A railroading town

“Riding on the City of New Orleans / Illinois Central Monday morning rail.”
“The City of New Orleans” by Steve Goodman, 1970

Arlo Guthrie’s 1972 version of that song caught the public fancy as a memorial to the great days of train travel. The song is based on fact. The Illinois Central Railroad, which called itself the “Main Line of Mid-America,” ran passenger trains from New Orleans to Chicago, including both the City of New Orleans and the Panama Limited.

New Orleanians have fond memories of train travel. Children going off to camp might ride the train. New Orleans boys headed for Camp Arrowhead in Tuxedo, N.C., could ride the train to Greenville, S.C., and be picked in trucks filled with hay for the ride to the mountains. Adelaide Benjamin (Mrs. Edward Benjamin) took the train to Camp Nakanawa in Mayland, Tenn. “It was a sleep-over train. The girls from Texas were already on it, and the train picked up girls all along the way.”

Benjamin fondly remembers riding the train to Tiger Stadium for a Tulane-LSU game. “I went with my father; his club had rented a car and they all played gin rummy on the way.”

Cards were a welcome diversion for summer commuters whose families spent the warm months across the lake on the Gulf Coast. Linda Monroe’s father, the late J. Raybun Monroe, would take the train to the family’s summer home in Bay St. Louis, Miss., on weekends, and would also come in on Wednesday nights. “There was a whole group of men who did that,” she relates. The train for commuters had a special club car, well suited for games and refreshments. Wives and children would meet them at the station. “We used to put pennies on the track so the train would flatten them out,” she recalls.

Walter Carroll related the tale that when guests at a hunting lodge near “Baldwin’s Station” on the Northshore found that their evening cocktail plans were stymied by lack of club soda, a call to the passenger agent of the railroad resulted in a case being put on the next train and dropped off at this unaccustomed stop.

Karen Perschall (Mrs. Desmond Perschall) remembers that the family dog Laddie, a collie mix so smart he was “one step from being human,” was once desperately wanted for the weekend in Waveland, Miss. “He swam in the Gulf every day,” she says. There was no room for Laddie in an automobile filled with friends, so “Laddie and my brother Dev [the late Devereux Danna] got special permission to ride in the baggage car on the train – they rode for free, and they got there before us!”

Such special train memories are to be expected, since New Orleans has a long history of railroad travel. By 1832 the city had the Pontchartrain Railroad (running from the river to the lake along Elysian Fields). By the beginning of the 20th century the city was served by a number of railroad lines.

The city’s five separate stations were all demolished by the time the Union Passenger Terminal opened in the 1950s. Best known was the original New Orleans Union Station on S. Rampart Street, designed by famed architect Louis H. Sullivan.

Also destroyed was the Southern Railway Terminal on Basin Street, designed by architect Daniel Burnham; the Texas Pacific Railroad-Missouri Pacific Railroad Station on Annunciation Street; the Louisiana and Arkansas-Kansas City Southern Railroad Station on Rampart Street; and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Station, on Canal Street near the Mississippi River, site of the opening film sequence of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Although need for a central station was obvious, the new Union Passenger Terminal on Loyola Avenue was not opened until 1954. First incoming train was Southern Pacific’s Sunset Limited, from the West Coast. Illinois Central’s Panama Limited was the first to depart, for Chicago.

Union Passenger Terminal still serves Amtrak trains. The building boasts fresco murals depicting the history of Louisiana in its 140-foot-wide main concourse.

Handling the city’s commercial freight traffic is the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, a publicly owned and operated terminal switching railroad created in 1904 and run by the PBRR Commission.

PBRR Chief Operating Officer, New Orleanian Tom Lobello, is a qualified train engineer, actually a Designated Supervisor of Locomotive Engineers. “We have about 25 miles of main track and a total of about 100 miles of total tracks, that includes our yards and our industry.” Nowadays railroad freight cars, each labeled with a sort of barcode plate, are tracked by computer.

“2008 was our best year ever,” Lobello says. He credits the increased profits to the 2001 arrival of General Manager Jim Bridger. “We got in line with the pricing all over the country.” Even with the current economic downturn, “all we have to do is maintain what we have; we’ll be great as far as operating.”

The PBRR has essentially recovered from Hurricane Katrina. At the time of Katrina, “we had 13 locomotives and we sent them to Houston. Our first job after Katrina was on September 12.” There was extensive damage, “All the way from Poland Avenue to Almonester Avenue it was torn up, on the other side of the Industrial Canal along Jordan Road, along France Road, through the 9th Ward.” PBRR workers were paid the entire period, but worked two weeks on, two weeks off, to give them time for their own home repairs.

Besides overseeing train tracks, the PBRR actually owns the Huey P. Long Bridge, completed in 1935, and the longest and highest steel railroad bridge in the U.S. The Public Belt maintains the railroad portion and the Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development maintains the roadway. The state is paying for the current widening project.

 The Public Belt has helped raise over $1 million for charter by allowing nonprofits to auction off evening rides in refurbished elegant rail cars. Cars stop to view the sunset atop the Huey P. Long Bridge and the organizations furnish refreshments and drinks. The Tchoupitoulas Street PBRR headquarters building has also been re-done. “We had our 100-year anniversary in 2008 at our Round House, and Children’s Hospital held their Sugar Plum Ball here in March,” Lobello says.

For some New Orleanians, the best railroad memories come from climbing over the train engine that once stood in Audubon Park. Engine 745 was built in 1921 in Algiers for a subsidiary of the Southern Pacific. Today it has been restored, as Allison Schenck, secretary of the Louisiana Steam Train Association, explains.

The LSTA maintains a rail yard on Jefferson Highway across from Ochsner Foundation Hospital. Every Saturday members meet there for maintenance work (visitors are welcome) and the 745 gets occasional outings. “She’s a guzzler,” Schenck admits. “One mile uses 10 gallons of oil and 100 gallons of water. You can bring us any oil you want to recycle.” Cars can be outfitted with exhibits, as for Steam Train Day at Audubon Park.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button used Engine 745 and LSTA’s green car. Three more movies are scheduled to work with LSTA this summer.

LSTA hopes one day to sponsor a regional Railroad Museum and an annual Railroad Festival. Until that time, New Orleanians can still enjoy their own train memories.

Categories: Chronicles

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