Bayou St. John
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The Bayou as a natural feature drained the swampy land, of a good portion of what was to become New Orleans, into Lake Pontchartrain. In its natural state, it extended much farther than today; 18th- and early 19th-century maps show it had tributaries or branches (at least seasonally) reaching into what are now the Broadmoor neighborhood, the New Orleans Central Business District just back from St. Charles Avenue above Lee Circle, the Carrollton neighborhood, the Treme neighborhood, and a branch connecting to Bayou Gentilly.
The portion still in existence today was navigable by canoes and similar small vessels, used by Native Americans since pre-Columbian times. The natives knew the waterway as Bayouk Choupic. There was a portage between the Bayou and the Mississippi River, which attracted early French explorers, traders, and trappers, some of whom established a small community there by the late 17th century. In 1701 a small fort was established by the French beside the Lake Pontchartrain end of the Bayou to protect this important route; Fort St. Jean would be known to future generations of New Orleanians as "Old Spanish Fort". The Bayou and portage were key factors in the selection of the site where the city was founded in 1718, at the River end of the portage route.
During colonial times the portage trail became Grand Route St. John, which in turn was eventually replaced by the wide, straight Esplanade Avenue. The Carondelet Canal was dug to connect the back of the city (when it was limited to the strip of land along the Mississippi River) with the Bayou, and the Bayou was dredged to accommodate larger vessels.
During the first half of the 20th century, commercial use of the Bayou declined and the Carondelet Canal was filled in. Some New Orleanians began living in houseboats on the Bayou. Complaints from residents of nearby neighborhoods and sanitation concerns led to this practice being outlawed in the 1930s. A Works Progress Administration project cleaned up and beautified the area. A lock was installed near the Lake Pontchartrain end. In the summer of 1955, the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board temporarily drained the Bayou, to clean out debris and material that was causing foul odors.
The Bayou then took on the role it has had since then as a picturesque bit of water with small earthen levees on either side, forming a narrow bit of park space in the city. From the mid-20th century on, the banks of the Bayou across from City Park became a favorite destination for young couples seeking privacy. The banks of Bayou St. John are an important meeting place for the downtown Mardi Gras Indian tribes for their "Super Sunday" parade after Carnival.
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