Canal Street Transit Station, New Orleans Louisiana

Date added: August 18, 2016 Categories: Louisiana Train Station Passenger Station

Canal Station, located on Square 365 in New Orleans, Louisiana, witnessed the evolution of the New Orleans mass transit system from street railway to bus. The structure adjoins the thoroughfare that historically has been the most prominent commercial street in the city. The square, bounded by Canal, N. Dupre, Iberville (formerly Customhouse) and N. White streets, was purchased by the New Orleans City Railroad Company on June 20, 1860 for the purpose of erecting a streetcar station in service to the firm's proposed Canal Street line. The Canal Street line was one of four planned by the private railroad company; these lines established the New Orleans City Railroad Company as a competitor in the city's transportation sector with the New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad Company.

In March 1861, J.B. Slawson and N.P. Simmot of the New Orleans City Railroad Company contracted with John Pouge, a local builder, to erect a complex of structures on Square 365. Building 1 incorporates portions of the 1861 carbarn. The contract specified a completion date of May for the Canal Street carbarn and established a construction budget of $5,142.00. Other buildings at the Canal Street location that were itemized in the contract included a two-story dwelling house with a one-story kitchen, a stable, shops, and other support buildings.

Pouge was directed to construct the Canal Street buildings in strict accordance with the specifications of the contract. The stipulations pertaining to the carbarn and railroad station provide a detailed schedule of the size and quality of construction materials. The specifications also provide information relative to the original appearance of the carbarn, portions of which are incorporated in Building 1. Under the description of the bricklayer's duties were details for brick footings for the walls and structural columns of the car house. The building requirements specified a painted rough weatherboard cladding for the timber frame carbarn. The structure was supported by 10 x 10 inch sills; 3x6 inch wall studs spaced 21" on center were specified. The gable-end of the carbarn incorporated five 12-foot sliding doors with finished jambs and architraves. The roof of the structure was supported by wrought iron principals with cast iron shoes; metal roof members were supplied by the street railroad company. The building terminated in a corrugated iron roof. Tin pipes drained rainwater to a cistern. Construction work was conducted under the supervision of the Engineer of the City Railroad Company.

The specifications also reference Station Hall, a two-story dwelling that originally was located in front of the car house directly adjoining Canal Street. The second floor of the station was supported by thirteen 14-foot cast iron columns; the ground floor of the building was open. The station, also referred to as the dormitory, contained second-floor quarters for employees of the company. Access to the upper story dormitory was provided by square wooden stair towers located at the rear of the building. The building, including the towers, terminated in a slate roof.

The New Orleans City Railroad Company initiated street rail service-on June 1, 1861. On that day, the Daily Picayune exalted the company's network of a "great spider web of roads, commencing on Canal Street, the heart of the city, and extending in almost every direction to the extreme outer limit of the corporation."41 The Canal Street line of the system officially opened on June 15, 1861, "only as far as the station at the corner of White Street, a distance of nearly two miles." The line was completed to the Half-Way House in August.

Canal Station, also known historically as the White Street Station, was one of four facilities constructed to serve the new mule-powered lines. Both cars and animals were housed at the Canal Street location. During the raid-1870s, the site accommodated approximately 70 to 75 mules. The Canal Station carbarn (Building 1) was used for fabrication and repair of muledrawn cars. Eleven open "excursion" cars were built in the structure between 1872 and 1874. Workers at the Canal Station also mixed mule feed for animals housed at the company's other stations.

An illustration of Canal Street in the vicinity of the Canal Station appeared in the magazine Every Saturday following the New Orleans flood of 1871. The illustration depicted the site as defined by a picket fence. The dormitory building was a symmetrical, residential-scale, frame building of simple Italianate style. The first floor of the rectangular-plan building was supported by free-standing columns incorporating capitals. The 10-bay by 2-bay upper story was sheathed in weatherboards. Windows were multiple-light sash units defined by lintels and sills. The building terminated in an intersecting gable roof banded by a wide bracket cornice. Double three-story, wooden stair towers rose from the rear of the building. These towers included wide corner boards and terminated in pyramidal roofs punctuated by finials. The roofs were further emphasized by elaborate bracket cornices. A small section of the carbarn was included in the illustration and suggests a utilitarian building that terminated in an arched roof. The illustration also suggests that the design of the facility adopted the specialized plan common in railroad stations of the period where station and car sheds were distinct structures.

