The Pontchartrain Railroad: Louisiana's First Railroad

In 1831, the third common carrier railroad opened in the United States, following the B&O Railroad in 1828 and the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company in 1830, which operated the first scheduled passenger train. This railroad would service the bustling city of New Orleans, Louisiana, connecting the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain along a roughly six mile route.

It's hard to understand just how new railroad technology was at this time, as while New Orleans wanted a railroad, the initial construction of the railroad perplexed its builders, most of whom had yet to see one operate. "Many problems confronted the builders; few of them had ever seen a railroad, and none had any but vague ideas about the construction and operation of one. Perplexing questions had to be solved. Were the coaches to be furnished with springs? Were iron or wooden rails to be used? Were the swamps over which the line was to run to be bridged or the land to be filled in for a permanent roadbed?" (FHWA)

In some spots, the swampy character of the Louisiana swampland required four feet of dirt fill to create a sufficient roadbed for the line. 

Pontchartrain Rail-Road in its early years, depicting a 4-2-0 locomotive and carriages, "Milneburg Train. Ponchartrain Railroad 5 mile line from Elysian Fields Street to the Shore of Lake Ponchartrain at Milneburg." (Louisiana State University Collection)

The line's beginning used horsepower for traction as opposed to the newly-developed steam engine, which would begin taking over animal power the following year in 1832, although both were used until the 1860's. The steam engine(s) would eventually be nicknamed "Smoky Mary", for the soot and steam they would billow out while running the route.

As steam engines became more reliable and animal power became less common, eventually the route would run 7 round trips a day along the line, serving mostly cargo in its early life, which slowly changed to serving mostly passengers by the latter part of the 19th century. 

"At the Milneburg Terminus, Boudro’s Restaurant: Boudro's Restaurant and Gardens was one of the first and most popular resorts, flourishing for decades from the ridership of The Pontchartrain Railroad. Built in 1830 and burned down in 1865, this is the immediately rebuilt Boudro's in the background of Smoky Mary's tracks." (Image and context via New Orleans Historical)

A c.1860's shot of the Pontchartrain Railroad near Milneburg on Lake Pontchartrain. Image: Tammamy Family Blog

The line ran around present-day Elysian Fields Av from near the New Orleans French Quarter at the neighborhood known as Faubourg Marigny northward to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain at Milneburg Lighthouse. 

Map of New Orleans, 1863, showing the very straight Pontchartrain Railroad, highlighted with a red arrow.
The railroad continued to run throughout the Civil War, and was purchased by the New Orleans Mobile & Texas Railroad in 1871, which itself was purchased by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad 9 years later. The Civil War would mark the turning point from the line as mainly focused on cargo and more focused on passengers, as new ports sprung up around the city, making the Milneburg area on Lake Pontchartrain less important for this purpose.

"Milneburg" Railroad. Image: Tammamy Family Blog

Like many railroads after the turn of the 20th century, its fortunes began to decline and competition from automobiles began in earnest, especially as the Milneburg Resort began to decline in popularity.

A 1927 photo of the L&N Tracks near Milneburg from the Orleans Levee Board. This was at present-day Elysian Fields and Allen Toussaint Blvd. (NOLA History Guy)

The Pontchartrain Line would nonetheless soldier on past World War I, although the last passengers would use the line in 1932, when service along the route was replaced by buses on Elysian Fields Av. A few more years of freight runs would continue, but by 1935 the line was abandoned. 

Even today, a notably large gap in the boulevard that is Elysian Fields exists where the route used to run:

Google Maps Satellite Image of Elysian Fields Av.

Thanks as always for reading!


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