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The Streetcars of New Orleans

May 29, 2011 | Author: | Posted in Travel and Leisure

What comes to mind when someone says “New Orleans”? Hurricane Katrina? Mardi Gras? Cajun food? Jazz music? Certainly all those things are icons of the city, but most people forget about the historic tradition of streetcars as the main method of public transportation in New Orleans.

San Francisco has become synonymous with the trolleys and cable cars, but few people know that New Orleans was the first city to operate a steam-powered streetcar system on the east coast of North America. In addition to being the first, the city is also proud to have the longest continuously running streetcar line in history, sort of.

In January of 1835 the Poydras-Magazine line began running, and although it only lasted few months it was the first streetcar line in New Orleans. There have been dozens of other routes and lines tested for brief periods, but it is the St. Charles Line that has lasted the longest. Its first run was in September of 1835, as a steam-powered streetcar, much like a railway. The route begins in the Carrollton neighborhood, goes toward the Mississippi River, down St. Charles and on to pass the entrances of Tulane University and Loyola University New Orleans before continuing to Uptown New Orleans, the Garden District, Canal Street, the business district and the French Quarter.

Of course, back in the 19th century the city did not look as it does today and the route was undoubtedly not as diverse. Residents and business owners were not happy with the noise and soot associated with an in-town rail system and vehemently protested its existence. The streetcar owners had no choice but to change to a horse drawn tram method of locomotion. Eventually, after the American Civil War had ended, other methods of propelling the streetcars were experimented with. A cable system was tried, even an ammonia based gas system but mules and horses seemed to be the most stable ways to propel the cars. Finally in the 1890′s electricity came to New Orleans and a whole new era was born.

Of course the most famous line in New Orleans was the Desire Street Line, operating from 1920 to 1948, when it was converted to buses. Tennessee Williams made the line famous with his play, A Streetcar Named Desire. In reality, the Desire Street line was quite short, running only through the French Quarter or 9th Ward but just its reputation has drawn thousands of tourists to the street over the years. The Canal Street Line is also a popular run for visitors to New Orleans to catch. It began its life in 1861 as a means of reaching the old car barns beyond St. Charles, and eventually all the way down to the historic cemeteries of New Orleans. Today the route has expanded, but still uses streetcars while other historic routes have been converted to diesel buses.

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