Pictured in this circa 1890 photograph is a splendid view of horse-drawn streetcars turning into St. Charles from Canal Street to begin its six-plus-mile journey through the city’s uptown neighborhoods to Carrollton.
For almost 200 years, streetcars were the primary source of public transportation for most New Orleanians. During the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, almost two-dozen lines connected every section of the city. Occasionally, storms, power outages and labor unrest, such as the violent transit strike of 1929, disrupted that service (which gave birth to the poor-boy sandwich). By the late 1960s, however, only one line remained – the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, now a National Historic Landmark.
Built in 1835 to connect Canal Street to the upriver suburb Carrollton, the St. Charles streetcar is the oldest continuously operating city railway in the world. Powered first by steam, then by horses or mules and finally by electricity in 1893, the now famous green 1920s “Perley Thomas” streetcar continues its journey up and down the avenue from Canal street to Carrollton and Claiborne avenues.
To the rest of the world, the city’s most famous streetcar will ramble on forever in American literature. Since 1947, theatergoers have boarded Tennessee Williams’ immortal “Streetcar Named Desire” from the cemeteries to Elysian Fields through the darkest alleys of the human soul. Ironically, a year after the play opened, the Desire car was replaced by a diesel bus.
Fortunately, streetcars have made a comeback. Since the late 1980s – after the city’s public transit system moved from New Orleans Public Service Inc, or NOPSI, to the Regional Transit Authority – four new lines have been added.
Trolleys now roll along St. Charles avenue and the riverfront; others on Canal street to the cemeteries and City Park; and the most recent from Canal up Loyola avenue to the Union Passenger Terminal and another from Canal and North Rampart down St. Claude to Elysian Fields. Others are in the planning stages, proving novelist Stephen King right: “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.”