In 1876, under Ordinance 3565, the city granted permission to the New Orleans City Railroad Company to operate steam dummies on its line from Canal Street to Lake Ponchartrain, as an alternative to animal transportation. A steam excursion "West End Line" was constructed from Canal Street to Carondelet Street that same year. In addition to the mule-driven vehicles, steam locomotives, and passenger coaches were housed at Canal Station until 1898.

In 1883, the New Orleans City Railroad Company was reorganized into the New Orleans city and Lake Railroad Company. By this period, according to the Braun atlas of that year, development of Canal Station expanded to the western half of Square 365 and extended to the adjoining Square 366. A new frame building was constructed on Customhouse Street (present-day Iberville), northwest of the original 1861 station complex, to house steam cars. Steam rail tracks ran from Canal Street directly through a steam carbarn occupying the western half of Square 365 to second steam carbarn located on Square 366. Designated "horse car" lines ran from Canal Street to the original 1861 carbarn.

The Sanborn Insurance Hap of 1885 contains detailed data on the Canal Station complex. The original complex, located on the eastern half of Square 365, included a dormitory, carbarn, and support structures, and was devoted to the draft animal operation. The two story dormitory building, constructed in 1861 and incorporating second story sleeping rooms and offices, adjoined Canal Street. The open ground floor of the dwelling functioned as a porte-cochere for horse drawn cars entering the adjoining rear one-and-one-half-story carbarn. Data contained in the Sanborn Insurance Maps indicates that the dormitory was connected directly to a rear carbarn. The eastern half of the frame carbarn served as a mule stable, while the western section of the building was designated the "Street Railroad Car House." This western section of the carbarn comprises a portion of Building 1. Structures housing corn mills, power hay cutters, repair shops, a blacksmith, a car painting shop, and a saddler stood behind the carbarn.

The remaining complex was devoted to the support of the steam railroad operation. The western half of Square 365 included a locomotive house with forge, a steam carbarn, coal bin, and a foreman's house and dining room. A second steam carbarn and a one-story storage building were found on Square 366.

City tax assessments for the years 1885-1886 note that the New Orleans City and Lake Railroad Company was assessed $25,000.00 for real estate and improvements on Square 365. In addition to the real estate, the company was assessed $10,000.00 for livestock, $85,000.00 for vehicles, and $27,000.00 for machinery.

During this period, the Canal Street Line followed a route that originated at Clay Statue and ran along Canal Street to the cemeteries; cars returned by the same route. Numerous companies ran cars along congested Canal Street; each line could be identified by the color of the car and, at night, by the color of its light. The Canal Street Line streetcars were distinguishable by their green color and white light. The line provided regular service to the city, with a streetcar leaving the starting point every seven minutes for the White Street Station, and every 15 minutes to the end of the route.

A fire consumed the Canal Station in 1887. According to the New Orleans Times-Democrat. the blaze that broke out at 2:45 a.m. on January 20 was "one of the hottest, most destructive and brilliant fires that has taken place in this city for years." The conflagration destroyed what was described as the "roundhouse" and the steam car sheds, as well as eight dummies, 16 passenger coaches, and two freight cars. Other buildings swept by the fire included the blacksmith and saddlery shops behind the draft carbarn, and an oil and paint store. Lumber, carts, sacks of horse feed, harnesses, and other equipment stored in the car shed were destroyed. One steam car survived the fire.

Firemen who fought the blaze were commended for their courage in rescuing livestock. R. H. Benners, secretary of the Firemen's Insurance Company, stated that "Chief Thos. O'Connor and Perseverance Fire Company No. 13 deserve the highest praise for heroism in saving the mules from death."

Joe Walker, president of the City and Lake Railroad, estimated the cost of the fire at $100,000.00. The fire did not interfere with streetcar service. Walker noted that the remaining steam car and other passenger coaches were sufficient to supply the line until replacements were built. Walker was quoted as saying, "We have every facility in our shops to build the coaches, and I have sent for Mr. T. Sully, the civil engineer, to draft the plan and specifications for their construction, as well as for the new roundhouse and car sheds." Previous archival investigations on the Canal Station site have suggested that Walker was referring to noted New Orleans architect Thomas Sully. Biographical entries for Thomas Sully do not include references to the architect working as a civil engineer. In addition, Canal Station buildings do not appear among the detailed lists of Sully's architectural work.

