New Orleans has always had private utility companies.
Private Utility Companies
There’s a lot of talk in the wake of Hurricane Ida of privatizing the electric utility in NOLA. Electricity has been private since the 1880s.
The New Orleans Railway and Light Building (NORwy&Lt), 1915. The building stood at Baronne Street, corner Common Street. NORwy&Lt was the third attempt to consolidate utility and transit operations into a single corporation. The company formed in 1905. They acquired this building as a headquarters. When NORwy&Lt failed in 1922, the city transferred utilities and transit to New Orleans Public Service, Incorporated (NOPSI). NOPSI continued to use this building until a fire severely damaged it in 1929. Photo by John Teunisson.
We usually refer to street railways as “public transit,” but private companies built and operated streetcar lines. From the first New Orleans line in 1832 until 1984, they were a public conveyance but not publicly-owned.
It wasn’t all that hard to start a streetcar line. Make a proposal for a route to the city. Put down rails. Additionally, buy the actual streetcars and propulsion. Until the 1890s, “propulsion” were usually mules. Put streetcar on the rails, hook it to a mule, and off you went. At various points in the 19th Century, multiple operaters ran streetcars on the same lines. Their origin points were different, then converged on a main street, like Magazine Street.
Cities in the US began electrification in earnest in the late 1880s. By the early 1890s, electrification of New Orleans was well underway. Streetcar operators understood the economics of replacing mules with electric motors. Electrification required significant investment. The system upgrades included overhead wires and the poles to hold them. Then the operating companies needed to generate electricity. So, the companies financed their infrastructure investments with loans and stock sales. Riders rejected the notion of increased fares to pay for the upgrades. So, with little new revenue, the companies found themselves unable to pay their debts. They went bankrupt.
The city stepped in as the streetcar operators failed. Public transit was essential. They worked with the operators to consolidate management into a single company. The first incarnation was the New Orleans Traction Company, in 1897. That attempt failed. The city re-organized it into the New Orleans City Railroad Company in 1901. That failed, and New Orleans Railway and Light Company took the reins in 1905. By 1922, NOPSI was formed.
NOPSI was a subsidiary of what eventually became Middle South Utilities, Inc. That company was a component of EBASCO. They were a subsidiary of General Electric. When the Justice Department ordered the breakup of EBASCO, they allowed MSU to continue operations as a unit. So, NOPSI, Louisiana Power and Light, Mississippi Power and Light, and Arkansas Power and Light stayed together. So, by the end of World War II, NOPSI wanted out of the transit business. While streetcars were the largest consumers of electric power in the 1890s, the system was a loss for NOPSI by the mid-20th Century. The company turned over transit operations to the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority in 1984.
Advertising for Maison Blanche World War I focused on readiness.
Maison Blanche World War I
Two ads in the Times-Picayune, 24-August-1917, illustrate the targeting of Maison Blanche World War I. The smaller ad ran on page two, whereas the large ad ran on the back page of the fourteen-page edition. The smaller ad suggests buying your man a sweater, as he packs to leave for boot camp at Leon Springs in Texas. The larger ad offers the shopper discounts on a wide spectrum of items, from note paper to women’s shoes to various men’s items.
Entering the War
By the time of Maison Blanche World War I, Europe entered its third year of total war. The United States joined the war, on the side of France and the United Kingdom, on April 6, 1917. Money, goods,, and supplies traveled across the Atlantic almost immediately. American troops arrived in Europe in the summer of 1918. The summer of 1917 was that wartime period where excited young men joined up to defend their families. They went off to boot camp, returning home on leave in spiffy uniforms. Anxiety over trench warfare and the horrid conditions on the Western Front were distant.
Wives and mothers prepared for war with two approaches. First, they purchased clothing and supplies for the menfolk. While the Army provided the basics, there were always things soldiers needed and wanted. Second, the women prepared for rationing and other belt-tightening moves. Maison Blanche World War I recognized this. Instead of tantalizing the shopper with a new dress, fancy shoes, or furniture upgrades, we see a lot of practical items on sale.The department stores focused on page one and page two of the newspaper. With only fourteen pages in the edition, there was no full-page ad for MB in one section, Holmes in the next. Readers caught the latest news, turned the page, then spotted store ads. More extravagant sales and shopping came to New Orleans in the aftermath of the war.
