Railroads have been active in the Crescent City for more than 170 years. The Pontchartrain Railroad opened its tracks for business in 1831, but its locomotive was not put into service until the following year (it initially ran on horse power). It was one of the very first railroads to commence operations in the United States, and it continued its run along Elysian Fields Avenue for a century. Despite this early start, however, New Orleans lagged behind its rival cities for decades. The city’s commercial leaders had been making great profits from river traffic for so many years that they saw little need to invest in the railroads that would have opened new trade routes into the nation’s interior.
New Orleans’ timing with respect to railroads was wanting in at least one other instance. Although the need for a union passenger terminal had been recognized as early as the 1880s, such a structure did not materialize until the second half of the twentieth century. As a result, the present Union Passenger Terminal opened for business at just about the same time that airlines were supplanting railroads as the primary mode of interstate transportation for the nation.

The history of railroads in the Crescent City has also been marked by a tension between the industrial, commercial, and economic development needs of the metropolis and the safety and personal convenience of its citizens. The desire to improve vehicular traffic on the city’s streets proved to be critical in the ultimate success of the union terminal project and its attendant program of grade-crossing elimination. As a result, while trains continue to operate throughout the city, few New Orleanians are forced to wait for them to pass over surface streets. Contrast this with the sometimes-lengthy delays still experienced on Metairie Road and Jefferson Highway in our neighboring parish to the west.

Interestingly, railroads were responsible for one very significant improvement to vehicular traffic in the New Orleans area. The New Orleans Public Belt Railroad Commission built the Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River during the 1920s and 1930s. The Public Belt Railroad is unique among the railroads of the United States in that it is a publicly owned and operated terminal switching railroad. It is owned by the citizens of the City of New Orleans and operated through the Public Belt Railroad Commission.

This exhibit provides but a brief look at the long history of railroads in New Orleans. It was designed and mounted by archivists Wayne Everard and Irene Wainwright using original materials from the City Archives and various special collections housed in the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library. It will remain on view on the third floor of the Main Library through the end of 2002. This online version will be available indefinitely.

Title Page ||| Introduction ||| Page 1 ||| Page 2 ||| Page 3 ||| Page 4