Amtrak New Orleans offers solid train travel options
Amtrak New Orleans
Winter Getaways! The more things change, the more they remain the same. College students wanting to get away during their break is one of those. This 1996 ad in the Loyola Maroon tempts students to get warm, or perhaps get cold and go skiing.
Students at colleges and universities in New Orleans have a lot of options when it comes to spring break. It’s easy to hop in a car and go to Florida, or maybe do some hiking and camping in the Smokey Mountains. However, going beyond that gets tough. While there are a lot of other destinations. auto travel bites into actual time at the destination.
Take the Train!
Amtrak offers travel rates lower than flying. Taking the train for spring break is also a challenge. Flying gets you where you want to go within hours. It takes a day and a half, for example, to get to Chicago from New Orleans. Not that students choose that route in February/March. Worse yet, travel on the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles takes two and a half days!
The strategy: make the train trip part of the vacation. When you’ve never been west of the Mississippi, travel through Louisiana, Texas, and points west is interesting. Even the single-day run to Atlanta provides wonderful Southern scenery. While 1996 airports weren’t the security circus of present-day air travel, getting to the airport was still a struggle.
Life on the train
Pack a bag in your Loyola/Tulane/Dillard/Xavier dorm. Get on the train. Bring some books. No internet in 1996? Go with a friend you can talk to. So, you’re off to Atlanta at 7am, arriving in the evening. Lots to do in the largest city in the South.
Heading west? Lunch on the way to Houston. Get off there, enjoy the most cosmopolitan city in Texas. Keep going? Dinner as Texas rolls by. So, spend a little more money, get a sleeper. Relax in privacy!
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.
2-8-0 Steam Locomotives operated regularly in Gentilly
Southern Ry (NO&NE) 2-8-0 near Gentilly Blvd (between NE Tower and Seabrook) New Orleans, Frank C. Phillips Photo
2-8-0 Steam Locomotives
We mentioned the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad (NO&NE) last week, in our discussion of Homer Plessy’s ticket to Covington. Plessy was arrested at Press Street Station. That station was the terminal for the NONE in the 1890s. Southern Railway acquired NO&NE in 1916. Southern Railway moved NO&NE’s passenger service to Terminal Station on Canal Street. Freight service operated from NO&NE’s Gentilly Yard. The way out of town for the Southern system was their five-mile bridge across Lake Pontchartrain. So, passenger trains came out via the Lafitte Corridor, then merged onto the Back Belt. Freight trains came up Peoples Avenue from the yard, then to the back belt. The trains traveled north, alongside Peoples Avenue. The trains crossed the Industrial Canal at Seabrook. From there, they headed out of town.
Gentilly Blvd. and trains
The Back Belt more-or-less follows Gentilly Blvd. While train tracks run as much as possible in straight lines, streets tend to twist and turn. Because Gentilly Blvd intersects the train tracks several times, the railroad and the city built several underpasses. Trains stayed at the same level, going straight. Automobiles turned, curved, and dipped under the tracks.
Tony Howe, admin of the Louisiana Railroad History group on Faceback captioned this Frank C. Phillips photo:
Southern Ry (NO&NE) 2-8-0 near Gentilly Blvd (between NE Tower and Seabrook) New Orleans, Frank C. Phillips Photo
Others in the group (which is highly recommended for railfans and rail historians) added details. The houses to the left place the photo in Gentilly Terrace. The train heads south, towards either the Back Belt or the yard. The photographer stands just south of the underpass at Gentilly Blvd. The WPA/city/railroad built that underpass in 1940.
Baldwin Locomotive Works introduced the Consolidation 2-8-0 locos in 1883. So, this type of engine was a regular workhorse by the late 1940s. NO&NE owned a number of Consolidations. Unfortunately, the number on this engine isn’t visible.
Homer Plessy bought a ticket to travel to Covington, LA, but never left New Orleans.
