Behind the Scenes:
An interview with lecturer and author Earl W. Hampton Jr
Earl Hampton fell in love with the New Orleans streetcars at an early age. From riding them all over town as a youngster to photographing them and recording their history, he compiled a massive amount of what was to become historical documentation of a transit system which has had ups and downs since the mid-60s. Chronicling the wide swings in popularity of this light-rail system – from its near demise to its vibrant comeback – has been his passion.
He is the author of the book titled “The Streetcars of New Orleans: 1964 – Present” published by Pelican Press in Gretna, Louisiana. In addition to providing a decade by decade discussion of the streetcars, the book also delves into collecting streetcar memorabilia such as transfers, tokens, and postcards.
“930 – A streetcar Named Disaster
On April 13, 1970 car 930 had a date with disaster at the corner of Foucher and St Charles. While slowing to a stop at Foucher, a problematic tree branch caught the rope and caused the pole on 930 to jump. A few feet further, the pole was hung up in one of the cross arms that hold the trolley wire in place. The motion of the car pulled everything forward until the wire reached the breaking point and a live 600-volt wire landed on 930’s roof, causing a dead short.” – – – – excerpt from “The Streetcars of New Orleans: 1964 – Present”
Hub: What sparked your interest in streetcars?
Earl: When I was in 7th grade, I attended Prytania Private School for a year and befriended a boy named Toby who collected transfers. I started to do the same and learned about our great city by riding buses and streetcars to get different line transfers for my collection. I started riding the St. Charles line a lot and fell in love with our streetcars.
Hub: Why write the book?
Earl: Louis Hennick was my mentor, who wrote the first book on streetcars: “Streetcars of New Orleans: 1835-1965.” I had always thought about doing a follow up work to continue his legacy. I was encouraged by my significant-other, Lillian, who helped me tremendously. Without her help, the book would not have been written; she got me going. Also my book is not like the first. Instead, it a life story of how much fun it was to grow up as a streetcar fan in New Orleans.
Hub: How is your book different from Hennick’s book?
Earl: Hennick’s book is very impersonal, mostly data and photos. I broke mine down by decades and basically told a story of what happened to our streetcars over the years through my eyes.
Hub: How did you research the information for your book?
Earl: I lived it. From 1964 up until today I documented everything that happened concerning our streetcars.
Hub: After all your research was done, how long did it take to write the book?
Earl: It took about a year to put this together. I started in July of 2004, finished the book, and submitted it to Pelican Press August 25, 2005. We all know what happened 3 days later – Hurricane Katrina. So Pelican gave it back to me and I added a Katrina chapter, resubmitting it in 2008. It was published two years later.
Hub: Was there really a streetcar named Desire?
Earl: Absolutely. Desire was a real streetcar line discontinued in 1948. It was made famous in 1951 by the movie of the same name. It’s too late now to put the line back. However when Rampart is done, which will connect Elysian Fields to Riverfront line, one will be able to do what Blanche (heroine of the movie, playing opposite Marlon Brando) did: get to Elysian Fields and Royal via streetcar. Now will the transit authority have enough sense to mark it Desire? Dunno . . .
Hub: You mentioned the Rampart St line: Any thoughts on it?
Earl: Paraphrasing a quote from Mayor Mitch Landrieu: “It’s a big red box on a rail going nowhere . . .” Of course that is taken out of context. He continued by saying that like the Loyola line it would spur development. Rampart St is a continuation of Loyola Ave and the new line will run from Elysian Fields to Union Passenger Terminal. However looking at a bigger picture: UPT to the airport – – the entire length of Elysian Fields from the Mississippi River to the University of New Orleans at Lake Pontchartrain – – – St. Claude Ave to Poland Ave: that makes more sense. Just takes time.
Hub: What’s the story on Car 29?
Earl: Built in 1896, it’s still in use today – after 118 years! It ran until the 20s as a passenger car. When the larger cars came to be, a few of these single truck cars were used as maintenance cars. 29 is the only survivor. I actually got to ride 29 in 1988 with the opening of the Riverfront line.
Hub: Do you have a favorite streetcar story?
Tough choices here: Maybe the opening of the new Canal line. I could not sleep that night. Lillian told me to get out of here and go ride the first car. I got there about 3 a.m. and already there were too many people. An effort was made to keep it organized by handing out numbers. I got number 57. “So maybe,” I thought to myself, “I’ll get on.”
The car pulls up and stops short of the person holding the number 1 ticket and picks up a family. Complaints were made, but NORTA (New Orleans Regional Transit Authority) police said, “This ain’t nuttin’ special.” (Was he crazy?) The first car goes off not even full, but I got to ride the second car with lots of dignitaries.
But my real accomplishment was riding the first car on NORTH Carrollton Avenue. That was more important. No trouble riding that car. It was a fun-filled day. I went home, caught a few hours sleep, and went back out riding all the rest of the day.
Earl also co-wrote “Streetcar Guide to New Orleans”. This compendium is a self-guided tour – while riding on the streetcars – through some of the oldest and most historic neighborhoods in the city of New Orleans. It’s liberally sprinkled with pictures and descriptions of some of the iconic images of the Crescent City.