Prytania streetcar line, 1907. Two uniformed men stand by entrance, presumably the motorman and the conductor. Streetcar is at a carbarn, likely the Prytania barn. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Know Your NOLA: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Streetcars (Part 2)

Part two in this series chronicles the history of the streetcar line from the 1800s to the present day.

by Matt Haines | November 21, 2019

We’re talking about the history of streetcars and public transportation in New Orleans! In Part 1, we charted its course — from the early days of the local rail era, through the founding of the oldest continuously active streetcar line IN THE WORLD, and all the way to the vast network that eventually connected those early, isolated lines. Now, we pick up where we left off and take things to the present.

The Late 1800s

In 1888, Superintendent of the New Orleans & Carrollton Railroad Company (NO&CRR), C.V. Haile, visited Richmond, Virginia. As superintendent, he oversaw what is now the St. Charles streetcar line — then already one of the oldest street railway lines in the country.

He saw that — like many systems across America — Richmond’s street railway was already using overhead electrical wires for power. New Orleans’ transportation leaders recognized a need for propulsion faster than horse-drawn, but without the nuisance of steam power’s soot and noise, though they had fallen behind.

Thanks in part to the report Haile wrote upon returning from Virginia, City Council finally saw electrification’s value and gave the NO&CRR the okay to convert in 1891. But, as we learned in Part 1, the New Orleans & CarrolltonRailroad Company was just one of many streetcar operators in the city. Over the remainder of the decade, the other companies electrified, as well, allowing New Orleanians quicker access to their jobs downtown, the suburbs upriver, the resort towns along the lake, and much more.

Duckback roof sported by Orleans Railroad mule-powered car on the Canal, Dumaine and Fair Grounds Line in approximately 1880. Photographs taken from The Streetcars of New Orleans by Louis C. Hennick, © Louis C. Hennick, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing.

Decentralized System

In the late-19th century, New Orleans had as many as six streetcar companies, each owning tracks around the city. In fact, sometimes competing companies owned tracks in the same neighborhood — sometimes on the same street! For example, the NO&CRR and the Canal & Claiborne Railroad Company both operated tracks along the same stretch of Canal Street.

But, besides occasionally sharing a road, these competing companies had little in common. Their cars, routes, prices, employee contracts and track sizes were all different.

The famous walking beam car. About 1871, in front of Canal Station barn which is located at White Street to this day. Photographs taken from The Streetcars of New Orleans by Louis C. Hennick, © Louis C. Hennick, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing.

Such variety among the companies created inefficiencies for ownership, as well as their customers. For example, rather than having one route running up Magazine Street, another up St. Charles, and a few connecting those on key thoroughfares like Napoleon and Louisiana, New Orleans’ decentralized system featured competing routes zig-zagging all over Uptown, attempting to hit the key stops that would let them vie for ridership.

Coming Together

Change came at the end of the century.

In 1892, the New Orleans Traction Company formed and took over operation of the New Orleans City and Lake Railroad, as well as the Crescent City Railroad. Similarly, the NO&CRR absorbed the Canal & Claiborne in 1899, also absorbing their color scheme. The St. Charles line has been olive green ever since.

By 1900, there were only four remaining companies in the city, and — in 1902 — they were consolidated (though not merged) into the New Orleans Railways Company. At the time, it was common for municipal transportation systems to also provide utilities, and NOLA was no different — which is why the New Orleans Railways Company became the New Orleans Railway and Light Company in 1905, even providing mail service.

Canal Street, looking from Royal Street in the direction of the lake. Snow storm of 1895 stopped electric cars, because the city didn’t have the proper equipment to remove ice from the electrical wires. Mulecars were used as a replacement. Photographs taken from The Streetcars of New Orleans by Louis C. Hennick, © Louis C. Hennick, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing.

It was a golden era for our streetcar system, but not everyone reaped the benefits. When the companies consolidated, they were permitted to keep their individual contracts with employees. This gave ownership power to operate one monopoly of a company, while keeping employees in four separate groups.

Workers struck in September of 1902 and — within weeks — won the concessions they wanted. But this was just one of several battles to be fought between employees and owners.

During the next two decades, the system continued to grow, expanding to neighborhoods previously untouched — including those near the 9th Ward’s newly constructed Industrial Canal. The 1920s brought the famous Desire line, as well as the Freret, Gentilly and St. Claude lines; and the creation of New Orleans Public Service Incorporated (NOPSI) to buy all the city’s street railway, electric and gas lines.

The decade was the peak of New Orleans’ rail network. In 1922, NOPSI oversaw more than 225 miles of railway, and the transit system saw a ridership of 148 million people per year.

Enter the Autobus

In 1929, a massive, violent strike stopped the streetcar in its tracks. Employees wanted guarantees owners would only hire unionized workers, and to curb their ability to fire them.

When NOPSI attempted to restore streetcar service on July 5th, federal marshals and police were met by mobs of strikers and sympathizers. Streetcars were flipped and men were killed.

It was one of the lengthiest streetcar strikes in American history (also where the po’boy originated), and — when it finally lifted — NOPSI was down $2 Million and 40 million riders. To cut costs, the Coliseum, Dryades and Tchoupitoulas lines were dropped. The Oak Street shuttle was replaced with a trackless trolley, and the St. Bernard line by bus.

