TRAVELER: Back on Track

This year, along with the usual azaleas and Spring Fiesta home tours, spring promises St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans an even greater gift. Streetcars. First, some terminology: It’s crawfish, not crayfish; parishes, not counties; neutral grounds, not medians; and please, streetcars, not trolleys. You can’t imagine how much confusion there is in those other 49 states!

The familiar green St. Charles streetcars, delivered to the avenue in 1923 by the Perley Thomas Car Company of High Point, N.C., came through Hurricane Katrina in fine shape but their tracks and overhead electric lines didn’t. Conversely, the rails and cables of the Canal Street and Riverfront streetcar lines survived nicely but, with chassis and gearboxes ruined by floodwaters, their candy red cars faced months of critical care. Thus for the past two years, the old St. Charles greens have provided service on the Cemeteries Line (from the river out along Canal to that famous cluster of cemeteries where Canal Street becomes Canal Boulevard) and the City Park Line (the new spur line that departs Canal at about midpoint for side trips to the equestrian statue of P.G.T. Beauregard at the Gates of City Park). The general played a significant role in the history of the St. Charles Line and it’s nice that the old green cars have had this chance to come calling.

Streetcars are back on St. Charles Avenue, facing page, for commuters and tourists alike, right.

The first public transit by railcars on St. Charles appeared in 1835, the little steam-powered cars of the New Orleans & Carrollton Railroad (NO&CRR), which puffed along until Gen. Beauregard came home from the “Recent Unpleasantness” and leased the line in 1866. He replaced those several-horse powered engines driven by steam with one-horsepowered railcars powered by oats. The tireless horses and mules trod their narrow boardwalk (laid for them between the rails) until 1893, when electric cars from the St. Louis Car Company introduced the use of overhead electric cables along St. Charles.

The Regional Transit Authority whetted our appetites early in 2007 by opening the first few blocks of the St. Charles Line through the Central Business District, and then expanding to Napoleon Street (halfway up the avenue) this past November. However, the historic line cannot reclaim its full glory until those clanging, rattling National Historic Landmarks are once again whizzing by (at 9 mph tops) along their entire 13-mile route. Up St. Charles Avenue to Napoleon Avenue; then past the universities and Audubon Park all the way to Riverbend; and swinging hard-right for the homestretch along Carrollton Avenue to the line’s terminus at Claiborne Avenue. The RTA’s ETA: Spring ’08!

As in the pre-Katrina era, you’ll be able to board a St. Charles car at the turnaround (the 700 block of Canal Street). Then you can slide your window up for the breeze, lean back in your brass-and-mahogany seat and glide through the business district. You’ll pass towering office buildings (such as Place St. Charles and One Shell Square) and landmarks such as Gallier Hall (the Greek Revival city hall of antebellum days, where monarchs of passing Mardi Gras parades still toast their queens and courts), until your car swings around the towering statue at Lee Circle and heads through the world-famed Garden District on its way upriver and “Uptown.”

You might make Lee Circle your first dismount, considering it’s just a one-block stroll from there to the incredible National World War II Museum, Civil War Museum and Contemporary Arts Center. Back aboard, the parade of restaurants along St. Charles soon begins, offering amazing varieties of international cuisines as well as local fare at spots such as Gulf Stream (at the Felicity Street stop, famous for crab cakes and live jazz), Emeril’s Delmonico (at the Erato stop, famous for Emeril) and late-night college-crowd favorites such as Lucky’s (near the Euterpe stop) and the St. Charles Tavern at Melpomene. And if you find the names of the side streets along this stretch “amusing,” blame the Muses they’re named after.

It’s good strategy to stop at St. Andrew Street, not only for the big “Trolley Special” breakfast or 8-ounce “Trolley Stop Burger” at the funky Trolley Stop Café (with streetcar prints and posters on every surface), but also to look both ways and cross to the really first-rate tourist information center at 2020 St. Charles Avenue. There, in the midst of the brochure racks, cool papier mâché figures and helpful staff, you’ll spy an inviting New Orleans courtyard (complete with de-rigueur iron tables and gurgling fountain) where you can sit a while and peruse the maps and literature you’ve gathered. While still afoot, mosey up the block to see the odd iron and glass structure, now a banquet and catering facility, which was formerly an internal element of the Eiffel Tower. Yep, that Eiffel Tower. When Parisian engineers diagnosed the landmark as overweight, this section was removed – the architectural equivalent of gastrointestinal bypass – then reassembled here in 1986. Just across the street is the venerable Pontchartrain Hotel, where the old Caribbean Room and Bayou Bar still boast the works of mid-20th century artist Charles Reinike on canvas murals, friezes, columns – you name it – large enough to accommodate a scene.

At the Washington Avenue stop, it’s a two-block walk riverward to famous Commander’s Palace restaurant and historic Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Along the way you’ll pass the Behrman Gym, site of the famous 21-round heavyweight title fight of 1892 between “Gentleman” Jim Corbett and the great but aging John L. Sullivan – the first title fight to observe the new Queensberry rules requiring such niceties as time-limited rounds and padded gloves.

