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History

NOLA History: The Oldest New Orleans Streetcar

The history of the emblematic New Orleans streetcars can be traced back to the NORTA #29 streetcar, which is memorialized on the Uptown streetcar line.

The “green streetcars” of New Orleans, the 1923 vintage Perley H. Thomas cars, are New Orleans icons, known worldwide. If you spend some time Uptown, along the tracks of New Orleans Regional Transit Authority’s St. Charles line, you may come across a smaller green streetcar, moving up and down the line, with a “NOT IN SERVICE” sign up front. That car is NORTA #29, the oldest streetcar in New Orleans.

new orleans streetcar, new orleans history
NORTA 29, at the Claiborne Terminal on the St. Charles line, next to its younger cousin, Perley H. Thomas streetcar #914 (Photo by Edward Branley)

Street railways across the country fully embraced electrification in the 1890s, and New Orleans was no exception. The St. Charles Street Railway invited an engineering firm from Philadelphia, led by Frank Ford and George Bacon, to offer a proposal for electric streetcars that would run on their tracks. The SCSR did not choose their design, but the Orleans Railroad did. In 1896, the Ford, Bacon and Davis firm (the original partners added George Davis by then) delivered their design to the ORR and the Canal and Claiborne RR. The single-truck (meaning they have one set of wheels) streetcars were an immediate success, seating 28 riders. The FB&D streetcars were an overall length of 29′ 4”, making them easy to wind through back-of-town streets, taking folks home from the Central Business District.

new orleans streetcar, new orleans history
Ford, Bacon, & Davis streetcars arriving by train at New Orleans, 1896 (Courtesy H. George Friedman)

The FB&D streetcars meshed so well with New Orleans’ streets that over 350 of them were ordered by the various street railway operators at the turn of the century. Some were painted in the classic green scheme of the uptown railways, but other operators on the downtown side of town used more vivid colors, such as the New Orleans City RR’s red and gold. The FB&D streetcars were built by the American, St. Louis, and McGuire-Cummings car companies, with the last orders being placed in 1908.

new orleans streetcar, new orleans history
NOPSI 29 leaving Carrollton Station in the mid-1960s. (Courtesy H. George Friedman)

By the 1910s, the number of streetcar riders in the city had grown dramatically, and the 28-seat, single-truck streetcars could no longer keep up. New Orleans Railway and Light (later to become New Orleans Public Service, Incorporated) focused on larger, “double-truck” streetcars when that company unified street railway operations in 1915. The smaller FB&Ds were used on low-volume routes. By the 1920s, the FB&Ds were phased out of passenger operations. Some were sold to other cities, many were demolished, but a few were retained by NOPSI as utility vehicles.

Car #29 is the last of the FB&D streetcars. After being retired from passenger operations, NOPSI used #29 as a “rail grinder,” to keep the tracks clean and smooth. After a while, the car was converted to dispense sand on wet/snowy days, to provide a safe surface with a decent amount of traction for the double-trucks. NORTA 29 (then NOPSI 29) began its “sand car” duties, and still performs them today, along with being used by NORTA’s Rail Department to handle various maintenance jobs along the route.

new orleans streetcar, new orleans history
NORTA 29, at the Carrollton Shops, 2004 (Courtesy Earl Hampton)

NORTA 29’s last passenger run was for a railfan excursion in the 1960s; the streetcar no longer has seats, and its doors on either end were removed. The side panels and windows were removed, so the streetcar could perform repair work. Without proper safety for passengers, no further excursions were permitted.

new orleans streetcar, new orleans history
NORTA 29, rebuilt and back to work on St. Charles in 2007 (Courtesy Earl Hampton)

The little streetcar suffered a devasting blow in 2004, when its electric controller caught fire. NORTA 29 is a wood-frame car, so the fire spread rapidly, burning over half the car. The craftsmen at Carrollton Station, supervised by legendary boss Elmer Von Dullen, re-built the car, from the floor and motors up. It returned to service in the spring of 2005.

The last FB&D streetcar was safely buttoned up in the Carrollton barn during Hurricane Katrina. It was moved to the Canal Street barn after the storm, to assist with track maintenance on that line while the St. Charles line was repaired. If you see the smaller streetcar making its way up and down St. Charles Avenue, stop, wave, and take a picture of a true New Orleans relic.

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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