Streetcars and Walgreens at 900 Canal Street!
900 Canal Street
This Peter Ehrlich photo from 2008 features some next details. Most notably, NORTA 968 runs inbound on the Canal Street line. This was the period post-Katrina where the Canal and St. Charles lines crossed over. The 2000-series Von Dullen cars flooded at Canal Station. The arch roofs survived the storm, buttoned up on high ground at Carrollton Station. Unfortunately, the wind uptown blew down over sixty percent of the overhead wires on the St. Charles line. So, New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (NORTA) combined the two.
Perleys back on Canal
The overhead on Canal required only minor repairs. They re-built the trucks and propulsion on the 2000s. The Rail Department towed green streetcars down St. Charles to Canal Street. Once on Canal, the streetcars ran on their own. So, they went into service. Notice that NORTA 968 sports “SPECIAL” on the rollboard. The roll signs no longer include “CANAL,” since their national landmark status locks them into St. Charles. The thirty-five remaining 900-series cars haven’t run on Canal since 1964. The green streetcars present a powerful symbol of the history and strength of the city. Running them on the Canal line added resiliency as a statement.
Behind NORTA 968 stands the Walgreens Drug Store at 900 Canal Street. This store opened in 1939. All that neon dates back to 1940. A lot of transplants to New Orleans see the bright lights and express disdain. They don’t realize just how long that Walgreens has been a part of the CBD. (On a side note, the folks that work there are fantastic. I’ve actually done a book signing there.)
The old Chess, Checkers and Whist Club building stood at the corner of Canal and Baronne for generations. By the 1930s, the structure fell apart from the inside. Walgreens bought the property, demolished the old building, and built the drugstore.
The palm trees appeared during the 1957. The 900 block received greenery, as the “beautification project” that year cut back the four streetcar tracks in the neutral ground to two. Hard freezes killed those first palm trees, but New Orleanians love them. So, the city replaced them, over and over.
Behind Walgreens is the Roosevelt Hotel, with its rich and colorful history in the CBD.
Unpacking 1200 Canal, including neon, radio, and streetcars.
Unpacking 1200 Canal Street
Franck Studios photo, shot from Canal and Basin Streets, looking towards the river. HNOC dates this at approximately 1932. The fleur-de-lis lampposts and relatively-new improvements to Canal Street support this. Those were part of the 1930 “beautification” program for Canal. The city approved the road work and new lights after the disastrous transit strike in 1929. Ridership remained incredibly low in the wake of the strike. The city hoped that road work would both improve Canal Street and discourage individuals from driving automobiles downtown. Transit ridership never recovered its pre-strike numbers.
View from 1200 Canal Street
The photographer, who is not identified beyond working for Franck Studios, stands in front of Terminal Station, at Canal and Basin Streets. Krauss Department Store is behind him to the left. The Saenger Theater stands to the left, the Loews to the right. Neon signs and street-level advertising bombard pedestrians and streetcar riders alike, as they approach the main retail area of the city. The Maison Blanche building sports two large antennae on the roof. These are the transmission towers for WSMB Radio. The call letters “WSMB” stood for “Saenger-Maison Blanche.” The department store and theater partnered in radio. The theater promoted movies and shows, the store sold the hardware. Eventually, WWL radio bought WSMB, to get access to the Rush Limbaugh Show. Now, the station’s call letters are WWWL.
NOPSI 429, operating on the West End line
NOPSI 429 runs outbound, up Canal Street, on the West End line. West End stopped at all stops until Claiborne Avenue. The streetcars ran up Canal to City Park Avenue without stopping. They then turned left-and-right to head up West End Boulevard to the lake.
Perley A. Thomas designed the 400-series arch roofs while working for Southern Car Company. New Orleans Railway and Light liked the design. They bought a number of them for the St. Charles/Tulane Belts, as well as West End. The Canal line continued to use the Palace streetcars from American Car Company, until 1935.
