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St. Charles Avenue’s Streetcar

Infrared view of a streetcar on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. The St. Charles Avenue Streetcar line is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world. //www.loc.gov/item/2010630981/

It seems that no book, movie, TV show, or play about New Orleans passes up the opportunity to feature the New Orleans streetcar in some way. I wanted to make sure Inside Adams published something on it during our tricentennial celebration and my post about Charles Zimpel only touched on the New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad.  Given the iconic nature of what we now know as the St. Charles streetcar, that didn’t seem to do justice to the oldest continuously operated streetcar line in the U.S.

To recap, what we call the St. Charles streetcar was chartered as a railroad in 1833 as the New Orleans & Carrollton Rail Road. The new railroad was put into service in September 1835 and began at what was then Tivoli Circle (it became Lee Circle in 1884).  Today’s riders making the trip from end to end are just going to different parts of the city, but up until 1874 a rider making that trip would actually travel from New Orleans in Orleans Parish to Carrollton in Jefferson Parish.

From: Poor’s Manual of the Railroads. (1889) //lccn.loc.gov/sn83004089

From: Burgess Railway Directory. (1861) //lccn.loc.gov/09032471

I was able to find a few bits regarding the business in our collection. In terms of finances, one of the images above is from the 1861 Burgess Railway Directory while the other is from the 1889 Poor’s Manual of the Railroads. It was during this time period that P.G.T. Beauregard served as president of the company for a few years.  The ICC Bluebook ,which didn’t begin until the 1880’s and is often a good start for information on railroads, included them for the last time in 1889 with only the remark “street railway in New Orleans” in the Corporate Changes supplement table. One of the last big changes in the 19th century was the electrification of the line in 1893.

Norman’s plan of New Orleans & environs, 1854. //www.loc.gov/item/2012593335/

In addition to the St. Charles line, there were lines from other companies in other parts of the city, but when buses hit the streets, they all faded away until the only line that survived was the one on St. Charles. But there has since been a revival and streetcar lines are again spreading out over the city – a process even hurricane Katrina didn’t stop. The Riverfront line opened in 1988 and was followed by the Canal line and later the Rampart–St. Claude line.

Photo courtesy Ellen Terrell.

If you want to know more, there is The St. Charles Street Car or the History of the New Orleans & Carrollton Rail Road and the National Park Service has the original application to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the database for the National Register of Historic Places as well as the application to be part of the Historic Landmarks Program.

I really associate the streetcar with its sounds — the distinctive sound of the car moving along, the clacking sound as the car changes speed, the clang of the bell alerting people and drivers to get out of the way, the buzz when someone pulls the cord when they want to get off, and the jingle of the tokens in their little blue packs. When I go home it makes me smile to see the streetcars rolling down the neutral ground and when I hear them in the distance I’m glad streetcars came back to other parts of the city.

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