Riot on the Tracks

Proposed changes to the New Orleans’ streetcar system had riders in a tizzy.

On December 15, 1919, residents of Rampart Street in New Orleans became outraged upon hearing about planned changes in streetcar tracks for the Dryades Street line. There were a total of 11 car lines being considered for rerouting at a time when the street car was crucial to everyday life in New Orleans. The ramifications of these possible changes were protested by property owners along with residents. John M. Huber head of protestors, filed a brief with the clerk of the council, the office that proposed these changes, against removal of tracks on Rampart street from Phillip to Eighth Street. Along with this protest, there was a circulating petition to protest against removal of tracks from Felicity to Erato on Rampart Street. 

In response, M. H Brown, manager of the New Orleans Railway and Light Company, said he didn’t know anything about the tracks being removed from that section. Nonetheless, property owners still worried about what was supposed to happen to the streets if the tracks were removed and if they would be maintained. Big concerns that Mr.Huber stated were about a risk of possible loss in the value of property and also an additional burden to taxpayers. However, Senator E.M Stafford countered that the city was attempting to relieve the railway company of as much economic burden as possible and also stated that taxpayers were not supposed to be considered in this. 

To ease tensions about growing concerns of the streetcar, John S. Bleecker, general manager of the New Orleans Railway and Light Company, said he did not think that the franchises would be abrogated by the numerous changes proposed. They were merely being amended and the city could eventually have a blanket control over the railway to actually improve the railway system and the services it provides. Also, Mr.Huber stated that this proposal was nothing but a “scrap of paper” and the terms of it can be twisted at will. Therefore, nothing was solid yet, but the mere thought of these changes happening to the streetcar sent the community into a panic. 

Map of New Orleans Showing Street Railway System of the New Orleans Railway Company, January 1904, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streetcars_in_New_Orleans#/media/File:NewOrleansStreetRailwaysJan1904.jpg.

Looking back on the way the streetcar lines were set up in 1904, the map above clearly shows that many of the lines were in use and how they intertwined into the numerous roads within New Orleans. In general, the population of New Orleans showed a dramatic growth in the previous 50 years and the streetcar system grew with it. That growth is a true testament to how important the streetcar was to the community in New Orleans. The public panicked about a mere proposal of changes to the streetcar because it was so intrinsic to their lives in that era before most people owned cars. But history took a different track for the streetcar system after 1919 due to the creation of the nation’s expansive highway system. With cars and roads becoming easier and more accessible to use, the streetcar witnessed a gradual decline as fewer riders took it and old routes were replaced by busses. “Well-engineered roads along with a rapidly growing American automobile and truck industry symbolized the prosperity and new social freedom characteristic of the decade” (Gamboa 2016).

Historical Map: New Orleans Streetcar Trackage Map, 1945, n.d., https://www.transitmap.net/new-orleans-1945/.

This was a turning point and the very beginning of the end of the streetcar system in New Orleans. The map above is from 1945 and it is clear that no new streetcar lines were built after 1919. There are sections of the streetcar lines that are labeled usable but unused in this map (and include some of the routes proposed to be discontinued, right). The decline in usage of the lines is clear here compared to the map from 1904.

Bibliography

Gamboa, Erasmo. “The Great Depression, Deportations, and Recovery.” In Bracero Railroaders: The Forgotten World War II Story of Mexican Workers in the U.S. West, 26-38. Seattle; London: University of Washington Press, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvcwn55d.7.

Historical Map: New Orleans Streetcar Trackage Map, 1945, n.d., https://www.transitmap.net/new-orleans-1945/.

Map of New Orleans Showing Street Railway System of the New Orleans Railway Company, January 1904, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streetcars_in_New_Orleans#/media/File:NewOrleansStreetRailwaysJan1904.jpg.

“New Orleans.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, November 24, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Orleans#Demographics.

“Street Car Route Changes Planned In Ordinances Rampart Street Residents Protest Against Removal of Tracks.” Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), December 15, 1919: 9. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-122D1D042918EF60@2422308-1228DBE82112EB40@8-126940B52808428E@Street+Car+Route+Changes+Planned+In+Ordinances+Rampart+Street+Residents+Protest+Against+Removal+of+Tracks.