach altogether. They built the Carondelet Canal. The canal ran in a straight line directly from Bayou St. John to the back of the French Quarter. Boats arriving from the lake would take the canal right to town! By the 1820s, seventy to eighty vessels were making the trip each day.

The Americans and the New Basin Canal

After the Americans acquired Louisiana in 1803, there was a great rivalry between the Creoles of the French Quarter and the Americans who settled across Canal Street. This rivalry extended to the boats arriving on Lake Pontchartrain. The Americans dug a new canal, dubbed the New Basin Canal, and the Carondelet came to be called the Old Basin Canal. Commercially, the New Basin Canal was even more successful than the Old Basin Canal. However, the importance of the lake/portage/canal routes would wane. Soon, the golden age of steamboats would replace them.

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