Lakefront Drive-In Theater, in 1940.
“Drive-in Theater” on Canal Blvd, 1940.
Lakefront Drive-In Theater
Last year, I presented a lecture at the National World War II Museum, entitled, Winning the War on the Lakefront. The talk started at West End and the New Canal, then moved along the lakefront to the Industrial Canal. Every time I’ve presented this lecture, folks in attendance asked about a facility in what is now the East Lakeshore subdivision. Turns out, it was a Lakefront Drive-in Theater.
The Army and Navy hospitals.
Aerial photo of Lagarde Army Hospital (bottom), and Naval Hospital New Orleans (top), 1940
The Orleans Levee Board reclaimed a great deal of land along the lakefront in the late 1920s. For reference, around 1910, the Mount Carmel Convent on Robert E. Lee Blvd had a fishing pier out front. It extended into the lake from almost the front door. The OLB reclaimed the area from there, up to where Lakeshore Drive is now.
The WPA made major improvements to the lakefront in 1938-1939. They built the seawall and Lakeshore drive. The reclaimed land belonged to the city. So, when the US Army and US Navy looked to build hospitals in New Orleans, the lakefront area appealed to them. The Army built Lagarde Army Hospital in what is now West Lakeshore. The Navy built Naval Hospital New Orleans on the other side of Canal Blvd. The breeze off Lake Pontchartrain cooled down the area at a time when air-conditioning was not ubiquitous. While the hospitals had different missions, they both benefited from the location.
What’s that thing?
Ad for the “Drive-in Theater,” 1940
I found some good aerial shots of the lakefront in 1940. They show the WPA improvements and the hospitals nicely. They also show a facility with a bunch of arcs, right behind Naval Hospital New Orleans. I dismissed it as maybe some kind of outdoor amphitheater, perhaps for concerts and other entertainment. Folks asked, “What’s that thing?” I replied with the outdoor entertainment answer.
Well, that answer wasn’t exactly wrong! I shared an Infrogmation photo of the bus stand at Canal and Robert E. Lee a couple of days ago. Arthur “Mardi Hardy” Hardy, musician, teacher, and local Carnival expert, replied to that image. Arthur said there was a drive-in movie theater, there on the other side of Canal Blvd, from the bus stand. He shared the ad (above) in the comment thread. The name of the place really was just, “Drive-In Theater.”
DING! That must be the “thing” behind Naval Hospital New Orleans. It makes sense, the quarter-circle pattern of the facility. Everything converges on the point of the right angle. That’s the screen. Public transportation to get out to the hospitals was limited (just the West End Streetcar). So, most folks drove out to there for work. Maybe stop and catch a movie before heading all the way home? Makes a lot of sense.
Movie Theater Project
I know Arthur has a book in progress on local movie theaters. So, I have yet another reason to buy it when it’s done. Thanks, Arthur!
Hickory Creek is an ex-New York Central observation car.
Private varnish “Hickory Creek,” bringing up the rear of the Amtrak Crescent #20, 30-Dec-2019. (Edward Branley photo)
Hickory Creek on the #BackBelt
The ex-New York Central car, Hickory Creek, brought up the rear on the Amtrak Crescent, on its way to Penn Station on 30-December-2019. I don’t know the details of this particular trip for Hickory Creek, if they came down just to New Orleans, or if this was a return from going all the way out to Los Angeles. Either way, the car headed back north on Monday morning.
New York Central’s 20th Century Limited
Poster for the New York Central’s 20th Century Limited, featuring the 1948 trainset.
Hickory Creek was one of the “sleeper observation” cars put into service by the New York Central in 1948. So, the railroad switched the train to diesel (EMD units) in 1945, ordering new trainsets as well. General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower rode the inaugural run in 1948. The train ran until 1967.
