175 Years of Rail on St. Charles Avenue

St. Charles streetcar

It is the oldest street railway line in America, and it’s not in San Francisco. Market Street has had rail transit for 150 years now — the longest duration on a city’s main street — but today, St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans celebrates 175 years of rail transit.
The parallels between the two cities’ oldest street rail lines are almost eerie.  Like Market Street, St. Charles started with a steam locomotive, on September 26, 1835. Before too long, complaints about noise and soot from neighbors led to steam’s replacement with horsecars.  Looking for something faster, New Orleans tried an experimental stretch of line in 1869 powered by a cable — an overhead cable — with a cable clamp invented by Civil War Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard that was later adapted for use in San Francisco.
Cables never took in New Orleans, and after experiments with different kinds of fueled engines, the St. Charles line was electrified in 1893, and has been operated by electric streetcars ever since.
The current fleet was acquired in 1923 from streetcar builder Perley Thomas of North Carolina.  The “Perley” has become the symbol of New Orleans, even pictured on a postage stamp.
Perleys ran all over New Orleans during its streetcar heyday, including on the Desire line immortalized by Tennessee Williams in the play “Streetcar Named Desire.” But when the line on Canal Street (New Orleans’ main street) closed in 1964, many Perleys were sold off, including two now in San Francisco: No. 913 (bought from a museum with help from Market Street Railway and awaiting restoration) and No. 952, which came on a lease from New Orleans’ NORTA transit agency in 1998 after a second life there on that city’s Riverfront line before replica streetcars were acquired to meed ADA requirements.
No. 952 could never run on the St. Charles line again, because the streetcars allowed on that line are specified by law as part of its federal historic designation (it would have to be regauged to New Orleans’ wide gauge besides). Nonetheless, No. 952 could be forgiven a little strut in its step today, taking pride in its siblings back in New Orleans.
Want to learn a little more? Check this Wikipedia entry
Happy 175th Anniversary, St. Charles line!