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.
Southern Railway Park stood just off from the tracks leading to Terminal Station.
Southern Railway Park
Franck Studios photos of Basin Street turning towards the lake in the late 1950s. The two parking tracks inside Southern Railway Park are visible on the left. Prior to 1954, railroad tracks leading out of Terminal Station at Canal and Basin Streets followed Basin, down to just before St. Louis Street. They turned lakebound at that point, heading into Mid-City. They connected with the “Back Belt” tracks, where trains turned east to cross the Industrial Canal and Lake Pontchartrain.
The New Orleans Terminal Company (NOTC) built a railroad passenger station on Canal Street in 1908. Southern Railway assumed control of the station when it acquired NOTC in 1916. Southern shifted their operations from Press Street Station in the Bywater to Faubourg Treme. Tracks ran along Basin from Canal Street to St. Louis. Additionally, Southern built a freight station, just before the tracks curved north. That station stood at 501 Basin, just out of the frame of these photos, on the left. A private concern purchased the freight building in the early 2000s, converting it into Basin Street Station, a visitors center and event venue.
After trains for Southern Railway (or Gulf, Mobile, and Ohio, the other railroad using Terminal Station) unloaded their passengers, they pulled off to a service yard. Engines pulled the train up past the Municipal Auditorium, then backed the cars into a side yard. Additionally, Southern trains carried “business cars” throughout the system. These cars looked like open-ended observation cars. They contained offices, bedrooms, and a kitchen. Railroad executives used these cars to travel the system.
When business cars came to New Orleans, the railroad parked them next to the passenger car service yard. Those tracks terminated in Southern Railway Park. The executives got a landscaped area where they could stretch their legs, or take a car to other parts of the city.
In 1954, the city consolidated passenger rail operations at Union Passenger Terminal, on Loyola Avenue. The city ordered the demolition of the five existing passenger stations. Southern Railway relocated the business car parking tracks to the location in this photo. They also moved several of the light fixtures like the one in this James H. Selzer photo from 1975.
Thanks to Mr. Maunsel White for sharing these photos on Facebook.
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.
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!
Amtrak’s Panama Limited began operations in 1971.
Amtrak’s Panama Limited
Paul Oliver photo of Amtrak’s Panama Limited, 5-May-1974. This is train #58, heading northbound from New Orleans to Chicago. Here’s Mike Palmieri’s caption, from a Facebook group:
AMTK No. 58 – NEW ORLEANS AREA – 5 MAY 1974 – Paul Oliver image
Amtrak train No. 58 – the northbound PANAMA LIMITED – was highballing through EAST BRIGDE JUNCTION, probably doing the speed limit of 60, on its way out of the New Orleans area. The train consisted of Illinois Central E8A units 4028 (in Amtrak colors), 4023 and 4027 with 14 cars, including deadheading dome-sleepers 9212 and 9211. The rest of the train consisted of baggage car 1020, 6-6-4 sleepers 2153 *SILVER IRIS *and 2152 SILVER HYACINTH, dining car 8029, lounge car 3353 and seven coaches: 5459, 5248, 5266, 5267, 4843, 4402 and 5233. The 4028 was passing a slightly newer General Motors product, a 1967 Oldsmobile CUTLASS coupe.
Amtrak took over passenger rail operations three years prior to this photo, in 1971. The nationalization of passenger rail in the US meant a lot movement of equipment. The existing railroads turned over their passenger equipment to Amtrak. Therefore, the Panama Limited continued to operate Illinois Centeral (IC) equipment.
By 1974 Amtrak repainted much, but not all of their rolling stock. Three locomotives pull #58 here. An IC EMD E8A-B-A trio lead. The two A units sport Amtrak livery, but the B unit remains in IC colors. The two dome cars following the locos one wears Amtrak, the other appears to still be IC brown and orange.
This mash-up of colors and equipment continued throughout the 1970s. While the early years presented combinations of Amtrak and single railroad colors, trains became more diverse as equipment moved around the country. Eventually, Amtrak replaced “heritage” equipment with newer, modern cars. The last of the original, pre-1971 cars to roll were diner cars. Amtrak replaced these cars with newer diners in the 2010s.
Panama Limited to City of New Orleans
Amtrak branded the New Orleans-Chicago line, “Panama Limited,” retaining the name of IC’s flagship train. When Arlo Guthrie recorded his iconic version of “City of New Orleans,” the railroad changed this route’s name to IC’s second route. So, #58 and #59 now bear the name, City of New Orleans.
NOPSI 913 on the Canal line in its waning days of operation.
New Orleans Public Service, Incorporated (NOPSI) streetcar 913, starting an outbound run on the Canal Street line. Photographer uncredited–if you know who shot this, please drop me a line. NOPSI 940 approaches 913, pulling up to end its inbound run. Both streetcars are 1923-vintage arch roof cars. Here’s Aaron’s caption from Facebook:
NOPSI Canal car 913 and another car rest the Liberty Circle terminus at the Riverfront, while 940 finishes the turn. April 21, 1964 (about a month or so before The Canal Line’s Big Switch to buses; notice the hobbyhorses over smudgepots on the right).
NOPSI 913 survived the conversion of the Canal line to buses. Market Street Railway in San Francisco now owns the streetcar.
This photo presents the perspective so many people saw, as they hopped off inbound streetcars to catch the ferry to the West Bank. Or, workers in the various buildings around the two-track terminus just after the loop around the Liberty Monument. The Louisville and Nashville train station vanished ten years earlier. When it stood behind the ferry bridge, these streetcars also brought rail travelers up Canal Street, to their hotels.
The loop track around Liberty Place ended the Canal line’s inbound runs since 1900. Ford, Bacon and Davis designed the original terminal. The city built out six tracks in this space. By the time of the 1957 “beautification” project on Canal Street, only the Canal and St. Charles lines remained. The city cut back tracks on Canal Street to two that year. The loop remained, with just two of the terminal tracks. Outbound streetcars merged into the single track on the French Quarter side.
Five weeks after this photo, NOPSI converted the Canal line to bus service. The city ripped up all these tracks. They paved over the neutral ground. This created a bus zone that ran from here at the river to Claiborne Avenue. After Claiborne, the neutral ground switched to green space. Buses merged into the auto lanes.
The city also removed the Liberty Monument, to make way for construction of the International Trade Mart and the Rivergate Convention Center. They put the monument into storage and demolished Liberty Place. While this move escaped public scrutiny at the time, the monument became a symbol for “heritage” in later years.