So, the train began operation in 1902. A typical 20th Century Limited consist, including Hickory Creek, in 1965 looked like this:
- E7A diesel locomotive: NYC 4025;
- E8A diesel locomotive: NYC 4080;
- E7A diesel locomotive: NYC 4007;
- MB Class Baggage-mail car: NYC 5018;
- CSB Class Baggage-dormitory car: NYC 8979;
- PB Class Coach: NYC 2942;
- DG Class Grill-diner: NYC 450;
- PAS Class Sleepercoach (16-Single Room 10-Double Room): NYC 10811;
- PAS Class Sleepercoach (16-Single Room 10-Double Room): NYC 10817;
- PS Class Sleeper (22-roomette): NYC 10355 BOSTON HARBOR;
- DKP Class Kitchen-Lounge Car: NYC 477;
- DE Class Dining Room Car: NYC 406;
- PS Class Sleeper (10-roomette 6-double bedroom): NYC 10171 CURRENT RIVER;
- PS Class Sleeper (12-double bedroom): NYC 10511 PORT OF DETROIT;
- Class PS Sleeper (12-double bedroom): NYC 10501 PORT BYRON;
- Class PSO Sleeper-Buffet-Lounge-Observation (5-double bedroom): NYC 10633 HICKORY CREEK.
Hickory Creek after the New York Central
Since the railroad discontinued the 20th Century Limited before the creation of Amtrak in 1971, the rolling stock didn’t go over to the new operator. Ringling Brothers Circus bought Hickory Creek. Since they didn’t need Pullman quality, the circus used it as dorm-style housing. They ripped out the interior of the car.
Hickory Creek, prior to the 2014 restoration. (Fred Heide photo)
In 2014, Star Trak, Inc., acquired Hickory Creek. They restored the car for private operation. So, the team modified original Pullman Standard design of five bedrooms to four. Since modern operations of private cars involve hitching on Amtrak trains, the team reduced the bedrooms to add showers. Trains Magazine published an article on the restoration by Mr. Fred Heide in November, 2014.
Post-restoration floor plan of Hickory Creek.
In addition to reducing the number of bedrooms, the 2014 restoration changed the galley area. The 1948 design of Hickory Creek included a small galley, for preparing snacks and drinks. So, the Star Trak team converted the space into a full-service kitchen. Again, this fits with modern use of private cars. They’re designed to be independent of the trains pulling them.
Observation area of the restored Hickory Creek. (photo courtesy Simon Pielow)
While the bedrooms and galley changed a bit, the team kept the rear observation area true to the 1948 design.
Private Rail on the #BackBelt
Private car Hickory Creek on the #BackBelt in New Orleans, behind an Amtrak baggage/dorm car. (Edward Branley photo)
I spend a lot of mornings at the PJ’s Coffee Shop at 5555 Canal Boulevard. The baristas here are great and the regulars are nice folks. Regulars occasionally ask me why I get up and record/photograph the Crescent as it heads out of town. It’s pretty much the same consist each morning, but then there are the days when something extra brings up the rear.
Arch Roof Streetcars stack up at the Cemeteries Terminal, 1963
Five arch roof streetcars at the Cemeteries Terminal, Canal Street, 1963 (Connecticut Archives photo)
Arch Roof Streetcars in 1963
The 1923-vintage 800- and 900-series arch roof streetcars serviced the Canal line starting in the 1930s. Prior to 1935, the American Car Company’s “Palace” cars ran on Canal. New Orleans Public Service, Incorporated (NOPSI) standardized streetcar operations when the company took over the system. They liked the Perley A. Thomas, arch roof design. Since NOPSI wanted to phase out streetcar operations in favor of buses, they used these cars everywhere. Preparations to convert Canal to buses began in 1959. By 1963, NOPSI reached the ready point. Still, the busiest line in the city had to keep going, so the arch roof streetcars kept moving.
The Canal line
The Canal Street line terminated at the Cemeteries since the 1930s. After “belt service” was discontinued, the streetcars made a left-turn onto City Park Avenue. They came to a stop on City Park Avenue. A switch in the street enabled the streetcars to change tracks to from outbound to inbound and vice versa. The West End line continued up City Park Avenue, turning at the New Basin Canal for the run up to Lake Pontchartrain.
When West End converted to buses in 1947, NOPSI re-designed the Cemeteries Terminal. They removed the left-turn onto City Park. NOPSI installed a double-slip switch in the Canal Street neutral ground. That switch/terminal remained until June of 1964. NOPSI removed all the track at that time. Bus operation replaced the arch roof streetcars. The Canal (Cemeteries) bus line made a right-turn from Canal Street. The buses went half a block to the start of Canal Boulevard, then pulled into a U-turn terminal in the 5600 block of Canal Blvd.