The Pontchartrain Railroad and Smoky Mary, circa 1900 and operating since 1831. View from pier a Milneburg. Photographs taken from The Streetcars of New Orleans by Louis C. Hennick, © Louis C. Hennick, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing.

This was the beginning of the system’s long decline. The Pontchartrain Railroad was discontinued in 1932 — 101 years after Smoky Mary made the first-ever rail trip west of the Alleghenies. It, too, was replaced by a bus — as were so many of the city’s streetcar lines. A bus, after all, only required one employee (the driver), whereas old streetcars required a motorman and a conductor. Buses cut labor costs in half!

By 1940, just 58.3% of NOPSI’s vehicle miles were on streetcars. And, at 5 a.m. on May 31, 1964, the streetcar rumbled down Canal Street for what seemed like the last time, carrying a sign that read, “See Me on St. Charles.”

The St. Charles was now the final piece of a once-massive street railway system.

National Trends

Immediately after buses emerged, transit ridership actually increased due to a rise in New Orleans’ population, and an increase in the area’s buses — which didn’t require trackage — could travel.

The system peaked at 246 million riders in 1945, but as World War II ended, there was a huge shift to the automobile — a trend felt across America.

Canal Street in the 1960s with General Motors and Fixible buses operating along neutral ground once occupied by streetcars. Photographs taken from The Streetcars of New Orleans by Louis C. Hennick, © Louis C. Hennick, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing.

Other nation-wide trends affected our public transit system, too. Signage was placed on the backs of seats to ensure African American riders were segregated to the back of the bus. It wasn’t until 1958 that these signs were removed and riders could sit wherever they pleased.

Additionally, while it was common in the early 1900s for one company to operate, both, a city’s public transit system and their utilities, late-20th century public transit was often run by a public body that could receive tax money and qualify for federal funding. Locally, that body was the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) — created in 1979 and given control in 1983. Relieved of its transportation-related responsibilities, NOPSI became Entergy and continues to focus on utilities.

A Battle Between Nostalgia and Pragmatism

“Both the historic and contemporary streetcar systems were designed to link neighborhoods to the CBD,” explains James R. Amdal, Senior Research Associate at the University of New Orleans Transportation Institute. “Back in the 1980s, when we launched the Riverfront Streetcar, it was the first project in the return of streetcars as a viable form of local public transit.”

Since then, the city has seen a measured streetcar reemergence. On April 18, 2004, the historic Canal Street line was reintroduced after a 40-year absence. And, though Hurricane Katrina flooded the barn housing all the line’s red cars, the line was back in service by December 2005.

Circa 1900 shot of an 1894 Brill car on modified St. Louis type 8 truck. Motorman and conductor, pictured. Photographs taken from The Streetcars of New Orleans by Louis C. Hennick, © Louis C. Hennick, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing.

In 2013, the eventual Rampart-St. Claude line was opened along Loyola Avenue (just days before the Superdome lost electricity hosting Super Bowl XLVII — serendipitous given the services’ connected past) and in 2016, the line was extended to Elysian Fields Avenue.

Even today, there are discussions and plans for new lines and extensions. But not everyone believes the streetcar — as it is utilized today — is a solution to our network’s challenges.

“Our streetcar system was designed in the 19th century to move people from Point A to Point B, but today it feels like lines are being built for nostalgia rather utility,” explains Alex Posorske, executive director of Ride New Orleans. “They are too slow and inefficient, the routes aren’t designed to help the maximum number of people, and we seem to care more about preservation than being ADA-compliant. If this is how we’re going to design streetcars, then we’re putting gold railings on a sinking ship.”

Posorske believes the focus should be on improving our bus system, which sees high ridership compared to many other cities.

France Street is Cracking

At the start of this series, I wondered if these dang cracks on France Street had anything to do with an old streetcar line. The first step was to determine whether there was an old line that came this way. As it turns out, the answer was yes!

Beginning in 1919, the Carondelet Line was extended to go toward the river on France and make a right up Royal Street — exactly where the street’s cracks turn today. In 1920, the Carondelet was split into smaller lines, with the Desire Line taking over its downriver section.

For most of its existence — which lasted until 1948 — the line left Canal Street down Bourbon Street, it crossed Esplanade Avenue to Pauger Street, and made a right on Dauphine Street. Upon reaching Desire Street, the streetcar made a left and headed toward the Lake before making a right on Tonti Street, and another on France Street. The streetcar would cross back over St. Claude Avenue toward the river, and — just before it arrived — would make this turn onto Royal Street, following Royal all the way back to Canal where it would make a right and return to its corner on Bourbon.

Cracks in France Street, facing toward the river as cracks turn up Royal Street, just as the former Desire Line would have. Photographs taken from The Streetcars of New Orleans by Louis C. Hennick, © Louis C. Hennick, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing.

“Yeah, those cracks look like they have street rail origins,” says Edward Branley, author of several books on the city’s transit system, including New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line. “When they were discontinued, the city often just paved over the tracks. With our heat and humidity, the rails expand and contract, and cracks surface in the pavement.”

In fact, earlier this decade, when the road was torn up during a Bourbon Street renovation, what was found underneath it? You guessed it — streetcar tracks!

“You’ll find remnants of the streetcar network in almost every neighborhood in the city,” explains Branley.

So keep your eyes peeled next time you go for a walk and maybe you — like me — will find clues to one of the earliest and most historic streetcar systems in the world.


Matt Haines

Matt Haines

Matt Haines lives in New Orleans and writes about all the cool stuff.
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