The Desire Line: Streetcar Loss & Rebirth in New Orleans

Stop 3 of 9 in the Streetcars and their Historian Michael Mizell-Nelson tour

The Desire streetcar line gained widespread acclaim when Tennessee Williams' play, "A Streetcar Named Desire," was published in 1947. By that time, New Orleanians were quite familiar with the Desire line--many of them probably taking it to work, home, or the market--and were likely aware, if not prepared for, its impending replacement by bus the next year.

Begun by the New Orleans Railway & Light Company in 1920, for the majority of its existence the route ran from Canal Street and turned onto Bourbon. After traveling down Bourbon, it veered left on Pauger St.,and then went down Dauphine to Desire St. On the return trip, the streetcar traveled Tonti to France, France to Royal Street, and then followed Royal all the way to Canal.

At least as early as 1940, New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (NOPSI) and the city were considering transitioning streetcars in the French Quarter to busses after routine complaints by French Quarter residents. The Desire Line, as well as the City Park and Gentilly Lines, passed through the Quarter at that time. As stated in the Times-Picayune on July 27, 1940, "Principal complaint against the streetcars has been that their vibration is responsible for much of the property damage in that part of the city, and that their noise and difficulty in negotiating the narrow streets, especially during the busy hours, unduly disturbs the residents." Residents also disagreed with the modernity represented by the streetcars, which they considered "out of keeping" with the French Quarter. As was also noted, however, busses provide the same, if not more, sense of modernity and would be even more numerous than the streetcars.

In early 1948, an almost $14 million NOPSI budget was approved of which about $500,000 was set aside for the conversion of the Desire Line to a motor bus.

By April of the same year, French Quarter residents had apparently changed their minds (perhaps on the heels of the popularity that Williams' play brought to the Desire Line). The French Quarter Residents Association passed a resolution expressing discontent over the projected removal of the Desire Streetcar line. The Association argued that New Orleans would forfeit considerable amounts of publicity should they proceed.

Unfortunately, just over one month later the Desire Streetcar was no more. Beginning May 30, 1948, the streetcar was replaced by the Desire bus. A Kirschman's Furniture ad boasted that with the introduction of the buses: "… your waiting time is much reduced. It means that seating capacity is increased by 34%."

In 1967, almost 20 years after the last Desire streetcar rumbled through the French Quarter, New Orleans Public Service Inc. donated restored car No. 453-- a Desire Line-style car used starting in the early 1900s-- to the Louisiana Tourist Development Commission. Although never actually used on the Desire line, the car became symbolic of the line specifically and of New Orleans streetcars in general.

The car was moved to the French Market that same year. After sitting in this spot for 12 years and falling into disrepair, the Louisiana State Museum purchased the car in 1979 and announced that it would move the 14-ton car to the grounds of the U.S. Mint. In the early 1990s, No. 453 was returned to the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (the company that replaced NOPSI), and the car now sits unused in Carrollton Station.

In 2003, a brand-new Desire streetcar line was proposed, although it would follow a different route than the older line going down North Rampart and St. Claude Ave. NORTA argued that it would bring economic revitalization to the corridor and attract tourists to the area. Unfortunately, federal funding was ultimately denied for the project.

As of 2015, construction has begun on a new line on the previously proposed North Rampart and St. Claude Ave. route, although it has not been called the Desire line.

Images

Desire Streetcar

Desire Streetcar

Desire streetcar traveling upriver along Bourbon Street, circa late 1940s. Courtesy of Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library. View File Details Page

Last day of Service

Last day of Service

W. "Mike" Bernadas captured the iconic image not long after having met Tennessee Williams when his play was in its pre-Broadway run in New Haven, Connecticut in 1947. Bernadas studied photography in New Haven using the G.I. Bill, and he returned to the city a few months later intent on preserving the image of what had quickly become the world's most famous streetcar line. Courtesy of the late Mike Bernadas View File Details Page

A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire

Robert Tallant Photograph Collection, Courtesy of Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library View File Details Page

Father Time

Father Time

As part of the publicity campaign introducing the busses, Operator Bob Cassagne is depicted tipping his hat to one of the Desire cars as it "bows to Father Time." View File Details Page

Kirschman's Fine Furniture Ad

Kirschman's Fine Furniture Ad

The Desire Streetcar passed by the front door of Kirschman' Furniture. Courtesy of the Times-Picayune View File Details Page

Desire Bus

Desire Bus

The Desire bus at the corner of Bourbon and Iberville Streets, ca. 1953. | Source: Courtesy of Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library. View File Details Page

A Bus Named Desire

A Bus Named Desire

The New Orleans Public Service, Inc. transit division presented the transition to diesel buses as part of its modernization program and reported "in the short time the Desire buses have been in service, many compliments have been passed on the superiority of the rubber-tired vehicles." The smaller image (inset) had appeared in national publications, including Life Magazine. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Emily A. Ramirez, “The Desire Line: Streetcar Loss & Rebirth in New Orleans,” New Orleans Historical, accessed June 28, 2017, http://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/542.
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