hawkinsrails.net / streetcars / nola
E. Harper Charlton, April 1955
The Crescent City is known for many things unique, but in terms of steel wheels on rails New Orleans, Louisiana holds the distinction of owning the oldest continuously-operating public streetcar system in the world. Since well before the Civil War, street railroads of one sort or another have plied the low-lying streets of the Big Easy. From the electric system's all-time peak in 1924 of nearly 225 route miles, the years following World War II saw continual abandonment of lines and routes turned over to buses until only the well-attested St. Charles line remained in service. These "Charley Cars" soldiered on alone for decades, until the late 1980s saw the opening of a new Riverfront line downtown along the mighty Mississippi, followed by the historic return of streetcar service to Canal Street and the Cemeteries in the fall of 2003. Infamous Hurricane Katrina struck a mighty blow to the St. Charles right-of-way and the new Canal Street cars in 2005, but both segments have been returned to service. Today, three classes of streetcars scurry locals and tourists alike along three separate routes, hopefully securing the future of this historic system well into its third century of operation.
Expansion and Contraction
Keeping History Rolling
Along the Grand Thoroughfare
New cars for a Classic Route
Service to the Vieux Carre
By the time the school History Fair rolled around during my 9th grade year, I had learned an important lesson: Talk about what you know. (My previous attempt at Stonehenge afforded me this wisdom ... They just looked like big rocks to me.) A new year brought a new chance, and prized among the things I knew something about as a 14 year-old was streetcars -- New Orleans streetcars. (Indeed, is there another kind?) I've ridden NOLA cars all my life, mostly because I have a father who has ridden them all of his. My dad grew up off of Carrollton Avenue in the 1930s and 40s, and green streetcars form an integral part of his childhood memories: riding the St. Charles car downtown to go shoe shopping with his mother; hearing the cars rumble by outside on a Sunday morning while at the Carrollton Presbyterian Church; watching them line up in rows at Napoleon Avenue to carry crowds of swaggering Mardi Gras revelers back to their homes and hotels. In my own childhood, rare was the trip into the CBD that we didn't find time to ride a car in from Palmer Park, just for the fun of it, or at least drive by the Willow Street barn to see what was waiting on the outbound tracks. Back at home, as a kid, I'd spend hours riding my bike around the neighborhood: every corner a new car stop, in every block I was the motorman. Sufficed to say, in later years, when Mr. Welch insisted that we each enter the History Fair, NOLA streetcars made for the obvious choice. Dad and I spent hours making a display board full of pictures, and together we built a 1:48 scale mock-up of a St. Charles Avenue scene ... complete with a runner jogging down the neutral ground. In the end, my project made it all the way to the state competition, winning first place in local history and second place overall.
Like I said, always talk about what you know.