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.

Southern Railway Mardi Gras 1896 #TrainThursday

Southern Railway Mardi Gras 1896 #TrainThursday

Southern Railway advertising rates to Mardi Gras 1896.

mardi gras 1896

 

Mardi Gras 1896

“Reduced Rates – Mardi Gras via Southern Ry. and Alabama Great Southern Railroad . . . Double Daily Train Service between New York, Washington, and New Orleans . . . ”

Ad for the Southern Railway, January-February, 1896. The ad features a man in a classic jester costume, along with a railway logo, “SR” bisected by an arrow.

Route and fares

Southern Railway evolved into the large system we know now over a century. In 1896, the Queen and Crescent route operated from New York City to New Orleans. The route ran over tracks owned by a number of railroads. Trains originating at New Orleans began the trip from the New Orleans and Northeastern (NONE) station at Press and Royal Streets in the Bywater. From NONE, the route traveled north to Birmingham, Chattanooga, to Atlanta. It continued north from Atlanta, to Washington and NYC. This ad shows the round-trip rates from various cities along the way.

Alabama Great Southern Railroad

The Queen and Crescent transitioned from NO&NE tracks to AGS as it traveled north. AGS later became a major component of the Southern Railway System. From Wikipedia:

The Alabama Great Southern Railroad (reporting mark AGS) is a railroad in the U.S. states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. It is an operating subsidiary of the Norfolk Southern Corporation (NS),[2] running southwest from Chattanooga (where it connects with the similarly owned Cincinnati, New Orleans and Texas Pacific Railway) to New Orleans through Birmingham and Meridian. The AGS also owns about a 30% interest in the Kansas City Southern-controlled Meridian-Shreveport Meridian Speedway.[3]

So, the Queen and Crescent, Crescent Limited/Southern Crescent, Southerner, and Pelican passenger routes traveled through AGS territory and tracks. Amtrak’s Crescent continues through AGS territory. The Amtrak route is more-or-less the same as the Southern Crescent.

Pullman Service

While later incarnations of the New Orleans to New York City route operated across the merged Southern system, equipment changed in 1896, as the route entered new territory. Since the Pullman Company operated all the sleeping cars for the railroads, booking a Pullman compartment enabled “through” service. No matter whose locomotives pulled the train, sleeping car passengers got to Carnival with no need to change seats/cars.

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.

Crescent Limited Louisville & Nashville #TrainThursday

Crescent Limited Louisville & Nashville #TrainThursday

The Crescent Limited Louisville & Nashville ran from New Orleans to New York City.

crescent limited louisville & nashville - Southern Railway 1401 "Pacific" steam locomotive

The Crescent Limited – Washington – Atlanta – New Orleans. Courtesy StreamlinerMemories.info

Crescent Limited Louisville & Nashville

“Best and Fastest Service between Canal Street and Broadway.” That’s how the L&N advertised service on the Crescent Limited in the Times-Picayune, 5-January-1927. While the route started back in the 1890s, the name “Crescent Limited” was only two years old at the time of this ad. The Southern Railway system, which began in 1894, operated the route from New York to Atlanta. By 1906, the route became the New York and New Orleans Limited. By 1925, Southern re-branded the route.

PRR – Southern – L&N

While Southern owned the consist of the Crescent Limited, the railroad needed tracks of three systems to go the distance. The route originated in NYC on the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR). At Washington, DC, the route used Southern tracks to Atlanta. At Atlanta, the Crescent shifted to the West Point Route to Montgomery. At Montgomery, it continued on L&N trackage down to Mobile, then to New Orleans.

After World War II, Southern shifted the route so it operated exclusively on their tracks.

All Pullman

Southern’s re-branding of the New York and New Orleans was more than just a name change. The route evolved into an All-Pullman affair, featuring “Deluxe accommodations; luxurious Pullman Cars of latest design–sections, drawing rooms, and compartments; extra large dressing rooms; excellent dining-car service; club car, observation car; valet-porter, and a ladies’ maid.” Naturally, “A reasonable extra fare is charged on this train.”

In later years, Southern added coach-car service to the Crescent, between New Orleans and Atlanta. This offered travelers a more-affordable option to get between the two cities.

L&N New Orleans Terminal

While the Crescent Limited operated a Southern consist, it departed and arrived at New Orleans via the L&N terminal at Canal Street and the river. All the other Southern trains used Terminal Station, at Canal and Basin Streets. This changed in 1954, when the city consolidated all passenger rail service at Union Passenger Terminal on Loyola Avenue.

For further information…

The ad mentions the City Ticket Office, located at 229 St. Charles Street. Most of the railroads maintained ticket offices on the ground floor of the St. Charles Hotel.

Amtrak

Even though it’s no longer “limited,” Amtrak continues operation of the Crescent, daily from Union Passenger Terminal (UPT) to New York Penn Station (NYP).