Madisonville, Louisiana;  Lake Pontchartrain's Best Kept Secret

 

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By:   George Payne

Being one of the oldest communities in Louisiana, Madisonville is a flavorful gumbo of all the great things southeast Louisiana has to offer.  Originally named “Cokie”, from the French word Coquille meaning shell, Sail Boat web use.jpg (10834 bytes)the town’s name was changed in 1811 to honor President James Madison.  Because of its position on the Tchefuncte River, the town’s history has always been shaped by water.  Part of the town actually rests on the now extinct Jahncke Shipyard.   At its height, the shipyard employed over 2000 people.   During the 1920’s-1940’s, a mass exodus of New Orleanians came to Madisonville via large steamers every weekend during the summer.   

        As a result of this rich history, the town has eight sites listed on the National Historic Register.   The dwellings on the register range in architecture from Greek revival to Creole cottage.  Most notable of these are:  the Regent Square Home located at 206 Covington Street, the Madisonville Bank located at 400 Cedar Street; the Otis House located within Fairview State Park, and the old Madisonville Town Hall/Jail located at 203 Cedar Street.  Be sure to get a glimpse of these historic structures during your visit.

          Today, Madisonville is anticipating the grand opening of the Lake Ponchartrain Basin Maritime Museum. From the time of the Indians to the explorers, there are millions of historical remnants scattered throughout the Tchefuncte and Lake Ponchartrain.  Unfortunately, as each day passes, a little bit more of our history is lost to decay and human development.  This museum will celebrate Madisonville rich and wonderful nautical history.    

          The museum will be over 30,000 square feet and have a 250-seat theater.  It will be among the world’s most prominent marine archeological and educational institutions.  While visiting Madisonville be sure to plan some time to see this.

          After the museum, it is imperative that every visitor sees the Fairview-Riverside State Park.  Located just east of town, this park is a wonderful respite from a hot day.   The park grounds surround the Otis House, an early Victorian home originally built in the 1880’s by the sawmill magnate W.  T. Jay.  Frank Otis purchased and renovated the home in the 1930’s and donated it and the surrounding area to the state.  Tours are offered of the home, be sure to check with the park representative for times. Additionally, for the overnight visitor, the park offers 81 campsites, all with electricity and water hookups.  Tent camping is also available.

          No visit to Madisonville is complete without taking a drive south through town to the shores of Lake Ponchartrain.  (Turn south at the only red light in town.  Just follow the road until it dead-ends at the lake.) Initially this drive will take you past some of the most beautiful homes in Madisonville.  As you wind your wind south by the Tchefuncte River, you will begin to break out of town and into marsh habitat.  Watch carefully for the Ospreys and Bald Eagles as they search over the saw grass for prey.  Where safe, stop your car, get out and look at the swamp mallows and other lowland wildflowers that dot the landscape.  As you continue to the end of this road, begin looking to your left.  There you will see the Tchefuncte River Lighthouse.  Built in 1838, this lighthouse is a monument to the area’s nautical history.  Standing over 43 feet tall and made of brick and stucco, this is one of the oldest structures along the lake.  Originally the lighthouse stood only 30 feet tall.   This structure however was destroyed during the Civil War, and it was rebuilt into what we see today.  Although only currently accessible by boat and in grave disrepair, plans are currently underway to restore the lighthouse to its once grand stature.   If restoration efforts are successful, the light keeper’s quarters, which are now located at the Madisonville Boatyard, are hoped to be once again placed next to the lighthouse. After the restoration is complete, be sure to take advantage and view this historic structure. 

          For the fisherman in the family, Madisonville is a paradise.   At the point where the Tchefuncte meets Lake Ponchartrain, speckle trout and redfish are abundant.  From the shores of Fairview State Park, catfish, sac-a-lait (crappie/white perch), bream, and bass can be caught with little effort, and because of the park’s beauty, it is the perfect place for a little one to make his or her first catch.  Furthermore, if pleasure boating is more your style than fishing, the Tchefuncte is one of the most scenic rivers in the state.  With its moss-draped cypress and oak lined banks, an afternoon cruise will bring you such delight that it will almost be sinful.