Three blocks past Washington, your car will pass Christ Church Cathedral (1886 – fourth home of the cathedral in New Orleans), in whose floor is the tomb of Gen. Leonidas Polk – the first Episcopal bishop of Louisiana and a West Pointer who died in combat in the Civil War. The Army’s training center at Leesville bears his name: Fort Polk.

Homes along St. Charles Avenue aren’t open for tours except for special occasions such as Spring Fiesta. However, there are many of interest to look for as you roll on up the avenue, such as the old Bultman Funeral Home at 3338 (formed from three antebellum homes and now destined to be a Borders bookstore), the 1905 Romanesque Revival just above Peniston Street at 3804 and, at 3513, a mansion designed by famed local architect Thomas Sully in 1883, now The Columns Hotel. In the next block is the old brick Rayne Memorial Methodist, built in 1876 and now undergoing thorough restoration. Then it’s three blocks up to the 1909 Touro Synagogue and three more to the huge brick Academy of the Sacred Heart, built in 1900.

From Bordeaux Street and up to Upperline and Robert streets you’ll be traveling the avenue’s “Great Curve.” You know, the curve where the obligatory passing streetcar scene is shot for every New Orleans made-for-TV movie – the curve that has everyone in America believing the whole avenue is a winding lane! Just into the curve at 4801, stands a home built in 1866 and remodeled soon after to create the street’s most elaborate Second Empire mansion. Two blocks south of the curve, at 5120, the old Latter Library was once home of aviation pioneer Harry Williams and his silent-film-star bride Marguerite Clark.

Five blocks later, Joseph Street begins a cluster of eye-catchers, beginning at 5705, with a 1950s near-replica of Tara from Gone With the Wind. The two distinctive Queen Anne houses directly across from “Tara” (at 1890 and 1900 respectively) once graced the cover of Louisiana Life. The two handsome Greek Revivals at 5800 and 5824 in the next block were built in the late 1860s (the latter designed by Henry Howard of Madewood Plantation and Nottoway Plantation fame, whose credits include many notable residences and public buildings in New Orleans). The white-white Second Empire home at 5809, across from the 1930 St. Charles Presbyterian, is aptly nicknamed the Wedding Cake House.

Now you’re nearing a dismount that’s all but impossible to resist, one stop that puts you at the gates of Audubon Park, Loyola University and Tulane University. Points of interest await you at the universities, including the Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane and the cathedral-esque Holy Name of Jesus church at Loyola. Or, to explore the park, start by following the edge of it from the St. Charles Avenue sidewalk along a tree-lined footpath called Exposition “Boulevard,” named for New Orleans’ first world’s fair – the Cotton Centennial Exposition of 1884-’85. Along this esplanade was located one of the entry points of the fair and a tiny station for passengers of that era’s mule-drawn railcars. The lane leads onto Magazine Street, beyond which the bronze statue of naturalist and artist John James Audubon is waiting to welcome you to Audubon Zoo. Back aboard, look to the right, just past Tulane University, to see Audubon Place – maybe the oldest private, gated street (1894) in the U.S. – and you might well envy the president of Tulane who gets to live in the huge Colonial Revival at No. 2 Audubon Place.

Next, just past Broadway Street, look left as your streetcar passes Loyola’s adjunct campus (its focus the former St. Mary’s Dominican College built in 1882), and now you’re entering the old Jefferson Parish town of Carrollton. It was connected to the city by the NO&CRR in 1835 (marking the birth of the St. Charles Line) and finally annexed into the city and into Orleans Parish in ’74. As your car reaches the “Riverbend” and turns onto Carrollton Avenue, the wonderful Greek Revival edifice on the right, directly across from beloved Camellia Grill, is in fact the old Jefferson Courthouse, designed by Henry Howard in ’54, which has served since 1874 as an Orleans Parish public school.

From the turn you can ride all the way along palm tree-shaded Carrollton Avenue to the end of the line at South Claiborne Avenue, but plan to ride at least as far as the cluster of restaurants and sidewalk tables you’ll find around the Willow Street stop. Incidentally, you can follow a short streetcar sidetrack a block up Willow Street to the Streetcar Barn, where you’ll enjoy the sight of a dozen or so vintage streetcars parked on the multiple rail lines that circle through the open-ended barn.

1983 commemorative postage stamp.

The St. Charles Line, called the world’s oldest continuously operating streetcar line, although the continuity was broken by Katrina, has received about as much attention and honor as any public conveyance could hope for. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, honored with a U.S. commemorative postage stamp in ’83 and promoted to National Landmark status by the Dept. of the Interior in ’84 (coinciding nicely with the Louisiana World Exposition, which the Rapid Transit Authority saluted with a World’s Fair commemorative streetcar token). That ’83 first-class stamp, by the way, was part of a four-block issue (conceived and designed by an artistic couple of New Orleans streetcar buffs, Robert and Marilyn Everett) honoring the historic streetcars of New Orleans, New York, Montgomery, Ala., and Sulphur Rock, Ark. The New Orleans stamp bears a handsome profile of old Perley Thomas No. 953, bronze plaques bragging about its appearance on the stamp.
And then there’s that other New Orleans line that’s done quite well in the fame department: A Streetcar Named Desire for which playwright Tennessee Williams won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. The film version, which opens with actress Vivien Leigh riding the Desire Line on old Perley Thomas No. 922, won four Academy Awards in ’51. Live oaks and a Perley Thomas postal series salutes America’s greatest achievements of the ’40s, which includes one commemorative that consists, simply and appropriately, of the theater billboard from the play’s original Broadway run.

