Back in the days of the Model-T, the new motoring public was just itching to get out on the open road and go places. The big problem in southeast Louisiana was there just weren’t too many roads to begin with, and Lake Pontchartrain was one big, fat obstacle in the way of driving onto the rest of the continent.
Initially, the best way to drive from New Orleans to the Florida Parishes on the other side of the lake was to travel on the Mississippi River levee-top and river road toward Baton Rouge then take a right toward your destination. A shorter, more exclusive alternative was to roll your car onto a ferry and steam straight across the lake to the meager road system on that shore. Since ferries were too small, too few, too slow and could sink, new ways were planned to circumvent the lake in the enthusiastic 1920s.
On the Bayou Sauvage Ridge on the east side of the lake, a consortium of businessmen built a long approach through the marshes to a five-mile long Watson-Williams toll bridge crossing the open waters of the eastern bay of Lake Pontchartrain. They charged a whopping $1.25 per car plus 10 cents per passenger and, unfortunately, made the mistake of getting on the wrong political side of Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long. He put them out of business by building a free state bridge across the narrower Rigolets Pass at the end of Chef Menture Ridge a short distance away. The state ended up taking over the bankrupt bridge and it is still in use today as the once famously durable Hwy. 11 Bridge.
A plan for then rounding the west side of Lake Pontchartrain to Hammond via the Isthmus of Manchac got to be fairly grandiose. Despite its close proximity to a 630 square mile open lake, a lakeshore highway was proposed, and indeed, some of it was actually built across northern Jefferson Parish from Bucktown to the St. Charles Parish line. From there it was to continue as an elevated causeway along the marshy/swampy shore of St. Charles Parish into St. John the Baptist Parish. Once there it would reach a T-intersection in the swamps north of Laplace. One direction would go to the Mississippi River Road and the other would do as the 1850s railroad had done and make the twenty-six mile leap through the wilderness swamps of the Isthmus of Manchac. It would cross the foreboding Pass Manchac and make a triumphant entrance into the south side of Ponchatoula, LA.
In spite of this high concept, only part of the road was built. The marshes of St. Charles became dauntingly expensive to cross and was never attempted. Once the US Army Corps of Engineers committed to building the Bonnet Carre Spillway, the road’s construction was halted after the first rows of pilings were set in the lake across the front of the spillway. Instead, the new Airline Highway was used to span the gap between the city and Laplace.
The narrow, old Hammond Highway from Laplace to Ponchatoula was completed in 1927 and was designated Hwy. 33 in the state’s highway system. It was used until the early 1960s when US 51 (now the Manchac Greenway) was constructed alongside. Both roads were officially replaced in the late 1970s by Interstate 55.
WHAT’S LEFT OF THE OLD HAMMOND HIGHWAY –
In New Orleans, the first part of the road is still called the Old Hammond Highway and comprises the last few blocks of Robert E. Lee Blvd. and five blocks behind the lake levee in Bucktown. From there, the original roadbed spans the entire width of East Jefferson on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain to the St. Charles Parish canal. It now lies just outside of the modern storm protection levee, was repaved and used as an exercise trail.
Much of the old road surface of the old 1920s Hammond Highway and several of its relic bridges remain in St. John Parish and can be seen partially hidden in the brush alongside Old U.S. 51/Manchac Greenway. Some is accessible and may be developed into foot paths for close-up nature viewing and even may become part of the long sought Around the Lake Bike Trail. Unfortunately, someone took up all the asphalt on the Tangipahoa side, probably for recycling. Travelers on this old road who are now of a certain age may remember the loop-de-loo ride over its many abrupt bridges and the close quarters that the vegetation on the narrow shoulders had with automobile side-mirrors.
The star of the show was the grade-level bridge over Main Pass Manchac. It was constructed of creosoted timber, had shell and tar macadam paving and a steel truss drawbridge in the middle. This center span was removed once the new Highway 51 bridge was opened and its north and south ends were used as fishing piers. Many people remember the pleasure of long afternoons crabbing and fishing from its guardrails. Unfortunately, the wooden construction of these two approaches lent themselves to whatever vandalism or accidents resulted in their loss by fire and now only pilings are left.
The highway’s triumphal entrance into Ponchatoula was under a long-gone arch that soared over the road and welcomed southbound travelers to “The Gateway to New Orleans.”
For information of the Hammond Highway see:
The bridge pilings of the old New Orleans – Hammond Hwy. crossing Pass Manchac continue to be well used.