Norfolk Southern Back Belt map 1918

Norfolk Southern Back Belt map 1918

The current Norfolk Southern Back Belt dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.

norfolk southern back belt

Norfolk Southern Back Belt in 1918

Map of New Orleans Terminal Company (NOTC) trackage as of 30-June-1918. This path across Orleans Parish became known as the “Back Belt,” in comparison to the “Public Belt” route that hugs the river and services the wharves. The NOTC acquired the land for the Back Belt in the early 1900s. While I don’t have documentation, it’s likely no coincidence that merchant and developer Leon Fellman bought the 1201 block of Canal Street. Did he know about the plans of the railroad men? NOTC later merged with the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, which in turn merged into the Southern Railway system in 1916. That’s how the route became part of the current Norfolk Southern System.

City bypass

The idea behind the Back Belt was to bypass most of the populated areas of Orleans Parish. The Back Belt originates in Jefferson Parish. It splits off of the former Illinois Central (now Canadian National) main line at Causeway Blvd. That’s the “Shrewsbury” reference on the map. It crossed the New Canal via a bascule bridge just north of Metairie Road. From there, the route crosses the city, then turns towards the river in St. Bernard Parish.

The city naturally developed in succeeding years. Lakeview and Gentilly caught up with the Back Belt by the 1920s. The Levee Board’s land reclamation projects in the 1920s opened up the area. As part of the Works Progress Administration projects of the Great Depression Era, the Back Belt expanded. WPA constructed underpasses at grade crossings throughout the city. So, once the route clears Carrollton Avenue in Metairie, there are no grade crossings for trains until they cross Lake Pontchartrain and reach Slidell.

The Terminal

The last Southern Railway train,

Terminal Station, late 1910s

NOTC connected the Back Belt to downtown in 1908. They built Terminal Station at Canal and Basin Streets. The route ran adjacent to St. Louis Street through Mid-City. It linked up with the Back Belt at Greenwood Cemetery. Southern Railway used this connection for their “Bernadotte Yard,” so named because the yard started just below the connection point, at Bernadotte and St. Louis Streets.

Terminal Station operated from 1908 to 1954. The city constructed Union Passenger Terminal, shifting all passenger rail operations to the new station. The city demolished Terminal Station in 1956. The link to the Back Belt re-routed to follow the Pontchartrain Expressway. Today, Amtrak’s Crescent route uses that connection. The Back Belt continues to be incredibly busy, used by Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, CSX, Canadian National/KCS and Amtrak.

Pepsi and Berlin on the Amtrak Crescent

Pepsi and Berlin on the Amtrak Crescent

Pepsi and Berlin means special livery and private varnish on the Crescent. #TrainThursday

pepsi and berlin

AMTK 160 in Phase III livery.

Pepsi and Berlin

Amtrak’s Crescent #20 rolled out of New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal (NOL) yesterday and today with some special units. The video above shows AMTK 332 and AMTK 160 pulling the train on 3-April-2024. The first engine, 332, is a Siemens Charger. These engines are newer than the P-42 “Genesis” locos. Amtrak mixes use of the two generations.

AMTK 160 is one of those older Genesis units. The railroad painted it in “Phase III” livery in 2021, to mark its 50th Anniversary. The scheme is affectionately known as “Pepsi Can,” since it resembles the colors of the soft drink’s logo. Amtrak implemented Phase III only on its GE Dash-8-32BWH locomotives. The railroad transitioned into the Genesis units, so they painted a Genesis in Phase III for the anniversary. We wrote about the Pepsi Can already, but it’s still fun to see it go by.

 

Sleep on a Train

On 4-April-2024, Private car “Berlin” hitched a ride with #20. Genesis locos AMTK 77 and 18 lead the train. We’ve also written about the private car, Berlin, but seeing it on the rails is a good sign. It means Spring is here! Travel by private railcar picks up in the Fall (foliage season in the NorthEast) and Cherry Blossom time in the Spring. Berlin heading to NYP means we’ll have to keep a closer eye out for it and other private cars.

New Orleans sees a number of these private cars pass through the city. Three Amtrak routes converge on New Orleans, the Sunset Limited (to Los Angeles), the City of New Orleans (to Chicago), and the Crescent (to New York). While most private car adventures make a round trip on a single route, some run transcontinental. They’ll hitch to a train heading out of New York, then change to one heading to the West Coast. So, we occasionally see private varnish arrive from New York, stay over a night or two, then head west, hooked to the Sunset Limited. This sort of connection began in the 1890s.

