In 1943 Franklin Roosevelt because the first sitting president to fly.
In 2015 Rex of that year became the first monarch to arrive at Lundi Gras by train.
Rexes have ridden the rails twice before, including, according to Rex archivist Stephen Hales, a visit to the 1884 Cotton Centennial at the site of today’s Audubon Park. However, since 1987 – when the name “Lundi Gras” became the common phrase for the day before Mardi Gras – this year will be the first time that Rex has arrived by train.
In recent years what might be called “Rex I” has been a Coast Guard vessel, either a cutter or a buoy tender. Because the city is so linked to the river, an arrival by water might seem historically natural. Truth is, Rex and the railroads have an even closer bond, though hardly anyone knows it.
In 1872, as preparations were made for the first Rex parade, circulars were sent up and down the railroad lines promoting New Orleans as a destination to witness the arrival of the new King of Carnival. The 1870s were a peak period for the growth of the passenger railroad industry, and the railroads did their part. The first transcontinental railroad had opened only three years earlier in 1869. The railroads needed to generate passengers.
Just as they were key in developing national parks as travel destinations, the railroads were eager to promote fairs and events along the way. In Memphis, Mobile and New Orleans, Carnival celebrations were embellished by 1872 including, in New Orleans, the creation of a daytime King of Carnival. Part of the reason was to get the nation travelling again after the wounds of the civil war. The railroads, which would organize special trains bound for Mardi Gras, were part of the answer. In Europe as well, where Carnival celebrations were ancient, the tradition took on new energy and organization. In 1873 the Italian town of Viareggio established a major parade, just as Rex had done in New Orleans a year earlier, to develop tourism especially in a nation with an active train system. Years later float builder Blaine Kern, at the expense of the then-Captain of Rex, travelled to Viareggio to study float-building techniques. Like the engine of a train, Carnival was gaining steam.
Rex will arrive in vintage restored cars that were in the news a couple of year ago as part of the Public Belt Railroad system. There were reports of overspending by a too ambitious executive. No one went to jail though, and the train, which was used for fundraisers, was never considered to be part of the problem. We appreciate that Rex will give the train new attention and new respect.
A port can hardly be great without railroads nearby. Carnival could have never grown without the trains. This year Lundi Gras will round out the story.