New Orleans steetcar system celebrating its momentous 175th anniversary of being an iconic facet of transportation in the Crescent City.
By Don Redman
New Orleans is home to the longest continuously operated streetcar system in the world, and this year marks the 175th anniversary since the first streetcar rumbled to life and into the fabric and culture of this vibrant city.
Above: The St. Charles line has been running on the “neutral ground,” the strip between St. Charles and Carrollton avenues, for more than 150 years. Jack Edwards/Greater New Orleans CVB photo
Below: The Riverfront line carries passengers to some of the city’s most poplar tourist attractions, including the Aquarium of the Americas. Richard Nowitz/Greater New Orleans CVB photo
New Orleans was the first city west of the Allegheny Mountains to implement passenger rail service. Streetcars–never called trolleys–rolled through New Orleans for more than 60 years before the “trolley,” a device that transmits electric current to the motors, was used to power them.
The first streetcar started carrying passengers along the fabled St. Charles Avenue beginning in 1835 as the New Orleans and Carrollton railroad. It was initially pulled by a horse or a mule, but as the streetcars increased in size, they were often pulled by a team of horses. Then around 1860, the horses were replaced by coal-fired steam engines.
However, that didn’t last long, as residents soon came to complain about the racket, the speed and the annoying soot. By the late 1860s, the streetcars were returned to horse power as additional rails were being laid across the city.
It wasn’t until 1885 that the city saw it’s first electric street car, but the service was limited to only 1,900 feet. By the 1890s, electrical power grids were going up all across the city, making electric streetcars as we know them today a viable reality. Indeed, by 1926, more than 200 miles of street railway crisscrossed New Orleans.
While it took decades for streetcars to proliferate through the city, their decline was relatively quick. As buses and personal automobiles grew in popularity, streetcar usage decreased until virtually all streetcar service ended by 1964, save for the brave little line running up and down St. Charles Avenue.
But starting in the mid-1980s, a streetcar resurgence began in New Orleans, and today, there are three streetcar lines back in service, the oldest and most famous being the St. Charles line, which has been rumbling around the “neutral ground,” the strip of land or median, between St. Charles and Carrollton avenues for more than 150 years. (Legend has it that the term “neutral ground” got its name because such areas often separated French and American neighborhoods in the mid-1800s, and their animosities ended in the area between the streets, which was a neutral spot not inhabited by either.)
The St. Charles route traditionally forms a 13.2-mile crescent from Carondelet at Canal Street in the Central Business District through the oldest and most majestic section of uptown New Orleans, around the Riverbend to Carrollton at Claiborne Avenue. Swaying along St. Charles Avenue through a tunnel of live oaks, the streetcar passes dozens of antebellum mansions, historic monuments, Loyola and Tulane universities, the sweeping grounds of the Audubon Zoological Gardens, shopping centers, fine restaurants and hotels. The other two streetcar lines include:
The Riverfront Line
The Riverfront Streetcar has the shortest route of all but it nevertheless carries passengers to New Orleans’ most exciting attractions from the quaint shops of the French Market to the Aquarium of the Americas. Inaugurated Aug. 14, 1988, the Riverfront Streetcar line was the first to open in New Orleans since 1926, until the Canal Street Line opened in 2004.
The Canal Street Line
After an absence of nearly 40 years, the streetcar returned to Canal Street in 2004, transporting thousands of locals and tourists to work and play each day as it travels the five-and-a-half mile route from the French Market, along Canal Street through the Central Business District of New Orleans and into the Mid-City area. The line ends at City Park Avenue and the historical city cemeteries.
The standard fare for all three lines is $1.25, with discounts for senior citizens. Passengers with disabilities and passengers 2 and under are admitted to ride for free. Transfers to other routes are available for 25 cents. For fare and route information, visit the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority on the Web at www.norta.com.
Don Redman is associate editor of the AAA Southern Traveler magazine.