Up Canal Boulevard from the 5400 block

Up Canal Boulevard from the 5400 block

Looking Up Canal Boulevard and the underpass from the 5400 block.

up canal boulevard

Up Canal Boulevard

Franck Studios Photo titled, Up Canal Boulevard from the 5400 block (LDL/The Historic New Orleans Collection). Photo shows a Southern Railway’s “Southerner” passenger train, about fifteen minutes after departure from Union Passenger Terminal (UPT) downtown. The Works Progress Administration constructed this and several other underpasses for the “Back Belt” route in 1940. The underpasses created a path for the trains that had no grade crossings with roads. Once a train leaves UPT (or a freight train enters Orleans Parish), there are no grade crossings until it crosses Lake Pontchartrain.

5500 Canal Boulevard

up canal boulevard

view up Canal Boulevard from the top of the train bridge in the 5500 block (Franck Studios Photo)

This photo shows the other side of the underpass. Traffic heading to the lakefront travels on the right, including an old-style NOPSI bus. While it’s not physically difficult to climb up to the bridge and tracks, it’s not recommended. A Cloverleaf Dairy delivery truck pulls into the street on the left.

Southerner and Crescent

southern crescent

Color photo of the Southern Crescent at Canal. Mike Palmieri photo, 3-June-1977

THNOC includes their generic record notation for this photo. That lists the date as 1941. That’s not accurate, though, since the trains didn’t pass over Canal Boulevard until after UPT opened in 1954. So, this train rolls out of town in the 1950s. The Southerner followed a route from New Orleans to Atlanta using Southern Railway routes exclusively. The Crescent Limited and Crescent trains traveled from Mobile to New Orleans on Louisville and Nashville tracks along the Gulf Coast.

Amtrak

The Back Belt carries a great deal of freight traffic. The route connects freight yards in Avondale (UP and BNSF) and Metairie (CN and KCS) with the Norfolk Southern yard in Gentilly and CSX yard in New Orleans East. There’s a single Amtrak train, the Amtrak Crescent, traveling this route. Amtrak assumed operations of the Crescent from Southern in 1977. The train runs daily from UPT, arriving at New York Penn Station (NYP) the following day. Here’s the Amtrak Crescent crossing Canal Boulevard, 28-December-2023:

Two engines, AMTK 83, a GE P42DC “Genesis” and AMTK 338, a Siemens “Charger” pull a consist of three coaches, a cafe car, two sleepers and a bag-dorm car. The train will reach New York Penn Station the next day.

The Back Belt caught fire!

The Back Belt caught fire!

A back belt fire disrupts trains and autos.

back belt fire

courtesy NOFD

Back Belt fire

A back belt fire broke out on the Canal Boulevard underpass on Monday, 2-October-2023, around 6pm. NOFD documented the fire on Twitter. By Wednesday, 4-October, the damage to the tracks appears to be repaired.

I learned of the incident on Tuesday, when I went to my regular coffee shop, PJ’s, at 5555 Canal Boulevard. The coffee shop stands right next to the underpass. One of the baristas showed me video taken by the barista working Monday evening. Crazy!

Track damage

back belt fire

courtesy NOFD

The New Orleans Terminal Company (NOTC) constructed “Back Belt” in 1908. It got its name because it’s in the “back” of town relative to the “Public Belt” tracks which run along the river. Southern Railway acquired NOTC in 1916. Southern later merged to become present-day Norfolk-Southern Railroad. In 1939-1940, the Works Progress Administration built a series of underpasses along the Back Belt. The tracks have no grade crossings for its entire run through the city. So, the coffee shop offers a great vantage point for train-watching.

NOFD reported they do not know what caused the fire. Heat warped the track towards the eastern end of the underpass.

back belt fire

Amtrak Crescent #20, 3-Oct-2023

When Amtrak’s Crescent departed town on Tuesday morning, the train came out of the access track that runs along I-10 (between the highway and the cemeteries). When it approached the underpass, the train backed up, so it could cross over to the northern track on the Back Belt.

Repairs

By Wednesday, the tracks appeared to be repaired as a westbound train pulled by Union Pacific engines moved across the underpass. An eastbound CSX train crossed at the same time.

Normal?

Here’s this morning’s Crescent #20, crossing over the repaired tracks. Caption from YouTube:

Amtrak’s Crescent #20, ten minutes out of Union Passenger Terminal (NOL). AMTK 199, a P-42 Genesis, and AMTK 164, painted in “Phase IV Heritage” livery. Standard consist, two Genesis, 3 Viewliner coaches, 1 cafe, 2 sleepers, and a bag-dorm bringing up the rear. The train’s moving slower than normal out of concern for the rail replacements made on 3-Tues-2023 because of a track fire.

So, freight and passenger traffic appears to be back.

