This week, in light of the intense controversy the slated removal of the city’s Confederate monuments has invoked, I thought I would excerpt a previous post that seems relevant to the discussion, as well as include a few compelling images from past and present.

As anyone who has been paying attention is well aware, the statue of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, perched between the bayou and the entrance to City Park, is one of the monuments that will be removed in the near future. Given the high emotions surrounding this decision, I couldn’t help but think of the history of this particular intersection—both its political and geological history.

From my previous post about the roiling energy of this particular intersection, with some current commentary woven through:

“Around where the Bayou St. John meets Esplanade Avenue, near the entrance to City Park: this place is its own ‘energetic system’….The phenomena, geological and historical, that have unfolded at this location over the last few thousand years have charged it up so much that next time you’re there—crossing over the bridge to go to the NOMA, for example—you might be able to feel it. [Oh boy, that’s truer today than ever!] Let me give you the briefest of brief histories about this particular spot.

Before the Mississippi River swung toward its current path 700 years ago, a main arm of the river flowed west to east from present-day Kenner, through the heart of New Orleans, out to present-day New Orleans East.

They call this, among other similar names, the Metairie-Sauvage distributary. This former limb of the Mississippi River is crucial to our tale. For one thing, it built up the relatively high, well-drained Metairie-Gentilly ridge system…. It also spawned (gasp!) the bayou itself! Near where modern-day Esplanade Avenue nears City Park, this former distributary meandered…sharply. No one quite knows why it did, but we do know that in the process of meandering it sent yet another distributary southward (a body of water simply called the Unknown Bayou, that would eventually form Esplanade Ridge) and another, smaller distributary northward, toward the lake (the Bayou St. John!). For some inexplicable reason, the Metairie-Sauvage distributary split into three, irregular fingers at this location—and thank goodness it did!  [1]

Here’s another theory about the bayou’s birth, since what I’ve explained above is not 100% certain: it’s possible that after the Mississippi chose its current path 700 years ago and the Metairie-Sauvage course was abandoned—becoming a sluggish bayou in the process—the Bayou St. John formed as a drainage conduit for this larger bayou. At a weak point in the natural levee (around where present-day Esplanade nears City Park!) the Metairie-Sauvage flood waters crevassed and flowed toward the lake, a process that would repeat itself until the bayou was gouged permanently into the landscape. It’s possible, indeed probable, that the formation of the bayou is a combination of these theories—a drainage conduit throughout the millennia, if you will.

Either way you slice it, this spot—near where City Park Avenue meets Carrollton at Moss, near the roundabout with P.G.T. Beauregard at its center, near where the bridge spans the bayou and oak-lined Esplanade begins—has seen a lot of prehistoric action. Water trickling, gushing, overflowing, bifurcating—to the north, to the southeast, to the east. Water heaping up and creeping through. It’s seen a lot of historic action as well.…”

Yes, yes it has. And it is watching history unfold as we speak!

postcard courtesy of Bayou St. John resident Bill Abbott


photo by Simi Kang, 2017.


photo by Simi Kang, 2017.


1. Richard Campanella, Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans (Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, 2008) 77-78.


Lake Pontchartrain, I’ve underestimated you. Or at least largely ignored you while I’ve lived in New Orleans—and you know what, it’s my loss. There’s something somewhat static or expected about the idea of a lake. Many of the lakes in Maine, where I’m from, could very well have more interesting hydrologic histories than I was ever aware of growing up (ancient freshwater trapped in glacial scars, no doubt), but for the most part, I tend to think of lakes as bodies of water with relatively low variability. Large puddles, essentially, that one can take a kayak or a rope swing to. Primarily unchanging, potentially polluted (not naming any names), and probably mucky on the bottom.

Lake Pontchartrain, none of these things describe you! You are technically a lake, if a lake is defined as a body of water surrounded by land, but that is definitely not the best term for you. No, you are an estuary, one of the most productive types of ecosystems on the planet, thank you very much. Until recently, I thought an estuary was simply any brackish body of water—and that still may be true—but a more accurate definition of an estuary is the place where a river meets the sea, where freshwater and saltwater swirl together. That liminal place where a river is in the process ofarriving. Maybe many of you readers already knew this about Lake Pontchartrain—but I didn’t, so bear with me!

As I’ve described in a previous post, Lake Pontchartrain was formed a few thousand years ago by the interplay between a swinging arm of the Mississippi River (before it landed in its modern channel) and a relict, now-buried barrier-island chain that swoops along its southern border like a pearl necklace. Although that former Mississippi wanted to swing north, toward the center of the present-day lake, the sandy island chain prevented it from doing so and it was forced to continue on its northeastern trajectory, forming an oval of earth-trapped seawater in the process. It would have sealed off the lake altogether, but it turns out the Mississippi wasn’t the only river in town. What about the TangipahoaTchefuncte, and Bogue Falaya rivers, coursing into the lake from the north (badass rivers in their own right, boasting rich Native American histories)? They continued to empty their insides into our friend LP, and the water had to go somewhere! A river, no matter how small, must always make its way to the sea. The freshwater forced its way through the eastern edge of the lake, eventually forming the Rigolets and allowing salt water to enter in and out when it pleased. So, to say this another way: Lake Pontchartrain serves as an estuary for three very respectable rivers. When’s the last time you could claim anything nearly as cool?

Lake Pontchartrain, you aren’t just connected to those Northshore rivers and the Gulf via the Rigolets, however. You connect to the Gulf via the Chef Menteur Pass, too, and Lake Maurepas via Pass Manchac. Now you even touch the modern Mississippi herself—via the Bonnet Carre Spillway and the Industrial Canal. And, since 2014, you connect to the Bayou St. John again! The metal door that had been shut tight between you for decades is now open, at least intermittently. You remind me of a broad, shallow heart, pumping water—salty and fresh—in and out of your various pathways and conduits, continuously.

You’re a bit under the weather though, I should mention. Your wetlands are sediment- and freshwater-starved. You’re suffering, as this whole region is, from a lack of Miss River nutrients. It wasn’t always this way.

Lake Pontchartrain fun-facts:

LP touches six Louisiana parishes! St. Tammany, Orleans, Jefferson, St. John the Baptist, St. Charles, and Tangipahoa.

Its average depth is only 12-14 feet!

Its bridge, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, is the longest (continuous) bridge over water in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s also featured in this 1988 ode to New Orleans, by Lucinda Williams, which is what I will leave you with….