City Park’s Miniature Railroad dates to the 1890
The Miniature Railroad at City Park
This is a 2010 photo of the current incarnation of the City Park railroad, courtesy Mid-City Messenger. A miniature railroad first operated in New Orleans City Park in the 1890s. After a couple of false starts, the park’s railroad has run since 1905, pausing only for war (fuel rationing). Trains circle the lower section of the park, starting and ending at the back of Storyland/Carousel Gardens. The train goes east, towards Marconi Drive, then follows Marconi south, to City Park Avenue, it turns west, following the lower edge of the park, turning just before the Wisner/City Park Avenue/N. Carrollton intersection. It curves north, passing the New Orleans Museum of Art, then the Sculpture Garden and Casino, returning to its station by the rides.
The first miniature railroad in the park opened in 1895. The park chose not to renew the contract for the train, saying maintenance of the track cost more than fares brought in. A second attempt, a couple of years later, yielded similar results. A contractor proposed resuming the ride in 1905. The park board of commissioners approved the plan. The railroad became a success. The railroad’s route initially consisted of about 1500 feet of track, which later expanded to 2000 feet.
The train took a temporary hiatus for a year in World War I, and closed completely during the Second World War. While the fuel rationing restrictions ended after the war, the route fell into disrepair. The park re-vamped the railroad in 1949. They laid new rail for the 2000-foot route, using crossties provided by American Creosote Works company, on Dublin Street, Uptown. All was done according to prototype railroad specifications.
The park ordered a train from the Miniature Train and Railway Company of Elmhurst, Illinois. They delivered a faithful replica of a General Motors F3 diesel locomotive and six passenger cars. That train ran on the miniature railroad into the 1970s. The current train is less to prototype, and built for a bit more comfort.
Union Passenger Terminal
When Mayor Chep Morrison completed his plans to operate all passenger trains in and out of New Orleans from a single terminal, then-President of the City Park Railroad, Harry J. Batt, Jr., took out an ad in the Times-Picayune on May 1, 1954. Batt sent Mr. William G. Zetzmann, the Chairman of the New Orleans Terminal Board (the body that built Union Passenger Terminal) his regrets that his mainiature ailroad would not be consolidating operations at UPT. Batt’s note was good-natured:
Dear Mr. Zetzmann,
It is with sincere regret that we must have the unique distinction of being the only 48-passenger train that will not enter and leave your wonderful new station. I contratulate you on this new building, but it is of of necessity that we maintain our present station.
Narrow gauge rail equipment and other factors over which we have no control bring about this condition.
I believe, too, that the kiddies would much prefer the present surroundings with the giant oaks overhead, the blooming flowers, and the other environments of nature that give childhood its greatest urge for happiness.
Harry J. Batt, Jr.
Presiednt, City Park Railroad
While this is a cute and up-beat note, it also served as a poke at Mayor Morrison, who played hardball with the railroads for ten years to get UPT.
City Park contains some of the oldest trees in New Orleans, including Suicide Oak.
Postcard from the V.O. Hammon Publishing Company, early 1900s. This tree got its name because sixteen men took their lives over a period of twelve years, in the 1890s into the 1900s. The name stuck. This tree is not far from the famous “Duelling Oak.” Several photos of the time group the trees together as the “old duelling ground” on the Allard Plantation.
Outside the city
The Allard Plantation comprised a large portion of what is now New Orleans City Park. The land operated as a sugar cane plantation. In the mid-19th century, businessman and philanthropist John McDonogh (the guy all the schools were named after) acquired the land. The owners fell in arrears with the city. To recover unpaid taxes. The city seized the plantation. They sold the plantation at auction, with McDonogh purchasing it. When he died, McDonogh donated the land to the city. While it took another 30ish years to formally convert plantation to park, it did happen.
Even though the Allard Plantation grew sugar cane, the owners maintained the magnificent oaks near the main house. The land near Bayou Metairie, was too marshy for large-scale agriculture. So, the oaks served as cool, shady surroundings for the owners.
Gentlemen of New Orleans often followed the European tradition of settling disagreements with “affairs of honor.” If a man felt aggrieved by words or actions of another, he could “demand satisfaction.” from the other party. Many duels ended up with both parties walking away. The usual terms negotiated by the seconds (friends of the duelling parties) specified that duels should end when honor was satisfied. This usually meant blood drawn by a sword, or both participants surviving pistol shots.
The possibility of someone dying complicated the duel. Sure, if honor was satisfied, everyone could retire to a restaurant for brunch, but that sword or pistol ball could find its target. Spanish Colonial government considered a death in a duel to be murder. When such a death happened in the city limits, the duel’s winner could be arrested, tried, and even executed for murder.The United States held the same position as the Spanish with respect to duels.
So, duellers required a location outside the city limits and away from witnesses. The oaks of Allard offered privacy, for both affairs of honor, and more private, unfortunate acts.
City Park Trees, palm and oak, near the McFadden house.
City Park Trees
Palm and oak trees in front of the original house that later became the McFadden mansion. It’s now part of City Park New Orleans. The Library of Congress (LOC) dates this photo as circa 1910. That fits, as construction on the house finished in 1909. While the oak tree clearly predates the house, the palm tree is part of the landscaping project.
Francisco Hery first farmed the land that is now City Park in 1723. Louis Allard, born in 1777, acquired the land, growing sugar cane and corn. Allard failed to pay city taxes. The city seized the plantation. John McDonogh bought the land at auction. When McDonogh died in 1850, he willed the plantation back to the city. City Hall converted the farm into public green space. They formalized this in 1870, officially creating City Park.
City Park began as a much smaller area than it is now. So, local businessman Fred Bertrand purchased four acres of land just north of the park. He built the four-bedroom house seen here. William Harding McFadden, a Texas oilman, purchased the house in 1919. McFadden enlarged the original house, converting it into the mansion we know now.
Palm trees in New Orleans
The palm tree planted in front of Bertrand’s home makes me at once happy and sad. Happy because I love palms. Sad because so many of these palms don’t survive winters in New Orleans. Over the 20th century, the city undertook “beautification projects,” re-paving major streets and adding plants and trees. Unfortunately, the palm trees rarely had a chance. Within a few years of the projects, winter brought a cold snap with a hard freeze. Those low temperatures killed the palms.
We keep trying, though. Maybe it’s a desire to match the palms in Los Angeles. Maybe we just like them. Either way, we bring them down, plant them, and watch them freeze. sigh.