The river end of Canal Street is so alive with activities – Aquarium of the Americas, IMAX, Harrah’s, Riverwalk and Canal Place shopping – that a streetcar ride might be just the break you need. Just find a car marked “Cemeteries” and get set for a ride along the 170-foot-wide (once upon a time the “World’s Widest”) boulevard.

You’ll immediately begin passing downtown landmarks such as: the Egyptian-revival Old U.S. Customhouse, the snazzy Chateau Sonesta in the old Holmes Department Store (with the statue of Ignatius Reilly from the Pulitzer-winning Confederacy of Dunces waiting for his mother “under the clock at Holmes”), the vintage “neon corner” of the former Walgreen’s Drugstore and the old Maison Blanche Department Store, which is now the lavish Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

After Basin Street with its statues of Latin American heroes, the Claiborne overpass marks the start of a former residential stretch (whose cottages now house law firms and the like). When you see the statue of Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis at Jefferson Davis Parkway it means you’re just two blocks from Mandina’s – famed New Orleans “neighborhood restaurant” which was a favorite of Binx Bolling in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (newly reopened after extensive “Katrinavation”). Then it’s three blocks to Carrollton Avenue and three more to the line’s most notorious landmark, the “Canal Street Brothel“ on your left at 4334 Canal St., which, if not sleazy enough in real life, degenerated even more when TV-moviemakers got hold of the story a year ago. A block farther and on the right is the beloved Ronald McDonald House, which provides accommodations for out-of-town families with children undergoing extended treatment in local hospitals. Two blocks later begin the cemeteries. Jazz “founder” Buddy Bolden lies unmarked in the ancient Charity Hospital Cemetery, with no less than a half-dozen other historic graveyards lining Canal Street or facing the streetcar terminus from across City Park Avenue.

To visit the 96-year-old New Orleans Museum of Art and the lagoons and live oaks of City Park, take a “City Park” streetcar from downtown, which will follow the Canal Street tracks about halfway out before swinging onto the North Carrollton Avenue spur. Get off at the Carrollton Avenue turn for two scoops or a cannoli at famous Angelo Brocato’s Ice Cream and Confectionary. Then it’s just a few residential blocks until your streetcar pulls alongside lazy Bayou St. John and rolls to a stop in the shadow of the great bronze statue of the “Napoleon in Gray,” Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard. The park’s entrance is a tree-lined avenue you can follow from Beauregard Circle straight to the art museum, or you might prefer to stroll through the museum’s adjacent Sculpture Garden or even follow a brochure/map hiking tour to see the park’s oldest live oaks.

It’s wise to remember the streetcars during major public events when parking is a challenge, such as the Jazz and Heritage Festival at the Fair Grounds Race Course just a few blocks on the other side of Bayou St. John from City Park. In fact, the St. Charles Line is an age-old strategy for many families during Carnival, with Audubon Park picnics followed by streetcar rides down to the intersection of Napoleon Avenue, where most of the St. Charles Avenue parades begin.

Believe it or not, a St. Charles streetcar is itself the star of one historic Carnival event, the one-“float“ round-trip ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows. The Phellows were organized in the 19th century and traditionally followed the Rex Parade on Fat Tuesday but have become, since the club was revived in 1981, the “Heralds of Carnival” by rolling on Twelfth Night, Jan. 6 – the first event of the first day of Carnival. About 7 p.m., after some partying at the Streetcar Barn, the costumed Phellows, by then decidedly off the wagon but on their streetcar, invite the Storyville Stompers aboard for some music and carouse their way to Canal Street and back.

For normal streetcar service, tickets are $1.25 and transfers are 25 cents – exact change only – but “VisiTour” passes for unlimited streetcar riding ($5 for one day and $12 for three days) are available at several locations convenient to the lines. They’re sold, for example, at the Gray line desks in the Sheraton and Marriott hotels, 500 and 550 Canal St. respectively, both near the head of the Cemeteries and City Park lines and just a couple of blocks from the St. Charles line’s Canal Street turnaround.

Best bets            
Best Streetcar Line? It’s the one you build yourself! The streetcars of New Orleans have inspired many toys and games, such as the old iron toy and HO-scale railcar shown here, but none so cool as the board game called “Streetcar,” which challenges you to complete a line across New Orleans and get your streetcar across town before the competition. Available from Mayfair Games, (847) 677-6655 or

Hardy Gras. For the brand new third edition of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, an Illustrated History, complete with coverage on the effects of Hurricane Katrina, author Arthur Hardy hasn’t only thickened this compendium of Carnivalia but enlarged it to coffee-table proportions. You’ll now find yummy old illustrations on every page and Web sites have been added for krewes.

Categories: Travel