Paige is a researcher and writer who enjoys delving into the remarkable lives of history's forgotten characters.
The Iconic Sounds of the St. Charles Streetcar Line
New Orleans streetcars are not just a quaint throwback from a bygone era. They are functional public transportation and are still used by thousands of people a day.
There are several "lines" or routes in the city, but the oldest is the St. Charles Avenue line, which has been designated as a historic landmark. The dark green streetcar is the oldest operating line in the world. The cars were built in 1923 and are loud, clackety, wonderful dinosaurs; nothing like the nearly soundless new cars that run on the Canal line. When you hear and see those green cars coming, you know exactly where you are!
History of the St. Charles Streetcar
Insider's tip: In NOLA it's always referred to as a streetcar and never a 'trolley.'
At one time there were 19 streetcar lines that operated in New Orleans – on the map above, all of those red lines represented streetcar tracks! Yet by the 1970s there was only one left standing- the St. Charles line.
When it was completed in 1833, the line ran steam locomotives between New Orleans and Carrollton. Back then they were two separate towns and the cars passed through many fields and open areas. By 1874 most of that land had been developed, and Carrollton had been annexed into the city of New Orleans.
The new residents weren’t too thrilled with the soot and noise of the big trains, and the line was converted to horse-drawn cars, evolving over the years until they reached their current state.
Starting after World War II, the streetcar lines began changing over to bus service, which was considered more modern and efficient. Preservationists were able to have the St. Charles line protected, but around the city, hundreds of miles of tracks were ripped up, the streets getting ever more crowded as people bought more cars and busses got bigger and bigger.
From Inside a Car, Notice the Streetcar Rattle Along
Some Streetcar Facts
How much does it cost? 5 years old and up for $1.25 and $0.40 for seniors and disabled persons. Exact fare is required. 1,3 and 31 day passes, called Jazzy Passes, are also available through the GoMobile app, ticket machines and online. The app also provides frequent updates on arrival times and streetcars' current locations.
How far does it run? 13.2 miles- starting from the French Quarter, through the Central Business District, Garden District, Uptown, Carrollton, Riverbend and finally, to Claiborne.
How long does it take to ride from start to finish? About 45 minutes.
What hours does it run? Theoretically 24 hours, but after 9 pm, they can be pretty scarce.
What do they weigh? A streetcar is pure steel and weighs a whopping 42,000 pounds. Please, please please be careful around them. I’ve seen at least a dozen accidents where someone has tried to “beat” the streetcar across the neutral ground and trust me, the streetcar always wins.
The Canal Streetcar Line Is Rebuilt
The Canal line, running from the Mississippi River to the end of Canal Street by the cemeteries, was torn up in 1964 when they were considered outdated. The streetcars were scrapped or donated to museums and buses took over the route.
By the year 2000, people began to rethink that decision. Putting the streetcars back on the neutral ground (local speak for median) would not only reduce traffic on the overcrowded street but would be picturesque as well. The Canal Street Line reopened in 2004 with imported red streetcars. These cars were more efficient and even air conditioned, but many people missed the sounds of the old cars.
We now also have a short track that runs along the Mississippi River by the French Quarter and is often used by visitors to get around downtown. The Canal line splits and goes to City Park as well, and there are several other lines the city would like to build, if and when they can get them funded.
More Than Just Basic Transportation
The streetcars can be rented out for special occasions and used for private events.
Every year the Phunny Phorty Phellows rents out a car on Twelfth Night (12 days after Christmas, when that holiday season officially ends and Carnival season begins) and goes the entire length of the line, partying and throwing out beads and trinkets!
Once the big parades begin, they too run on St. Charles Avenue. The streetcars shut down mid-day and don’t start up again until the parades have gone through and the debris has been cleaned up.
Due to their historical relevance, functionality and iconic look, the streetcars of New Orleans are a defining characteristic of the city.