To replace the damaged complex, the City and Lake Railroad constructed two wood frame, iron-clad carbarns, one of which incorporated portions of the 1861 car house used for animal-drawn vehicles. New support structures also were constructed on Square 365, while Square 366 became a storage lot for old cars. The new construction is reflected in the 1889 city tax assessments for Square 365. The assessment of real estate and improvements leapt from the pre-fire figure of $25,000.00 to $40,000.00; the company was assessed an additional $10,500.00 for animals, $38,000.00 for vehicles, $31,500.00 for machinery, and $82,000.00 for track.

The 1896 Sanborn Hap depicts the rebuilt station. The eastern third of Square 365 lot fronting N. White Street was vacant. This area was formerly occupied by the stable section of the 1861 carbarn. The insurance map suggests that the western half of the 1861 dormitory building adjoining Canal street survived the fire, as did the western section of the rear adjoining carbarn. The extant section of the 1861 carbarn was incorporated into a larger industrial structure that stretched from Canal Street to Customhouse Street. Portions of this expanded building are incorporated in Building 1. The insurance map noted that the exterior of that frame carbarn was iron-clad.

An iron-clad industrial building of similar design, designated the "Car and Dummy Locomotive House," stood west of the expanded 1861 carbarn. Portions of this latter structure are incorporated in Building 2. The land between the two parallel buildings is depicted as vacant. Associated support structures, including a frame dwelling, an oil house, a wood shop, a machine shop, and a blacksmith, lined N. Dupre Street. Square 366 was vacant and utilized for car storage and a rubbish yard.

During the late nineteenth century, the New Orleans Traction Company acquired control of the New Orleans City & Lake Railroad,owner of the Canal Station. The company ordered electric cars from J. G. Brill, and installed electric power systems. The Canal Street Route, which initiated electric streetcar service in August 1894, became the first electrified New Orleans City & Lake Railroad route. Trolley wires were added to convert the tracks from mule-driven cars to electric street cars. The original Brill electric cars housed in the Canal Station carbarns were seven-window, open-platform vehicles with longitudinal seats. These orange-yellow cars with cream trim contained green route signs.

Electrification of streetcars in New Orleans was accompanied by route consolidation. In 1899, the New Orleans City and Lake Railroad Company sold its streetcar lines and associated real estate to the New Orleans City Railroad Company in a massive liquidation effort. Property and street railroad track acquired by the new company included the Canal Street and Lake Trains line, and the associated Canal Station. By the turn of the century, four railway companies operated in the city; of these four, the New Orleans City Railroad Company was the largest, with 115 miles of track and rolling stock encompassing 300 cars. The company's closest competitor, the New Orleans & Carrollton Railroad, operated on 40 miles of track. The New Orleans Railways Company was formed in 1902 to lease these four lines. Although the companies retained legal autonomy, both entities were operated under unified management. The New Orleans Railways Company went into receivership in 1905, and was reorganized as the New Orleans Railway and Light Company. As the name suggests, the new company also provided electrical power to the city.

During this period of transition, the Canal Street facility underwent minor alterations. Between 1905 and 1908, the two story building fronting Canal street was removed. A new two story office had been constructed fronting Canal Street as an infill structure between the two 1887 carbarns. Two storehouses were constructed behind the office building. Aside from these infill structures, the land between the carbarns remained open. The western carbarn (Building 2) housed operating rolling stock, while the carbarn containing the 1861 component contained repair shops and the car construction operations for the line. Although most streetcars were purchased from national manufacturers, 12 electric cars were fabricated at Canal Station in 1902. Car fabrication was suspended at Canal Station after 1905; however, major repairs were performed at the site until 1910 when repair operations were consolidated at the Magazine Street facility. After 1910, Canal Station was used for storage, minor repairs, and the painting of cars.


The New Orleans Railway and Light Company went into receivership in 1919, and in 1922, city transportation, gas, and electric services were consolidated under the New Orleans Public Service, Inc (NOPSI). The New Orleans City Railroad Company continued independent operation until 1925, when NOPSI purchased the company. During the 1920s and 1930s, NOPSI developed a reorganization plan for the transportation system. The company removed or abandoned 76 miles of track, and established 107 miles of bus service. Streetcar use reached its peak year in 1926, when a total of 148 million passengers rode the 26 street railway lines. Five bus lines were established by 1926; during the ensuing years, mass transit passenger figures for streetcar ridership declined as bus service and automobile use increased.

Street railway service was disruption in July 1929, as streetcar operating personnel initiated a strike in response to NOPSI's refusal to accept a closed shop provision. Photographic views depicting the Canal Station on July 5, 1929 depict workers picketing the facility. Although streetcar service was restored in August, a settlement between NOPSI and the American Federation of Labor was not reached until October 10. During 1929, ridership decreased by 40 million passengers from the previous year.

