Private Utility Companies in New Orleans

Private Utility Companies in New Orleans

New Orleans has always had private utility companies.

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.

Independent Operators

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.

Electrification

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.

NORTA

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.

 

Unpacking 900 Canal Street

Unpacking 900 Canal Street

Streetcars and Walgreens at 900 Canal Street!

900 canal

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.

Walgreens

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.

Other details

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.

NOPSI 913 working on Canal Street

NOPSI 913 working on Canal Street

NOPSI 913 on the Canal line in its waning days of operation.

nopsi 913

NOPSI 913

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.

Street-level view

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.

Bus zone

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.

Streetcar Operations 1913

Streetcar Operations 1913

Streetcar operations on S. Carrollton Avenue in 1913 weren’t all that different than they are today.

streetcar operations

Streetcar Operations 1913

New Orleans Railway and Light Company (NORwy&Lt) #383, outbound on St. Charles Avenue, 1913. Workers surround the car as they do street repairs. The streetcar heads to Carrollton Station as it ends a run on the Prytania line. NORwy&Lt #383 is a single-truck, Ford, Bacon, and Davis (FB&D) streetcar. So these streetcars dominated street rail in New Orleans from 1894, through the 1920s. One FB&D streetcar remains, NORTA #29, the “sand car.” If you see a streetcar running on the St. Charles line that doesn’t look like the classic arch-roofs, it’s likely #29.

The photographer of this image is unidentified, possibly a file photo owned by NOPSI.

Ford, Bacon, and Davis

NORwy&Lt #383 took to the streets in 1894. Both the New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad (NO&CRR) and the New Orleans City Railroad (NOCRR) purchased FB&D streetcars. Ford, Bacon, and Davis was an engineering firm. The streetcar operators hired them to help improve the city’s streetcar operations. Electrification required a number of changes. So, as the engineers worked on the system as a whole, they learned a lot about running streetcars here. They designed a single-truck streetcar that would work in all neighborhoods.

So, by 1913, the date of this photo, FB&Ds operated in New Orleans for almost twenty years. That’s nothing for a streetcar, of course. They’re built for 70+ years of operation.

Operating Companies

Electrification presented a number of challenges for the streetcar companies. The costs of generating power and running wires along the streetcar routes bankrupted the companies. The city stepped in, helping to re-organize the system. They formed a holding company, New Orleans Traction Company, in 1897 that combined the existing operators. That evolved into a second incarnation of the New Orleans City Railroad Company in 1899. Yet another re-org took place in 1905, when the New Orleans Railway and Light Company took over. By 1922, that company became New Orleans Public Service, Incorporated (NOPSI). NOPSI exists to this day, as Entergy New Orleans. Entergy gave up streetcar operations in 1983, when they turned the transit system over to the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority.

Leland University

The large building in the background is Leland University. It was founded in 1870 as Leland College, a school of higher learning for free Black men. The school sustained serious damage in the hurricane of 1915, and moved to Baker, Louisiana.

Canal Street 1958

Canal Street 1958

Canal Street 1958 is a view from the roof of the Jung Hotel.

canal street 1958

Canal Street 1958

Franck Studios photo of Canal Street, looking inbound towards the river. The Franck Studios photographer stands on the rooftop of the Jung Hotel, at 1500 Canal. Krauss Department Store stands in the 1201 block to the left, with the Hotel New Orleans in the 1300 block on the right. The Saenger Theater is across Basin Street from Krauss, with the iconic buildings of the 901 block (Audubon Building, Kress, and Maison Blanche) in the background, left. The studio shot this photo in 1958 or 1959.

Krauss in the 1950s

This photo offers a great view of the expansion progress of Krauss. The original store, built by Leon Fellman in 1903, consists of the two-story section fronting Canal Street. Fellman acquired the property in 1899. He built that first 2-story section and leased it to the Krauss Brothers. The brothers acquired the property behind the building, along Basin Street. In 1911, they built a five-story expansion. You can see the line/seam after four windows on each floor. Leon Heymann (the “Krauss Brother-in-Law”) built the third portion of the store in 1921. Heymann continued expanding the store until it filled the block between Canal and Iberville Streets.

Streetcars

While HNOC dates this picture at “approximately 1955,” the streetcar tracks narrow it down for us. Note the two-track configuration in the Canal Street neutral ground. With streetcar operation limited to Canal and St. Charles, the city ripped up the two outside tracks on Canal. The lines using those tracks had been converted to buses by 1948. So, Canal operated on the two tracks running from Liberty Place to City Park Avenue. One block of the inbound outside track remained, between Carondelet Street and St. Charles Avenue. St. Charles streetcars turned for their outbound run on that track.

The city planted the palm trees in this photo as part of the 1957 “beautification project.” They also built planter boxes along the neutral ground. Unfortunately, those palm trees only lasted about three years, because of a couple of cold winters.

Looking Down Canal, 1926

Looking Down Canal, 1926

Looking down Canal in 1926 reveals many of the buildings still standing on the city’s main street.

looking down canal

Looking down Canal

Canal Street, looking towards the river from the 1000 block. Franck Studios shot this photo between 1926 and 1929. The old-style lampposts on Canal Street date the photo prior to 1930. The poor condition of the neutral ground also indicates this was shot before the 1930 beautification program. To the left, the building at the corner of Canal and Burgundy in the 1001 block flows into the Audubon, Kress, and Maison Blanche buildings in the 901 block. On the right, the buildings of the 1000, 900, and 800 blocks flow together. Back to the left, the Godchaux Building stands prominently in the 500 block, with its cupola and rooftop water tower. An electric sign advertising the Orpheum Theater, hangs across the Canal Street.

The streetcars

Arch roof streetcars 821 and 813, operate on the N. Claiborne and St. Charles lines. St. Charles ran in belt service with Tulane at this time. The neutral ground held five tracks at this point. This enabled streetcars to connect and switch as needed at Rampart Street. The area between Rampart and Basin streets served as a busy terminal area, as various lines converged, offering riders connections to the railroad stations.The Canal/Esplanade cars, along with the West End line, operated on the inside tracks. Lines coming inbound to Canal popped up for a block, traveled the outside tracks for a block, then turned for their outbound runs. NOPSI discontinued and demolished all of the remaining 800-series streetcars in 1964.

While HNOC suggests the date at 1926 to 1929, the presence of streetcars narrows it down a bit. Since motormen and conductors struck NOPSI from July to October, 1929, this photo likely dates before that time.

Behind the first set of streetcars stand a set of “Palace” cars. These larger streetcars from the American Car Company, operated in belt service on Canal and Esplanade. The Palace cars also ran out to West End, on that line.