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Going Gaga for Gondolas

Pictured: Mayor Dutch Morial poses with a gondola car in April 1985, the last month the MART was in service. After the gondola was dismantled, the gondola cars were left on private property for years until the property owner started selling them individually in 1992, marketed as potential “greenhouses, playhouses, swings, Mardi Gras floats and deer stands.” Photo by Harold Baquet, provided courtesy of the New Orleans Public Library.

While it was the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition that made a gondola across the Mississippi River a reality, the idea had long been brewing in the mind of Blaine Kern, who dreamed of an aerial transportation system connecting the East and West banks. Partnering with architect (and president of the Expo) August Perez III, they formed Mississippi Aerial River Transport (MART).

The plan was to build the gondola system in time for the Expo and feature it as a top attraction, and then use it as a permanent transit system for cross-river commuters. With financing, permits and city approval secured, the MART was made a reality.

The MART was a 2,200-foot cable trip across the Mississippi River, 350 feet in the air. The 55 mostly “plexi-cabins” could six people each for the four-minute ride between Algiers and the Expo.

While publicity about MART spoke glowingly of the smooth and easy ride, there were mechanical problems that left people stranded and riders commented on the unsettling feeling on windy days. However, the stellar views of the river and the city kept people riding.
The gondola did indeed prove to be one of the most popular amusements of the Expo, attracting a total 1.7 million riders. Unfortunately, that was only a bit more than half of what was predicted, and the financial hit was severe.

While plans were to keep the MART in place after the Expo as an alternative commuter system, it again didn’t get the hoped-for ridership and lost money rapidly. It shut down in April 1985, and despite various plans to reopen, it never did. The loan defaulted, and in ’89 the gondola was sold at auction.

The new owner tried to find buyers for the system but never could. The MART was dismantled, but the towers remained standing until January of 1994, when the New Orleans Dock Board, citing the structures as hazardous to river navigation, had them demolished. n

Note: This is Part 2 of a yearlong focus on the 1984 Louisiana World’s Fair.

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