Last week the U.S. Department of the Interior recognized the St. Charles Streetcar line as a National Historic Landmark. Historic recognition has many values including creating an opportunity to offer trivia. Here are some facts for the occasion:
1. New Orleans is the world’s streetcar preservation capital:
All of the St. Charles line streetcars were originally built by the Perley A. Thomas Car Company of High Point, North Carolina. That was back in the 1920s when the company would be assembling what became the nation’s classic wooden trolley. The Perley Thomas company closed in '72, so New Orleans had to master streetcar care. The Willow Street car barn is the global epicenter for rebuilding and maintaining Perley Thomases. All of the green streetcars you see along the St. Charles route are Perley Thomas originals, most built in '23-’24, though they later went through major restoration. The basics of the classic streetcar still exist, including the drive system, which is simply a throttle and brake. Seats are reversible so that the cars can be driven from both directions. It is a classic machine and New Orleans makes its survival possible.
2. By the numbers:
All of the cars on the St. Charles line are numbered in the 900 series. The closer the number is to 900, the older the streetcar is – although since remodeling, they all look pretty much the same. There are currently 35 vehicles on the line.
“Restless,” a beautifully shot 2007 video starring Alison Krauss, was made in New Orleans. The final scene shows Krauss walking along St. Charles Avenue and then getting into Streetcar 940. The video ends with her looking out the back window singing. Occasionally, I see that trolley and think of its as the Alison Krauss streetcar (Note to RTA, she did not pay her fare.)
Perley Thomas also built the vehicles used in some of the city’s other earlier lines including the Desire line made famous by Tennessee Williams. (In a major municipal blunder, one Desire line streetcar, #952, currently operates in San Francisco where it should not be. That in itself should drive Stanley crazy.)
3. Temperature maintenance.
Streetcars have an amazing temperature control system that is also cost efficient and totally “green.” If a passenger is warm, he or she can manually raise the widow; if the passenger is cool, he or she can lower the window. Add both body heat mixed with the airflow from passengers coming and going, and it works. On Twelfth Night this year I rode the streetcar. The temperature outside was 27 degrees. Inside the trolley’s self-regulatory system worked fine; it was perfectly comfortable.
4. Pest control.
A man who once spent his career working on streetcars told me a secret. “They don’t have roaches,” he said. He had spent years seeing the innards and guts of streetcars so he knew better than most that they were critter free. His theory was that the vibrations from steel wheels on a steel track somehow drove roaches crazy – or at least away form the streetcars. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of his observation but I choose to believe it. In full celebration of the St. Charles line’s new prestige my motto is: “If you want roaches, take a bus.”
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
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