Lake Vista Subdivision

Lake Vista Subdivision

Lake Vista subdivision opened in 1938.

lake vista

The Lake Vista subdivision on the Lakefront

Photo of a relief map of the proposed Lake Vista Subdivision on the New Orleans Lakefront. Caption from the WPA record:

New Orleans, 1936: “The Lakefront Development, carried on by the WPA under Levee Board sponsorship, will look like this map-relief model when completed.” Shows man looking over a diorama of the Lake Vista neighborhood.

Lake Vista was the first residential development opened on land reclaimed from Lake Pontchartrain. The subdivision encompasses the area from Marconi Drive (west), Lakeshore Drive (north), Beauregard Avenue/Bayou St. John (east), and Allen Toussaint Boulevard (south). The US Coast Guard station stood at the bayou and the lake.

First development

lake vista

Eventually, land reclamation on the Lakefront spawned five subdivisions:

  • West Lakeshore
  • East Lakeshore
  • Lake Vista
  • Lake Terrace
  • Lake Oaks

Lake Vista is sort-of towards the middle of this group, with its border along the bayou. The Orleans Levee Board developed Lake Vista first, mainly because the other sections were already in use. West Lakeshore became Lagarde Army Hospital. The US Navy built Naval Hospital New Orleans in East Lakeshore. Pontchartrain Beach occupied a significant portion of Lake Terrace at this time (the Milneburg location didn’t open until 1940).

Lake Terrace extended to the London Avenue Canal. The other side of the canal to Elysian Fields Avenue became Naval Air Station New Orleans. What would become Lake Oaks was home to Army barracks and other facilities. So, that left Lake Vista uncommitted.

Subdivision design

The basic design of the neighborhood was spoke-and-hub.. The residential streets each started on one of the edges. They moved toward the parcel’s center. That center became the hub. One Street, Spanish Fort Boulevard, was planned as a two-lane street separated by a neutral ground. All the spoke streets converged on a circular road. Inside the circle was reserved for churches, schools, and a retail development. The main tenant of that middle section became St. Pius X Church and School (Catholic).

Opening Day

Lake Vista

Times-Picayune, September 17, 1938

Opening weekend

The Levee District invited New Orleans to inspect Lake Vista on its opening weekend, 17-18 September, 1938. They published a full-page ad with lots of information on the neighborhood. “15 minutes from the heart of the city. Come!” The ad touts the perks of buying in a brand new development: no survey fees, etc., since twenty years before opening, it was part of the lake.

Still there more

lake vista

While Lake Vista has evolved over its 85-year lifetime, a number of homes built in the 1940s remain.

Private Cars on Amtrak’s Crescent 🌙 (1)

Private Cars on Amtrak’s Crescent 🌙 (1)

Private cars on Amtrak’s Crescent are a wonderful treat.

Springtime brings out the private railcars all across the country. With three Amtrak long-haul passenger routes converging on New Orleans, we see a wonderful variety of privately-owned heritage railcars. This weekend was no exception, as two private cars brought up the rear of the Crescent on 5-May and another the next day.

Anniversary Locos

Private Cars on Amtrak's Crescent

AMTK 161 in Phase I livery for the 50th Anniversary

In the lead are AMTK 161, in Phase I livery for the 50th Anniversary.This was the paint scheme used by the railroad after it consolidated the passenger equipment from the legacy railroads.
AMTK 71 rolled in between the two anniversary engines. It wears the current “standard” livery for the Genesis power, Phase V.
Private Cars on Amtrak's Crescent
AMTK 130 follows engine 71. It wears Phase II livery for the 40th Anniversary celebration in 2011.

NYC and Georgia

Private Cars on Amtrak's Crescent

Private Varnish NYC-3

At first, I thought the third engine was a deadhead, then the back of the train explained it. Two “private varnish” cars brought up the rear.

The New York Central Railroad built NYC-3 for Harold Sterling Vanderbilt. the Vanderbilts founded the railroad. The car was built in 1928. The car served Vanderbilt, and later as a “business car” for the NYC. A private charter company currently operates and maintains NYC-3.

Private Cars on Amtrak's Crescent

The second private car is Georgia 300. From the car’s page on Wikipedia:

Georgia 300, as it is called, is a classic looking heavyweight observation car from the golden era of rail travel that was built by the Pullman Standard Co. shops in 1930. Sporting a Packard blue with silver striping livery, the train car operated as a lounge car named the General Polk on the New Orleans-New York Crescent Limited (operated by the L&N, West Point Route, Southern, and Pennsylvania[4]), and was later purchased by the Georgia Railroad and reconfigured to Office Car 300. The Georgia Railroad used the car in trips to venues like The Masters Tournament and the Kentucky Derby.It ran until its retirement in 1982 after being made redundant as surplus due to the merger between Georgia Railroad and Family Lines.

Part 2 follows.