The streetcar is a great way to reach many of New Orleans’ top attractions. The most famous is the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar, which leads past St. Charles Avenue and makes stops near many sights, including the Garden District and Audubon Park.
There are currently three streetcar lines in operation in New Orleans: the Riverfront Streetcar, the Canal St. Streetcar and the St. Charles Streetcar. Of these three the St. Charles streetcar, which connects the Central Business District with uptown New Orleans, is the only authentic one.
The St. Charles Streetcar started operating in 1835 as the New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad. It was the second railroad in New Orleans, after the now defunct Pontchartrain Railroad. At the time, the trains were powered by steam engines. Due to the excessive amount of noise these engines created, they were replaced by mules in 1867. The electrified streetcars as we know them today were introduced in 1893.
Until the mid-twentieth century, the streetcars were very popular, and there were more than twenty different lines crisscrossing almost all of New Orleans. One of them was the Desire line, made famous in the 1947 Broadway production ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’.
After the Second World War most lines were replaced by buses and eventually only the St. Charles Avenue line survived.
In 1980, a brand-new Riverfront line was created, mainly aimed at tourists. This line runs from the French Market to the Convention Center. And as a result of an increasing interest in streetcars, the Canal Street Line was reinstated in 2004, 40 years after it was discontinued. The Canal Street Line connects the Central Business district with Mid-City. The cars used on these two lines are replicas of the historic streetcars, but they are equipped with modern amenities such as air conditioning.
The Transit Authority is even working on adding more streetcar lines, one along Loyala Avenue and another one will pass via the French Quarter along Rampart Street.
The cars that run on the St. Charles Avenue line are registered on the National Register of Historic Places, and thus are preserved without any modifications. The streetcars are ‘Thomas Perry’ cars, the type of cars that were used in the early twentieth century. They have beautiful finishing, with polished mahogany benches and brass handles. There is also no air conditioning in these cars, but blinds protect passengers against the sun and when the car is moving, a pleasant breeze enters through the open windows. The streetcars are powered by electricity thanks to a metal pole at the top of the car that conducts power from overhead cables.
Sights along the route
The St. Charles Avenue Streetcar starts at Canal Street near the French Quarter and runs for twelve kilometers (more than 7 miles) to Claiborne Avenue in uptown New Orleans.
From end to end, a trip takes about forty minutes. For most of its route it travels along St. Charles Avenue, one of the most beautiful streets in New Orleans, lined with majestic live oaks. From inside the streetcar, you can see grand mansions passing by.
The first point of interest along the route, starting from Canal Street, is Lafayette Square, dominated by the majestic Greek revival Gallier Hall. The streetcar next passes Harmony Circle, which was known as Lee Circle until a statue of General E. Lee was removed in 2017.
Within walking distance, you find a cluster of museums, including the large World War II Museum. The following stretch is of little interest, but after passing Jackson Street, the St. Charles Streetcar passes just north of the Garden District. From here on St. Charles Avenue is lined with magnificent buildings, such as The Columns Hotel at no. 3811 – built in 1883 for a cigar manufacturer -, the Romanesque Brown House at no. 4717 – the largest building on St. Charles Avenue, the Tara at no. 5707 – a replica of Scarlett’s home in Gone with the Wind – and Wedding Cake House, at no. 5809, a Greek revival building with layers of balconies and balustrades.
Further along the St. Charles Avenue, the streetcar passes the university campuses of Loyala and Tulane. Opposite the universities is the Audubon Park, home to the excellent Audubon Zoo. The streetcar then proceeds towards Carrollton Avenue and the end of its line at Palmer Park before turning back towards the Central Business District.