The story of the St. Charles Streetcar line is about streetcars and a whole lot more. It’s about a famous city, and everyday people, and dreams of all kinds, and about just getting the job done, day in and day out. Ride the line for any length of time and you’ll see.
The St. Charles Streetcar line started operating in 1835. It runs for 13.2 miles from the intersection of Carrollton and Claiborne to Carondelet and Canal Street along the edge of the French Quarter, and back again. It crosses streets like Sycamore and Willow on its way to Riverbend, past Tulane and Loyola Universities and the Audubon Zoo, under live oaks strewn with beads from years of Mardi Gras parades near the Garden District, and around the statue at Lee’s Circle. Apart from time spent repairing the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, it is the oldest continuously running streetcar line in the world.
In a city known for its music, food, and attitude, these streetcars are equally specific. The cars that run on the St. Charles line now were built in the 1920s, and each has been granted status as an historic landmark. They are maintained and restored to look and operate just as they did almost 100 years ago. They are always repainted that familiar shade of green. Worn or broken seats are replaced with new ones made of fine mahogany. The windows still slide up and down to allow the breeze to blow through on sultry summer days.
But these are not museum pieces, or a theme ride just for show. Real people ride the streetcar every day to get from here to there. All kinds of people: working folks, families, students, and visitors. Conductors greet each other as their cars pass within a few feet, traveling in opposite directions. Back and forth they go, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Just as conductors have been doing since the Perley Thomas cars were introduced in 1923, they sweep through the car at the end of the line, flipping the backs of the seats to face the other way. Walking to the controls at the opposite end of the streetcar, they ring the bell, and off they go.
People need to go places.
And the streetcar is there for them: a rolling, workaday icon. When you see it, you know you’re in New Orleans.
Dorothy Brown is an alumni of ART (Artist Round Table) and a member of the Rear Curtain editorial staff. She lives in Albany, California. Her photographs and stories have appeared locally in Albany Patch and Berkeleyside, as well as on Rear Curtain. She is currently working on a long-term project about Zydeco music in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find out more about Dorothy’s work here.