A short walk from the French Quarter and the busy sidewalks of Bourbon Street, just behind the shops along Canal Street and the New Orleans skyscrapers where international hotel chains are located, is the stop of the St Charles Streetcar line. A few minutes of waiting and the dark green trolley appears on the tracks, peeking out among the Teslas and large pickups parked on the side of the road. The doors open and in just two steps you can go back in time.
The St Charles Avenue Streetcar line in New Orleans has been in operation since 1835, making it the oldest still-operating street railway in the world – older than its more famous cousin in San Francisco.
The small, vintage-looking carriages made by the Perley A. Thomas Company run on this line for a length of 13.2 miles (nearly 22 kilometres) starting in a street in Uptown, then down St Charles Avenue, past Loyola and Audubon Park, and ends at Canal Street, in the middle of the Central Business District, passing through some of the city’s wealthiest and most historic neighborhoods.
A journey through space, through a great American metropolis, but also through time, on the rails of an infrastructure work that continues to serve residents and tourists after over 180 years, maintaining its charm but also the utility it had from the very first day it opened.
Nearly two hundred years of city transportation
The history of New Orleans’ Streetcars dates as far back as September 1831, with the opening of a route traveled partly by steam locomotives and partly by horse-drawn vehicles. The electric streetcars that still travel the city’s streets today, however, were introduced in 1893. The five lines are still operational today and operated by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority.
Electric propulsion was adopted after years of research and a long series of attempts, and on February 1, 1893, the electrically-powered re-named St. Charles line finally made its first trip. From that day on, all of the companies then operating the various city lines set to work to modernise their infrastructure by equipping the city with an entire network of electric streetcars. Private companies retained a role until 1979, when the state of Louisiana passed the law establishing the New Orleans Transit Authority (RTA) which began operating the streetcar lines and still provides service today.
From segregation to struggles for civil rights, history runs on the tracks
The story of New Orleans’ streetcars also tells the story of America. For many years these little trolleys were a symbol of racial segregation. And in fact, from the time they were introduced, there were separate cars for blacks and whites. Black people could only use the so-called “star cars,” after the stars drawn on the sides. However, the streetcars soon became a battleground in the fight for equality that swept the United States. In April 1867, black activist William Nichols took a streetcar reserved for whites and was forced to get out. Over the following days, thousands of people took to the streets in protest. The protests soon degenerated into clashes with law enforcement that strained the social order of New Orleans. And so, a few days later, on May 8, 1867, the city government declared the division between blacks and whites in the use of public transportation abolished, and it remained so until 1902.
Last stop Hurricane Katrina
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans in late August 2005, the streetcars were also among the victims of one of the five most severe hurricanes in U.S. history.
The hurricane was the only time in the last one hundred and fifty years when the St. Charles line activity came to a halt. Damage to homes, uprooted trees, and flooding that reached Canal Street itself forced the interruption of service, but it was restored after a few months.
The first two sections of the line resumed operation on December 19, 2006, and the full line returned to service on December 23, 2007. The green streetcars were the first to restart after the hurricane, while the other lines had a longer wait. Most of the streetcars had been submerged in water, suffering severe damage to electrical components that needed to be entirely replaced.
In 2006, the RTA received $46 million to restore all hurricane-damaged streetcars, and the first modernised surface streetcars returned to operation in 2009. Full service was restored in 2010, five years after Katrina, and New Orleans streetcars have not stopped since, a symbol of the city’s history and an invaluable tool for residents and tourists moving through the city.