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.
1964 Transit Improvement Program ended the Canal streetcar line.
1964 Transit Improvement
Flyer updating riders on the 1964 Transit Improvement Program. New Orleans Public Service, Incorporated (NOPSI) planned the removal of streetcars from the Canal Street line for May 31, 1964. While advocacy groups organized in late 1963/early 1964 to oppose the program, it was too little, too late. The plans for this removal began in late 1959.
This flyer emphasizes the advantages of switching Canal to bus service. NOPSI rolled out new buses as part of this “improvement.” Those Flixible company buses were air-conditioned. Riders in Lakeview and Lakeshore could get on the bus close to the house and ride all the way into the CBD.
This flyer promotes the Phase 2 changes. In Phase 1 of 1964 Transit Improvement, the city cut back the width of the Canal Street neutral ground. This allowed for three traffic lanes on either side of the street. When streetcars returned to Canal Street in 2004, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (NORTA, successor to NOPSI’s transit operations) built a single-track terminal at Canal Street and City Park Avenue. There was no space to re-create the two-track end of the line. So, at the time, New Orleanians approved these changes. Preservationists were caught off guard.
NOPSI immediately cut down the electric overhead wires on 31-May-1964, as part of Phase 2 of 1964 Transit Improvement. The city ripped up the streetcar tracks within weeks of the switch to buses. Additionally, the air-conditioning started on 31-May.
NOPSI expanded the “suburban” bus lines. They extended buses going to West End and Lakeview into downtown. Streetcars on the Canal line ended their runs at City Park Avenue. So, a rider living, say, off Fleur-de-Lis Avenue walked to Pontchartrain Blvd. They caught the bus to City Park Avenue, transferring there to the streetcar. While that doesn’t sound like a big deal, NOPSI discovered an opportunity. The rider starts on a bus with a/c, but switches to a hot, humid streetcar. If it’s raining, well, you get the idea.
Additionally, NOPSI offered an enhanced service, the “express” lines. Express 80 followed the Canal-Lake Vista (via Canal Boulevard) route. For an extra nickel, riders boarded Express 80 rather than the regular line. When the express bus reached City Park Avenue, Express 80 made no stops until Claiborne Avenue. Same for Express 81, which followed the Canal-Lakeshore via Pontchartrain Boulevard line. So that rider could not only stay on the bus from home, they got to the office that much quicker.
Downtown workers relied upon public transit so much more in 1964. When something is part of your day-to-day routine, improvements that enhance your experience are easy to sell. Preserving forty-year old streetcars didn’t seem like a big deal compared to not sweating through your clothes by the time you arrived at work.
Thanks to Aaron Handy, III, for this image of the flyer!
French Quarter mini-bus offered an alternative to standard-size buses.
French Quarter mini-bus
NOPSI 1002, a “Flxette” from the Flxible Company, going down Chartres Street in 1980. NOPSI operated a “French Quarter” line, replacing standard buses with these minis. They re-routed regular bus lines to Decatur and N. Rampart Streets. This lessened the impact of larger buses on the interior streets of the Quarter. While the route changes for standard buses remain, the mini-bus line was not successful. In this photo, NOPSI 1002 passes the side of the Royal Orleans Hotel.
Streetcar lines regularly transited the interior of the French Quarter, dating back to the days of mule-drawn operation. Streetcars traveled inbound on Royal Street. They reached Canal Street, turned right, then right again on Bourbon Street. Bourbon served as the outlet for the outbound leg of a number of lines.
As NOPSI discontinued streetcar operations on all but St. Charles and Canal, buses took over on the same routes. Diesel and gas exhaust fumes flooded the streets. The weight of the buses shook the streets and the buildings lining them. As the city became more conscious of long-term damage to historic buildings, buses moved up on their radar.
The Landrieu administration and the City Council studied the problem of buses in the Quarter in the late 1970s. Concerns related to preservation moved up the agendas. They concluded it was time to pull buses out of the Quarter.
NOPSI buses weren’t the only problem, though. Tour buses from a number of companies, along with motor coaches from commercial companies, transporting convention attendees and other visitors to Quarter hotels. So, the rumble-bumble of big vehicles had to go.
The city implemented French Quarter mini-bus use in 1978. NOPSI acquired the “Flxette’ vehicles for use on the “French Quarter” transit line. The city banned large buses of all kinds outright. Private transportation companies complained, but they adopted.
Thanks to Aaron Handy, III for this photo!
The Desire line operated as bus service in 1978.
Photo of a NOPSI bus on the Desire line in 1978. Here’s Aaron’s caption from Vintage New Orleans Transit:
Inbound NOPSI Flxible New Look bus 325, a Streetbus Named Desire-Florida, crosses Saint Ann Street on Decatur Street. Notice the standee window with a billboard promoting WDSU-TV. May 1978.
New Look buses operated across the city in the 1970s. Their air-conditioning was fantastic. The buses skirted the French Quarter, connecting back-of-town neighborhoods with Canal Street, via N. Rampart and Decatur Streets.
Mid-70s bus rides
I rode a lot of NOPSI buses in the mid-1970s. Living in Metairie and attending high school in Gentilly meant several transfers to get home. As a rule, my bus travel went East to West.
Exam days at Brother Martin High School offered opportunities for exploration. Afternoon or early evening bus rides involved getting to Canal Street and City Park Avenue as quickly as possible. Fisnished at 10am? Different story.