In 1892, the Comite des Citoyens (Citizens Committee), an organization of civil rights activists, wanted to challange the Separate Car Act, a bill passed by the Louisiana Legislature in 1890. Their initial attempt failed. Activist and Committee member Rodolphe Desdunes purchased a ticket to Montgomery, Alabama. The interstate aspect of the case invoked Federal law. So, that biig-footed the state law, and the case was dismissed.
New Orleans and Northeastern Station (used also by East Louisiana Railroad) in 1883 (Robinson Atlas)
The second attempt took place on June 7, 1892. Homer Plessy purchased a ticket to travel from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana. Plessy was a Creole of Color who could easily “pass” for white. The East Louisiana Railroad sold him a first class ticket. Plessy announced, ticket in hand that he was not white. The railroad held him for the police. The cops arrested Plessy. That led to the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision.
The Train Trip
New Orleans to Covington by train in the 1890s.
Plessy did not travel to Covington. Plessy never intended to travel to Covington. He went down to the train station at Press and Royal Streets in the Bywater. Plessy announced he was going to ride in the whites-only car. The Citizens Committee hired a private investigator to make sure the railroad arrested Plessy.
I came across a 1907 postcard of a train passing through Covington, Louisiana. It pulled into the station shortly after the photographer took the shot. So, the image had me wondering, where was Plessy’s train actually going?
East Louisiana Railroad
Poster for the East Louisiana Railroad.
This railroad company began as the Mandeville and Sulpher Springs Railroad. The East Louisiana Railroad ran from Pearl River to Mandeville. By 1982, East Louisiana offered passenger service from New Orleans to Covington. They used the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad’s (NONE) tracks to get to St. Tammany Parish. From there, their trains operated on their own tracks. While East Louisiana’s tracks were in St. Tammany, they paid for use rights in New Orleans. Their trains originated at the NONE station at Press and Royal Streets. They went up Press Street, then out to what is now New Orleans East. The tracks went around Lake Pontchartrain. They traveled over the Rigolets Pass, then curved around the lake. The Southern Railway took over the bridge across the lake in 1905.
Because the East Louisiana Railroad operated exclusively in Louisiana, there was no interstate commerce. The Citizens Committee planned out the scenari. So, Plessy’s arrest and the subsequent court decision formed the basis for the “Jim Crow” laws. Those laws dominated the Southern states for almost fifty years.
Race Screens on NOPSI 930 were typical on the 800 and 900 streetcars.
Movable race screens on NOPSI 930 streetcar. (Franck Studios photo in the public domain)
Jim Crow segregation began in the 1890s. They started in the wake of the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision. It comes as no surprise that the city where Homer Plessy and the Citizens Committee did their work embraced Jim Crow. White families of the area asserted their supremacy over the former enslaved and their families. We often look at New Orleans society as something more than white versus black. Creoles of color had extensive influence in the city. The White League saw them as “colored,” however. Because they weren’t “white”, the Creoles of Color were no better than the former enslaved to white people.
The Jim Crow laws, and the overall attitude of racial segregation helped foster the Great Migration of the early 20th Century. The most visible impact of this movement of African-Americans to the north and west was with musicians. Jazz started out as a musical style in the various black communities of New Orleans. Musicians tired of having to enter/exit venues via the back door got on the train for New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. The music spread. It stayed home, too, as many African-Americans didn’t leave the South.
Back of the bus
Separate but equal was problematic on public transit. While the Canal and West End lines looped around Liberty Place, many of the lines operated “point to loop.” When the streetcar reached the outbound end of the line, the crew changed the direction of the electric poles on the roof. They also changed the direction of the seats. With the seats flipped, the race screens were at the front of the car. Black folks would get in and sit, but had to keep going to the back as white riders boarded. On crowded runs, it got to the point where black riders stood in the aisle. White riders kept moving the screens back.
Naturally, black riders got fed up. In Montgomery, Alabama, that came to a head when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in 1955. New Orleans was spared a Montgomery-style bus boycott. A federal judge ordered the race screens on NOPSI streetcars and buses be removed in 1958.
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.