The Southern Railway Terminal on Basin Street serviced New Orleans for forty-six years.
Southern Railway Terminal
Franck Studios photo (via HNOC) of the Southern Railway Terminal, Canal and Basin Streets, downtown. This particular photo caught my eye because it’s a straight-on shot, rather than from an angle. The photographer stands in the Canal Street neutral ground. They shot the photo in-between streetcars. Krauss Department Store stands to the left. The Saenger Theater is visible to the right. Architect Daniel N. Burnham of Chicago, designer of the Flatiron building in New York, created this station. The New Orleans Terminal Company built it in 1908.
Not just Southern
While the electric sign at the top of the station’s arch proclaims Southern Railway, the Gulf, Mobile, and Northern (later Gulf, Mobile and Ohio) also operated here. The trains ran down Basin Street to St. Louis Street, where the tracks turned lakebound to head out of town. The Lafitte Corridor greenway runs the path of the old railroad tracks. The area remained abandoned for decades after passenger trains all moved over to Union Passenger Terminal on Loyola.
This Southern Rialway terminal photo contains interesting details to unpack. Two of the fleur-de-lis light poles that light up Canal Street to this day flank the station. Union Sheet Metal Company fabricated those poles for the city in 1930. The pole on the right has a sign promoting the Community Chest charity. Since Mayor Chep Morrison extensively used the light posts to promote seasonal causes and celebrations, this narrows the date down. While HNOC does not date the photo, it’s likely between 1950 and 1954.
Two men sit at small stands outside the Southern Railway terminal. One sits under an umbrella. I couldn’t read the words painted on either stand, so I put the question to the folks in Facebook’s “Ain’t There No More” group.. My original guess was the guy under the umbrella operated a food stand, and the other sold newspapers. Folks made out “ITEM” on the right-hand stand. That fits with the New Orleans Item newspaper. Longtime Times-Picayune photographer (and current director of the 1811 Kid Ory Historic House in Laplace) John McCusker says they’re both newsstands. Works for me!
The Mercier Building at Canal and Dauphine Streets was the first Maison Blanche.
Mercier Building 1885
Photo of the construction of the Mercier Building in 1884. Photographer is unidentified. Source is the Louisiana Photographs Collection, Earl K. Long Library, UNO. The third incarnation of Christ Episcopal Church stood at the corner of Canal and Dauphine until the 1880s. The chapter put the property up at auction in 1884. The Mercier family demolished the church. They built this commercial structure. Christ Episcopal moved uptown. They built a new church, uptown at St. Charles Avenue and Sixth Street. In 1897, Simon J. Shwartz acquired the Mercier Building, opening the Maison Blanche Department Store there.
Church to Store
Episcopalians in New Orleans founded Christ Church in 1803. The chapter held services in various locations at the start. In 1816, they built a church on the corner of Bourbon and Canal (river side). The congregation outgrew that building by the 1830s. In 1837, Christ Church dedicated a new church on the corner. This second church was in the style of a Greek temple. Businessman Judah Touro made the chapter an offer they couldn’t refuse for the building, in 1845. He loaned the church to a Jewish congregation, but then demolished the block, to build the “Touro Buildings.” Christ Episcopal moved from Canal and Bourbon to Canal and Dauphine Streets. Rather than accept a private offer for the now-valuable property, the chapter sold it at auction.
The Merciers built their building as separate locations with shared walls. Multiple retailers leased the space. Leon Fellman split from his brother, Bernard. Leon opened a store in the Mercier Buildings, while his brother continued the original store in the Touro Buildings. When the Touro Buildings caught fire in 1892, S. J. Shwartz moved his family’s store, A. Schwartz and Son, to the Mercier Buildings. Shwartz bought the building in 1897. He terminated the leases of Fellman and other tenants. Shwartz then re-modeled the interior of the building, turning it into a single store, Maison Blanche.
Construction, not demolition
UNO captioned this as “Mercier Building being dismantled, Canal Street, New Orleans,” but the photo actually documents the construction. This photo was taken in 1885, not 1906.