Nearly 200 years later, St. Charles Avenue streetcar line still rings New Orleans’ bell
One of New Orleans’ most visually iconic links to the past — its streetcar system — got its start more than 180 years ago when the St. Charles Avenue line was put into service in 1835. The line’s 6.5-mile path goes from the Central Business District through Uptown New Orleans, and it is the oldest continuously operating street railway in the world. In the years that would follow, the city would operate dozens of streetcar lines all over the city — yes, including one named “Desire,” which ran through the French Quarter.
To tourists, they offer a bit of old-school charm. But New Orleans’ streetcars (don’t call them “trolleys”) also serve as a vital link in the city’s public transportation infrastructure. Today, four streetcar lines ply New Orleans’ streets — the St. Charles, Canal Street, Loyola Avenue and Riverfront lines — all operated by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority. Fares are $1.25, but they can also be chartered for private events.
- Service began on Sept. 26, 1835, with cars that were powered by steam engines. As the population along the route grew, people objected to the soot and the noise, so horses and mules replaced steam until Feb. 1, 1893, when electricity made the streetcars run.
- The St. Charles line’s 46 wooden-trimmed, olive-green streetcars were built in 1923 and 1924 by Perley A. Thomas Car Co. The city’s other streetcar lines predominantly use modern-built replicas.
- The St. Charles line was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. That status helped preserve it at a time in which other original lines were being replaced by buses.
- In 2014, the St. Charles line was listed by the National Park Service as a National Historic Landmark, recognizing what the U.S. Interior Department called its “exceptional value and quality in illustrating the heritage of the United States.” This line and the San Francisco cable-car system are the only two streetcar lines on the list.
- Given the age of the city’s older streetcars, getting ahold of new parts for repairs is an impossibility. So how does the RTA get them? Its employs craftsman to machine them as needed.
The St. Charles Avenue streetcars not only evoke a gentle, less hectic time but also complement the architecture of the grand homes along St. Charles and South Carrollton avenues. Riding one of these streetcars as it clacks and sways down the track, with a gentle wind blowing through the open windows, is one of life’s great pleasures.