Travel to the CBD
Rides home started at either Gentilly Blvd. or Mirabeau Ave. Carrollton to Esplanade to the Veterans started on Gentilly. Cartier to Lake Vista to Lakeshore started on Mirabeau. Those weren’t the only options, though. With some free time, why not pick up the Canal bus closer to the start of its outbound run?
French Quarter Periphery
Step into one of those New Look buses running on the Elysian Fields line. Drop in a quarter, and ride it in. The bus ran down Elysian Fields Avenue to N. Peters Street. From there, a right-turn onto N. Peters. Then that street merged into Decatur Street, than back out to N. Peters again. End of the line at Canal.
Elysian Fields, Desire, and Franklin, along with a few other lines, skirted the Quarter in the 1970s. This is because the City Council declared that full-sized buses operating in the interior of the Quarter were a bad idea. For generations, streetcars rolled inbound on Royal Street, outbound on Bourbon. Buses followed that route after NOPSI discontinued streetcar operation on all but St. Charles and Canal. While streetcars were noisy and slowed down traffic, they didn’t emit diesel fumes. Buses literally gassed out the neighborhood.
There were other arguments for the restrictions, most notably from the Fire Department. Big vehicles in the Quarter make getting to the scene of a fire all that more difficult. So, when the proposal to alter the routes came up, it seemed reasonable to most. After all, most riders of those lines hung on until Canal, anyway.
NOPSI Canal Station is usually photographed from Canal Street.
NOPSI Canal Station
The New Orleans City Railroad Company (NOCRR, the first incarnation) built the streetcar barn/station on Canal Street in 1860-61. This photo, from 1954, offers an interesting perspective, from the rear. The original facility consisted of three parts. NOCRR built an actual barn, for the mules, pre-electrification. Next to that, they built the streetcar facility. Additionally, they constructed a steam-train engine house. The engine facility stood right behind the buildings facing Canal Street. So, steam engines exited their shed, heading to West End. NOCRR ran steam from N. White Street out to the cemeteries, then the lake. Since that part of Canal Street was less ti at the time, they got away with the smoke and noise.
I came across an aerial photo of NOPSI Canal Station from 1921 during research for the streetcar book. New Orleans Railway & Light operated the streetcars at that time. While the steam operations vanished with electrification, the company expanded the streetcar facilities into the block between Iberville and Bienvile. In 1921, a New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) ballpark separated Canal Station from the Boy’s High School (now Warren Easton). I hired a photographer to get me some contemporary shots of the facility. By 2004, the ballpark vanished. The current facility runs all the way to the school.
Railroad historian Mike Palmieri shared this photo on a Facebook group. Here’s his caption:
NOPSI – NEW ORLEANS – APR 1954 – WILLIAM T. HARRY image
This was a view of the streetcar storage yard at the New Orleans Public Service’s CANAL STATION and BUS GARAGE in the 2900-block of Canal Street, as seen from Iberville Street, and the cars which can be identified were the 942, 931, 943, 932 and 930. The first three of these were scrapped after the CANAL car line was discontinued 10 years later, but the other two survive on the ST. CHARLES line. The trolleybus parking area was off to the right, on the opposite side of Iberville.
So, by the 1950s, NOPSI converted that ballpark to outdoor bus and streetcar parking. Mr. Harry got photos of that side as well that we’ll share as we go along.
Flixible buses that ended the Canal Streetcar.
Aaron Handy III posted this photo a while back:
“Inbound NOPSI Flxible New Look 194, assigned to Canal-Cemeteries, and a piggybacking colleague, both of the 1964 F2D6V-401-1 fleet (194 was next-to-last of the batch), waits at the corner of Canal and Carondelet Streets. May 1975.”
Those green buses are how NOPSI convinced transit riders to give up on the Canal Streetcar. In the late 1950s/early 60s, to get to downtown from Lakeview, you rode the West End bus to City Park Avenue. From there, you transferred to the Canal Streetcar. Hot or cold, rain or shine, you had to switch. In 1962-1963, NOPSI pitched the city and the public with running air-conditioned buses on West End and Canal Blvd. The commuter could board a bus near home and ride in a/c until their downtown stop. No transfer in Mid-City. No sweaty, crowded streetcar. Men in suits and women in stockings arrived ready for work. While there were activists in May of 1964 who tried to stop the conversion, they were way too late to the game. The city approved the plan, most of the ridership agreed, and all the activists could do was sacrifice the Canal line to save St. Charles (their primary goal anyway).
Going home from school
As stated in Aaron’s caption, the 1964 Flixibles were still operating in 1975. That’s when I was at Brother Martin High, 1971-1976. One of the options for getting home was connecting with the Canal Street lines. NOPSI offered the choice of taking the Carrollton line to Canal Street. The other choice was the Broad line to Canal. So, from Broad and Canal or Carrollton and Canal (next to the Manuel’s Hot Tamales stand), we connected outbound.
NOPSI operated three Canal Street lines at the time:
- Cemeteries, which terminated at City Park Avenue.
- Lake Vista (via Canal Blvd), which went up Canal Blvd, along Lakeshore Drive, and terminated at Spanish Fort.
- Lakeshore (via Pontchartrain Blvd), which went up West End Blvd outbound, returning via Pontchartrain Blvd, inbound.
We chose any of the three, since they all passed the connecting corners.