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Arts & Culture

NOLA History: Streetcars on Canal Street

The history of New Orleans’ major transportation thoroughfare, Canal Street, and the red streetcars that traveled its tracks and continue to today.

Canal Street was the economic hub of New Orleans for generations. This made the New Orleans thoroughfare the transit hub of the city that it still is to this day. While streetcars in New Orleans date back to the 1830s, it was the 1860s when they truly became a part of New Orleans, because they came to Canal Street.

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Map showing the Carondelet Canal and the “Old Basin” (Photo courtesy of New Orleans Notarial Archives Office)

There originally was a plan to dig a canal down the middle of Canal Street, but that plan changed early on, with the construction of the Carondelet (Old Basin) canal. It made more sense to leverage Bayou St. John as part of a link between the city and Lake Pontchartrain, and that meant the canal would have to be a bit further east, to tie to the end of the bayou (approximately where Orleans Avenue and Jefferson Davis Parkway meet today). That left the city with a street dividing the “Old Square” from the “American Sector” that was 170′ wide, quite unusual for any urban area in the 1800s. The incredible width of Canal Street created more than just a huge cultural divide; it gave the city its main street.

From the turn of the 18th – 19th centuries, throughout the first half of the 19th century, Canal Street was just a big green space separating the two “halves” of New Orleans. Street railways (steam and mule-drawn) made their way from Uptown to Canal Street (upriver/downriver), then turned around and returned to the homes of the Garden District, Irish Channel, and the other neighborhoods of Uptown. The city expanded further north from the banks of the Mississippi River by the 1850s, with both the Carondelet and New Basin Canals attracting residents away from the river. By 1860, a group of investors recognized an opportunity: provide public transit from the lake to the river. They naturally chose to do this on Canal Street. The New Orleans City Railroad Company (NOCRR) was formed in 1860, and their first rail line began operation in 1861.

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“Bobtail” streetcar on Esplanade Avenue, 1880s. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Cars on the Canal Street line were originally pulled by steam engines, but the smoke and noise of those engines (built in Crewe, United Kingdom) raised choruses of complaints. The company converted their facility on Canal and N. White Streets to mule power, using “bobtail” streetcars supplied by the Johnson Car Company. The line was a success, and the NOCRR expanded operations, running streetcars in “backatown” neighborhoods on the “downtown/Quarter” side of Canal Street. In addition to the streetcar barn on Canal Street, the company also built facilities on Esplanade Avenue by Bayou St. John, and on St. Claude and Poland Avenues. The Johnson “bobtail” streetcars became a fixture throughout the city, operating for decades, up to the electrification of the system in the mid-late 1890s. Today, the Knights of Babylon have a float that is a replica of a “bobtail” streetcar. Their officers ride that float in their annual Carnival parade.

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Single-truck streetcars on Canal Street, early 1900s (Photo courtesy of NOPL)

Electrification of the Canal line began in 1895. The “bobtails” were retired to the barn, and single-truck (one set of wheels) streetcars built by the Brill company took to the street. Those Brill cars were replaced by the very-popular Ford, Bacon, and Davis single-truck cars. NORTA 29 is the last of the FB&D streetcars left.

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“Palace” car operating on N. Rampart St., on the Canal Belt line, late 1920s (Photo courtesy of NOPL)

Single-truck operation was quite successful, but the main line (Canal Street), along with the West End line needed cars that held more passengers. New Orleans Railway and Light Company (the company formed to merge the various street railway companies together in 1915) ordered “Palace” cars from the American Car Company. These wide-platform cars made the ride up Canal Street and down Esplanade (the streetcars ran in “belt” operation at that time) a thing of luxury. As the “Palace” cars aged a bit in the 1930s, they were phased out by the arch-roof cars we all associate with New Orleans today.

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Arch-roof streetcar (Perley A. Thomas 900-series) operating on Canal Street, on the West End line (Photo courtesy of NOPL)

The story of streetcars in New Orleans is a downhill one from the 1930s to the 1960s, with New Orleans Public Service, Incorporated (the successor of NOR&L) discontinuing their use, replacing streetcars with buses. By 1964, only two streetcar lines remained in operation, Canal and St. Charles. In 1964, NOPSI discontinued the Canal line. Only 35 of the 900-series arch-roof cars were kept for use on St. Charles Avenue, and buses ruled downtown. That’s how things remained until 2004, when the Canal line returned to service. The 2000-series Carrollton cars now bring locals into downtown from Mid City, and take visitors from the Quarter, CBD, and Warehouse District out to the cemeteries at the end of Canal Street, and out to City Park, via N. Carrollton Avenue.

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Carrollton Car 2020 on the “Carrollton Spur” at City Park (Photo by Ed Branley)

The Canal Streetcar is one of the best ways to get to and from two of the city’s biggest music festivals. Park out on Canal Boulevard by the cemeteries for French Quarter Fest, and ride the “red ladies” into town for the music and food. When you come down for Jazz Fest, stay in a French Quarter hotel or New Orleans bed and breakfast, and take the Canal line out to City Park. Walk a few blocks down Esplanade Avenue, and you’ll be at the Fair Grounds for all the fun!

Shameless self-promotion: learn a lot more about streetcars on Canal in my book, New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line.

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. His latest book, Legendary Locals of New Orleans, is available at bookstores and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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