NEW ORLEANS - As many of us prepare to load up the family car or head to the airport this Thanksgiving holiday, there is another way to travel that is a little less hectic. Arlo Guthrie sang about it in his 1970s hit about "riding on the City of New Orleans." FOX 8's Dave McNamara takes us along for the ride on that legendary New Orleans-to-Chicago train in tonight's Heart of Louisiana.
The train eases out of its station by the Superdome, an early afternoon start for a journey that will last the next 19 hours and slice through the middle of America. The tracks thread the needle of expressways and overpasses that take train passengers out of downtown New Orleans and head west along airline drive through the rail yards of Jefferson Parish. Then this train, known as the City of New Orleans, enters what is likely the most scenic part of the ride.
You can watch from the windows of the observation car, keeping pace with traffic along Interstate 10, your gaze falling on the mixture of marsh and cypress trees. Then you ride a narrow trestle over the Bonnet Carre spillway. The track begins its curve around the western shore of Lake Pontchartrain, leaving the highways behind and skirting the ends of the lake as an eastern breeze pushes waves up against a thin wall of rocks.
"You've got one of the longest curves anywhere in the United States on the railroad track going around Lake Pontchartrain," said rider Scott Wright. "You see the eagles, you see crab boats, you see people out fishing, you go across the Manchac Bridge."
From the train, you see the depots that were built a century ago when trains helped build these towns. At some, the train no longer stops. In Hammond, it's a quick three-minute delay as more passengers board for the trip north.
"The train ride is absolutely cool," said ride John Donald. "It's real relaxing, and we're about to get married so we need some bonding time right now."
"We have time to talk and just have some quality time together," agreed Nichole Dupree.
Deminnis Smith runs the dining car from New Orleans to Chicago and back.
"My job is basically, typically to get everybody fed that wants to eat, get them fed and make sure they are not sitting in the dining car when they reach their designated stop," Smith said.
"We have a flattop grill, steam tables," said chef Clyde George. "Steaks and salmon are cooked to order. We also have half roasted chicken. I'm here to aim to please the passengers."
And it's hard to beat the scenery. As dinner finishes the sun dips below the horizon and the train speeds north. Throughout the night, the train slows, passengers come and go. There's more fuel in Memphis and a view of the Mississippi River Bridge.
You fall asleep as the train gently rocks along the tracks.
Eight hours later, the towns come back to life as the sun rises above the corn fields of central Illinois.
The Illinois Central Railroad chose the name "City of New Orleans" back in 1947. And since then, this train has gone through a few changes. It used to be a daytime route, then the name changed to Panama Limited. In 1981, Amtrak brought back the City of New Orleans and created the overnight route, bringing passengers into downtown Chicago at 9 a.m. - a ride that captures the beauty of Southeast Louisiana with a direct connection to the skyscrapers of Chicago.