        If possible be sure to time your visit during one of Madisonville’s three annual boating events.   The first is on New Year’s Eve Crew of Lights.  It is the traditional Ring in the New Year on the Tchefuncte.  A lighted boat parade proceeds on the Tchefuncte through town.  At the strike of mid-night, a long fireworks display occurs.    It is truly a sight you will never want to forget.

          On the Sunday before Mardi Gras, there is the annual Mardi Gras Boat Parade.  For those wanting the New Orleans flavor of Mardi Gras but with a small town twist, this is the place to be.  After the boats parade in succession down the Tchefuncte, they tie up along side Water Street.  You are encouraged to walk along and catch throws.  No one worries about broken down floats here.  Once you experience this kind of Mardi Gras, you will look forward to it every year.  This is, absolutely, how it should be.

        The Wooden Boat Festival is Madisonville’s greatest claim to fame.  It is the largest in the Southern U.S. and is held during the third weekend of September each year.  With almost 40,000 visitors, the event is just one big celebration.   There is literally something to do for everyone of every age.  From the Children’s Village to the boat building contests, the town comes alive with excitement.   People travel from all over the world to see the festival.  The Tchefuncte becomes so jammed with boats; you can literally walk from one boat to the next without ever getting your feet wet. It is just one big party.    All the proceeds from the event go to support the Lake Ponchartrain Basin Maritime Museum.

       

As with all good things there is also a down side to Madisonville.  With all this great atmosphere, good food, and things to do everyone must heed one warning.  If you stay too long you may not want to leave!  

 

Directions 

 

        For those looking to cruise to Madisonville for the weekend by boat, Madisonville is located approximately one nautical mile north of the mouth of the Tchefuncte.  The mouth of the Tchefuncte River lies just 4 nautical miles west of the causeway.  Great care must be taken when entering the Tchefuncte from Lake Ponchartrain. Never try to shortcut the channel.  There is a man-made reef just inches under the water and it will eat any boat that passes.  Follow the channel as it is very well marked, and runs almost a quarter mile west of the mouth of the Tchefuncte.  If you just need a place to tie up, you can dock at the public piers for free.  Electricity and water are available, but you should check with the town hall for any applicable fees.  One word of caution, bring extra fenders and bumpers, the docks have numerous teeth.

       For those trailing a boat, there is one main launch.  At the mouth of the Tchefuncte there is another public launch.  This launch, however, requires you to pay an annual $12.00 fee.   It is a superb launch with great parking facilities and is well worth the fee.  Also, this launch sits directly across from a pristine white Caribbean beach.  Check at the River Food Mart in Madisonville for more information.  To get to this ramp, turn south off highway 22 at the only stop light in Madisonville. Follow the road all the way to the end.

          For those preferring a boating experience with a little camping flare, you can moor your boat in the Tchefuncte and dingy your way over to Fairview State Park.  The park is located just up river from Madisonville on the east bank.  It is truly a wonderful place with lots of history.  For more information, please call 504-845-3318. 

        If you will be traveling by car, Madisonville is located approximately fifty minutes from both Baton Rouge and New Orleans.  Situated on Hwy 22 fifteen miles west of Mandeville, the town is very easy to find. 

        Unfortunately, Madisonville has few accommodations.  Currently, there are no hotels in town and there are only two bed and breakfasts.   The Tchefuncte River Bed and Breakfast is a wonderful place to rest while you soak up all this wonderful atmosphere.  For more information you can call Jean Patrick at 504-845-1808.   Should you need to seek additional accommodations, Covington and Mandeville are two great options.  Here there are several fine hotels and bed and breakfasts to choose from.  More information can be obtain at www.bedandbreakfast.com or at by doing a web search on www.google.com. 

         As mentioned earlier in the story, Fairview-Riverside State Park offers terrific accommodations for both RVs and campers.  Electrical hookups and comfort stations are just a few of the amenities available at the park.  Please call 1-888-677-3247 for more information.