In this photo, five cars are in/near the terminal. The streetcar on the left is on the inbound track, behind the switch. The second car from the left enters the switch from the outbound track, starting its inbound run. This was common for the Cemeteries Terminal. This happens regularly at S. Carrollton and S. Claiborne, at the end of the St. Charles line.
The three streetcars to the right wait on the outbound track. When the first two cars depart for downtown, those cars will enter both sides of the terminal. They depart per the schedule.
The Cemeteries Terminal changed when streetcars returned to Canal in 2004. Instead of a a two-track terminal, the line came down to a single track. Outbound streetcars stopped just before a single crossover. The lead outbound car rode through the switch, to the end bumper. The operator changed the poles. Upon departure, the streetcar crossed to the inbound track. Streetcars waited, similar to the three on the right in the photo, for their turn to go through the switch.
The 2000-series streetcars used today ride through the Canal/City Park intersection, to Canal Blvd. The current incarnation of the terminal consists of two u-turn tracks. Canal uses point-to-loop operation.
Southern Railway, now Norfolk Southern, maintains the #BackBelt railroad connection.
Plate girder bridges crossing the now-filled-in New Basin Canal, 1960.
The New Orleans and North Eastern (NONE) Railroad connected New Orleans with Meridian, Mississippi, in 1883. NONE operated from Terminal Station, located at Canal and Basin Streets, when that station opened in 1908. The Southern Railway system acquired NONE in 1916. Southern Railway, now Norfolk Southern, expanded their holdings and operations in New Orleans over the past hundred years.
The Back Belt
Pontchartrain Expressway meets the Back Belt, 1960
Norfolk Southern enters the metro New Orleans area from the East, on the Lake Pontchartrain Railroad Bridge. From there, NS trains travel on tracks following Florida Avenue, through Gentilly and Mid-City. NS also spins off the Back Belt connecting to the company’s Oliver Yard, between Press/St. Ferdinand Streets and Montegut Street. The Back Belt connects with CN tracks in Metairie. That route leads out of the city to the West.
The most-visible part of the NS connection is at the boundary between Mid-City and Lakeview, in New Orleans. The train tracks cross I-10 at this point.
Boats meet Trains
The New Basin Canal ran from Lake Pontchartrain to S. Rampart Street. Irish immigrants made up the bulk of the labor force that built the canal in the 1830s. The Southern Railway system needed to cross the New Basin Canal to get across the city. The railroad built a bridge across the canal just north of Metairie Cemetery (on the canal’s west bank) and Greenwood Cemetry (on the east bank). That bridge served the railroads until the city’s decision to close the canal in 1937. The city filled in the canal’s turning basin some of the canal, up to the intersection of Tulane and S. Carrollton Avenues. World War II delayed further work. After the war, the city filled in the rest of the waterway, from Tulane Avenue/Airline Highway, to the lake.
Waterway to Highway
Run-around track at the Pontchartrain Expressway, 1960
The city planned to build an expressway over what used to be the New Basin Canal. The idea was to provide commuters from Lakeview and Metairie with an easier route into downtown. That expressway would eventually link with a bridge over the Mississippi River.
Building an expressway required a re-design of the over-water bridge Southern Railway used over the New Basin Canal. In 1960, work began on demolishing the original bridge. They replaced that bridge with a wider underpass. The first step in constructing the underpass was to re-route the train tracks. They built a “run-around” track to bypass the bridge. Once the run-around became operational, they could demolish the bridge. The new underpass structure went up. The construction crews demolished the run-around, leaving what we see now, over I-10.
Lakeview in the 1950s
Metairie Road/City Park Avenue at the New Basin Canal, 1960
The construction photos show Lakeview before I-10 swallowed up the area. The filled-in canal area is empty. The Pontchartrain Expressway begins south of Metairie Road at this point. The entrance to the expressway stretched north after the completion of the railroad underpass.
All the while, Southern Railway ran across the city. After 1954, Southern passenger trains followed the Pontchartrain Expressway, turning north, then east, onto the Back Belt, to head out of town.