Heart of New Orleans: Part 6

Heart of NOLA Segment 6

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - It's a rich blend of cultures and the mix of the old and new that make is so special. And it's a place where you can ride on history.

"On rainy days, I'll play rainy day songs on sunny days. I play sunny songs. The hits just keep coming," says Debbie Fagnano.

Debbie Fagnano has been playing her sunny day songs and entertaining people on the New Orleans Riverfront for nearly 30 years.

"There's big whistles and little whistles. The bigger ones take longer to heat up than smaller ones, climate affects it. If it gets really out of tune, the captain or the engineer will come up here with a wrench and we'll, you know, whack it a few times," says Fagnano.

The whistles are fed by 16 pounds of steam and they sit atop the Mississippi River's only steamboat. The Natchez, the French Quarter based tour boat is one of only two steam-powered paddle wheelers still operating in the entire country.

"The river is the whole reason New Orleans is here. Steamboats go back 150 years, 200 years," says Donald Houghton.

Houghton started working as a deckhand on the Natchez 28-years-ago. Now he's one of the captains.

"You just have a paddle wheel and three rudders and in New Orleans you have a lot of current and a lot of wind and a lot of traffic, so it gets challenging," says Houhgton.

The Natchez is a relatively new boat build out of steel in 1975 to meet Coast Guard regulations but it's twin steam engines come from a 1920's work boat.

"The engines on the Natchez, its maximum rpm is 21 revolutions. So they're a very slow turn and they move very slowly and they last forever and ever," says Steve Nicoulin.

And they're keeping a tradition alive on the Mississippi River. A river that was once ruled by steamboats still has a daily reminder of its past.

You would have to be more than 90-years-old to remember a time when these dark green streetcars were not rolling up and down St. Charles Avenue. And the rail line has been around twice as long, dating back to 1835. This is the oldest continuously operating city rail line in the world.

"The best part about his job is meeting the people," says Clarence Glover.

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

"I was working for a bank and there was no windows in the bank. And one day I looked out the window and saw a streetcar and I decided I needed a change," says Glover.

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

"I saw something different every day and I just met different people and I just fell in love with it."

"These streetcars were built by Pearly Thomas Carworks in North Carolina. They rolled into service in New Orleans in 1923 and 1935. Those original cars are still in service today. The earliest streetcars were steam powered. Then horse-drawn. In 1893, they switched to electronic motors. The top speed today, 27 miles per hour," says Glover. "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. If you spend time in New Orleans, you feel the rhythm. You know the sounds. You love the food and you experience celebrations. It's a city full of traditions. It is a city made even stronger by its unique blend of people."

"The richness of the cultures that have played a part in New Orleans and those may be lost today. What roles those different cultures actually are played and certainly some of this difference was forged in adversity whether it's displacement of native groups or whether it's the importation of unwilling captives from Africa who arrived here. All of those things, and probably dozens more, factors that none of us can really pinpoint is part of the reason for the special character of this city," says John Lawrence.

For the past 300 years it is these diverse people who are the heart of New Orleans.

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