Although bus service expanded during the 1930s, the Canal Station complex on Square 365 continued to serve as a streetcar repair and storage facility. A NOPSI Engineering Department plan depicts the tracks and buildings at the Canal Station in 1938. The plan shows tracks leading from Canal Street to the two carbarns and an adjoining car yard. Building l, located on the eastern-side of the square, was outfitted for streetcar repair work with four pits, a hoist pit, an electric hoist, and a jib crane. Building 2, used primarily to house streetcars, contained two pits. A 99-foot long infill structure stood between the two car barns; that structure was divided into a division supplies area, a recreation room, a toilet facility, the superintendent's office, the clerk's room, and a cashier's office. Along N. Dupre street stood a row of buildings associated with car maintenance, including a garage, a store room, an oil room, a paint shop, a carpentry shop, and a wheel grinder pit. General office buildings also were situated at the corner of N. Dupre and Iberville streets.

The Sanborn Insurance Map for 1940 depicts development on four city squares; Square 365 was developed most intensively. The office between the two carbarn structures was enlarged. An additional office building, storage room, and locker room were constructed behind the enlarged office between the two carbarns. The westernmost structure still was identified as a streetcar barn, with a capacity of 26 cars, while the eastern structure was designated for streetcar repair, with a capacity of 24 cars. The map identified wood trusses in both buildings; the car barn had an earthen floor, while the car repair building had a concrete floor. An open car yard with a capacity of 30 cars was located east of the repair building. An eight-car carbarn was recorded on Square 366 northeast of Square 365. The increasing dominance of buses was evident, however, in the new bus garage constructed on Square 396, northwest of Square 365. Square 397, west of Square 365, was in use as a bus yard with a capacity of 110 vehicles.

The continuing decline of the streetcar had a direct impact on the Canal Street facility by 1944. Building Number 2 was converted into a bus barn, with a capacity for 35 motor vehicles. Building Number 1 remained carbarn for streetcar repair, with a capacity of 24 cars. The single-story office building located between the two buildings, was enlarged again to contain both offices and dressing rooms.

In the 1950s, the St. Charles and Canal Street lines were the last streetcar lines in operation. Special interest groups organized to publicize the history of the city's streetcars. A special publication of Interurbans in 1955 celebrated the history of street railways in New Orleans. The Canal Station carbarns were described as "the best known of all barns in the Crescent City." Although the Arabella barn, constructed in 1881, and the Poland Street Barn, built in 1861, also were large extant facilities, the barn at Canal and white Streets boasted the greatest capacity. During this period, cars continued to be maintained and painted at Canal Station, but major rebuilding was no longer undertaken at the Canal Street facility.

Despite public interest in streetcars, and a strong preservation campaign initiated by "Streetcars Desired, Inc.," NOPSI discontinued the operation of the Canal Street streetcar line in 1964, citing the agency's ability to improve services through the introduction of buses on the Canal Street route. The elimination of the Canal Streetcar Line in 1964 was reflected in the operation of Canal Station. The facility was converted exclusively to a bus depot and service center. In 1964, NOPSI altered the Canal Street face of the complex through the construction of a facade in front of Buildings 1 and 2. Bay openings on the side facades of the carbarns were infilled. Four years later, NOPSI initiated new construction at the Canal Street site. The existing storeroom/dressing room infill structure located between Buildings 1 and 2 was removed and replaced by a structure containing a toilet and locker room, a tire room, a repair shop, an inspection store room, an A & T storeroom and A & T office, a radio room, and another office. Doorways, providing access between Building 1, the infill structure, and Building 2, were cut in the party walls of the carbarns to facilitate interior circulation in the new complex.

NOPSI retained ownership of the city's public transportation operations until the Regional Transit Authority acquired its operation in 1983. In 1991, RTA proposed reestablishing streetcar service on Canal Street by 1996. The estimated cost of the project was $65 million and included the construction of a new terminal at the City Park Avenue terminus of the line, on the neutral ground of Canal Street.

Canal Station, including Building 1 and Building 2, will be removed to accommodate the construction of a new transit storage and administration facility. Documentation of the buildings to the standards of the Historic American Engineering Record prior to demolition was prescribed as a stipulation of a project Memorandum of Agreement negotiated between the Federal Transit Administration, the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office, the Regional Transit Authority, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to mitigate removal of the structures. This documentation was undertaken by R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates, Inc. on behalf of the Regional Transit Authority in partial fulfillment of that agreement.