Heart of Louisiana: Historic St. Charles Streetcar

Updated: Oct. 18, 2016 at 8:35 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - You would have to be more than 90 years old to remember a time when dark green streetcars were not rolling up and down St. Charles Avenue, and the rail line has been around twice that long – dating to 1835.

It is the oldest continuously operating city rail line in the world.

"The best part about this job is meeting the people," said Clarence Glover.

Glover has been operating a streetcar, and teaching others do to so, for 35 years.

"I was working for a bank and there was no windows in the bank," he said. "And one day I looked out the window and saw a streetcar and I decided I needed a change. And I got the job and I've been here ever since!"

Glover is now surrounded by windows on a 13-mile-long route that runs the length of St. Charles Avenue.

"Just driving down this street I saw something different every day, and I just met different people and I just fell in love with it," Glover said.

These streetcars were built by Perley Thomas Carworks in North Carolina. They rolled into service in New Orleans in 1923, and 35 of those original cars are still in service today. They are a national historic landmark, one of only two movable historic landmarks in the country. The other is the San Francisco cable car.

Little has changed in the last century, and the old cars are well-maintained. Keeping them running is a skill that's been passed down through generations of mechanics and electricians.

"There's not really a book that you can go to to learn how to rebuild or to do certain things - it was like a hand-to-hand teaching," said Keith Wiltz.

Wiltz maintains the electrical systems, which are so old you can't buy factory parts.

"So in the shop we have to grind or cut or modify whatever parts we get to make it retrofit, to make it fit our applications," Wiltz said.

"The earliest streetcars were steam-powered, then horse-drawn. In 1893 they switched to electric motors. The top speed today is 27 mph.

"If you maintain it properly and repair it properly, it will last forever," Wiltz said.

The streetcars are an iconic tourist attraction. But they have also been a reliable commuter rail system that provides continuous rides along one of the grandest avenues in New Orleans.

Riding the streetcar is still a bargain. One ride will cost you $1.25 or you can buy a Jazzy Pass and ride all day for $3.

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