New Orleanians and Their Streetcars

Locals share their favorite streetcar memories.

Streetcars line up for passengers on a 1958 Mardi Gras.

STAN MALCOLM PHOTOGRAPH

New Orleans streetcars are an integral part of New Orleanians’ experience, and children’s streetcar memories usually begin in family company. Paulette Perrien notes that when her children were young “we would get on the streetcar on Carrollton Avenue, and get off on Canal at Carondelet Street, and go to D. H. Holmes for lunch. That was fun, riding with young children. You’d hold one and sit one by the window.”

Ken Kolb remembers taking the streetcar downtown to the orthodontist. “I used to like to stand in front by the conductor and watch him move the lever to control the speed. Sometimes, the front window would be open and you would get the wind in your face.” Pherabe Kolb relates how her younger brother Kenneth lost his hat out of the streetcar window and Cora Lee Larks got them off the car so they could walk back to get it.

Cherie Schneider recalls that when she was a student at Newcomb College she could take the streetcar down St. Charles Avenue to her grandmother’s tea room – later Corinne Dunbar’s restaurant.

Many New Orleanians still take the streetcar for their daily commute to work. In the past, when you tired of reading the over-the-seats ad for Speed Writing Shorthand (“u cn gt a gd jb w mo pa”), you could browse the “Riders’ Digest.” Back when New Orleans Public Service, Inc., ran the transit system, each car had a holder for a stack of these small newsletters.

NOPSI operated public transportation from 1922 to ’83, and published “Riders’ Digest” from the ’40s until ’83. “Riders’ Digest” contained both corporate and general news items and announcements (the company ran the electric and gas utilities as well as city transit), jokes, (“How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice.”) sports news and a popular local history column titled “Did You Know?” Thomas Ewing Dabney of The Times-Picayune was credited with writing some of those columns, as was author Charles “Pie” Dufour. The New Orleans Public Library has a collection of “Riders’ Digest” issues, and an online list of the history column topics, with the date each ran, can be found at NewOrleansPublicLibrary.org.

Sometimes current fashion didn’t mix well with streetcars. As Karen Brown recalls of her 1970s era commute, “in those days, my skirt wasn’t that long – it didn’t come down to my fingertips. Getting on the streetcar with that little bitty skirt and my platform shoes, you had to turn sideways to get up the step – and I could do it!”    

Carolyn Brown (no relation to Karen Brown) still commutes by streetcar. In the past, she regularly read “Riders’ Digest,” but today, “I have my MP3 player in my ear.” Tourists are frequent fellow passengers, and she’s happy to identify landmarks for them. Plus, there are many regular riders on her route: “you may not know them by name but you recognize them.”

The worst day for a streetcar ride? “It’s the day before Mardi Gras. The police have to go in front of the car with a bull horn to get the people off the tracks.”

She admits that sometimes she likes to sit in what was once the conductor’s seat (when it’s unoccupied at the rear of the car.) “I can see the world going backwards.” Usually, she sits in the regular seats. “I leave the front seats (the sideways ones, formerly called the ‘beauty seats’) for tourists and senior citizens.”

The St. Charles Streetcar has been named a National Historic Landmark; there are lines now on Canal Street, Loyola Avenue and the Riverfront, and others are planned, but streetcars once ran on many different city streets.

Everyone rode. Walter Carroll remembers hearing that on the old Prytania Street car line (closed in 1932), a Mrs. Bruns would go from her home on Prytania Street to shop for groceries at Solari’s in the French Quarter, and when she arrived back home, the conductor would stop the car and carry in her bags for her.

Dr. Michael Mizell-Nelson is now on the faculty of the University of New Orleans, but he did his doctoral dissertation at Tulane University on the subject of streetcars: “Challenging and Reinforcing White Control of Public Space: Race Relations on New Orleans Streetcars, 1861-1965.” Mizell was also one of those responsible for a television documentary, Streetcar Stories, on WYES-TV (for more information visit StreetcarStories.org).

Mizell was born in New Orleans, and he used a transit pass to take the streetcar to Benjamin Franklin High School when it was located on Carrollton Avenue. His son will be using a pass for the first time this year.

Don Hubbard, who lives on St. Charles Avenue today in the bed and breakfast he and his wife own, also used a transit pass when he was a student at Walter L. Cohen High School. In those days, as Mizell’s dissertation records, there were signs in streetcars and buses that marked the racial distinction line: blacks were relegated to the rear. In 1958, the signs were removed and transit was integrated.

As Hubbard recalls, “they integrated the year I graduated from high school.” Hubbard and his school friends decided to mark the midnight integration, and boarded a bus on Freret Street about 11:45 p.m. “By midnight we were at Washington Avenue, and I got off for my stop. I just took that sign with me.” The sign today can be seen at the Hubbard Mansion, 3535 St. Charles Ave.

That is right on the car line.


Tracking the Internet
It is possible to experience streetcars online. The website NewOrleansHistorical.org, (with a free downloadable app for your smartphone) holds a wealth of stories about everything New Orleans, along with videos and photographs to help you find out about old car lines, the women who were hired for streetcar work in World War II, streetcar unions and strikes. The website is a project of the History Department of the University of New Orleans and the Communication Department of Tulane University. If you have stories to add to the site, contact Dr. Michael Mizell-Nelson at mmizelln@uno.edu or Dr. Vicki Mayer at vmayer@tulane.edu.
 

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