Life beyond Covid #7: New Canal Lighthouse Museum

New Canal Lighthouse and Educational Center Museum (Photo by: Mary Rickard)

After several rainy days, the weather was actually magnificent, so I decided to drive out to New Orleans’ riviera. The shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain is the closest thing we have to a coast, characterized by sea gulls, sailboats and picnickers. I’d seen the New Canal Lighthouse Museum when it was unveiled in 2013 and wanted to take another look now that it has reopened. Rebuilt by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF) – now Pontchartrain Conservancy – after being damaged by Hurricane Katrina, the lighthouse was renovated to include offices and an educational center open to the public.

I bought a Groupon to get a reduced admission price and made a reservation. The museum is open 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday by appointment (282-2134), but the grounds are available free of charge for relaxing, strolling and picnicking. Or you could even plan to take lunch or dinner at Landry’s Seafood House right next door.

The lighthouse at the end of West End Boulevard at Lakeshore Drive is actually in its fourth incarnation. The first was an octagonal cypress tower with a light atop built in 1839, which in a few years, began to sink into the spongy soil. The lighthouse replacing it in 1855 was a single-story, square building lit by the revolutionary Fresnel lens. The third, 1890 lighthouse, a two-story, wedding cake design, was taller than the Southern Yacht Club building so its light could shine over the roof. That stood more than 100 years until Hurricanes Katrina and Rita’s pummeled it. LPBF dismantled the wreckage in 2007, storing the remnants in a warehouse and began to fundraise. The fourth and current lighthouse was completed in the spring of 2013.

The New Canal Lighthouse houses a diminutive museum, packing a lot of information that can be absorbed in 45 minutes or less. Its exhibits describe the history of the lakefront, construction of the New Basin Canal, Pontchartrain Amusement Park, WWII Higgins boats, Coast Guard rescues following Hurricane Katrina, aquaculture, artificial reefs and the two major cleanup and restoration campaigns. The information, which is visually displayed with text, diagrams, video and audio, is suitable for both adults or children. An audio tour is accessible online at Personally guided tours are postponed due to Covid-19.

Food chain in Lake Pontchartrain (Photo by: Mary Rickard)

The (fabulous) Fresnel lens (Photo by: Mary Rickard)

Fun facts about Lake Pontchartrain:

  • The lake is 2,000 years old, 40 miles wide and 630 square miles total
  • Native Americans called the lake “Okwa-ta” or vast plane of water
  • The lake is habitat for 150 species of fish, crabs, shrimp and oysters.
  • The steam locomotive nicknamed “Smokey Mary” carried passengers to Milneburg on the lakefront in the 1860s for bathing and entertainment
  • The Fresnel lens (“the invention that saved a million ships” built by the French physicist Augustin-Jean Fesnel, used glass prisms to project beams of light.
  • Five women served as lighthouse keepers, 1847-1932. Madge Norwell is known for her valiant rescues, including 200 excursion boat passengers.
  • The 6-mile, New Basin Canal, filled in by 1961, was constructed in 1831 by thousands of Irishmen recruited to work in America for $1/day. Up to 10,000 died of yellow fever, typhoid and malaria, honored by a memorial on West End Blvd.
  • The seawall was built by the Work Projects Administration in 1930.
  • The Higgins Boats, which landed thousands of GI’s on French shores during WWII, were tested in Lake Pontchartrain.
  • Pontchartrain Amusement Park opened in 1928 and closed in 1983
  • LPBF’s Save Our Lake campaign stopped shell dredging, oil and gas drilling and reduced agricultural runoff. Now that the water is clean, swimming
    is permitted at Fountainbleau State Park, Mandeville Beach and North Shore Beach in Slidell.
  • The Coast Guard rescued 750 people an hour by boat and 150 people by air after Katrina

Mardi Gras Fountain on Lakeshore Drive (Photo by: Mary Rickard)

Pontchartrain Conservancy publishes a Southshore Recreation Guide map with 16 points of interest, including walking/biking paths, fishing piers, marinas, restaurants, fountains and more for a half-day excursion by the shore.


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