What is the correct spelling for the Smoky (Smokey) Mary?
The first reference to the train — officially the Pontchartrain Railroad — was spelled Smoky Mary. But since then it has been spelled both ways, so you can take your pick. Either way, this little railroad played a big part in New Orleans history for about 101 years.
The Pontchartrain Railroad — the second railroad established in the United States — was chartered on Jan. 20, 1830, when workmen began to fill in the swamps that bordered the city on several sides. On April 23, 1931, a line of wooden cars was drawn along the rails by horses on a track that ran almost five miles from the Mississippi River along Elysian Fields Avenue and ended in Milneburg (a town on the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain that later became part of New Orleans).
In September 1832, a train engine arrived from Liverpool, England, but folks were skeptical as to whether it would be powerful enough to pull 12 cars loaded with 300 people. A great crowd gathered on the big day. The engine coughed and sputtered, then took off at what one newspaper called the "mad speed" of 15 mph.
It left behind a plume of black smoke a mile long, and someone shouted, "Smoky Mary!" — a name that stuck, even though the first engine was quickly junked.
The railroad initially was a great success because it carried passengers and freight, the latter of which previously had to make a long, slow trip via Bayou St. John. The railroad company purchased the Milneburg area at Lake Pontchartrain from philanthropist Alexander Milne and transformed it into a popular resort that included the Washington Hotel, bathhouses and taverns.
Riding the train proved to be a great adventure. Occasionally a cow that meandered onto the track was sacrificed to progress, but during the time it was in service, no passengers suffered injuries on the train.
There were other problems, however. The tracks were strips of iron bars spiked to crossties of wood. Occasionally they worked loose and sprang upward, piercing the floors of the cars and sometimes throwing the train off the track. Once in a while an engine would conk out, leaving passengers stranded. The crew had a clever solution for that; they hauled out sails, which they used to capture wind and propel the train.
With the advent of automobiles and highways, Smoky Mary became little more than a city landmark. While plans were being made to turn Elysian Fields into a hard-surfaced road for its entire length, the Pontchartrain railroad line was discontinued.
There was great excitement on March 15, 1932, when Smoky Mary made its last run. It seemed that everyone wanted to be a part of the event and crowds jammed the coaches of the old train. Engineer John A. Galivan was the last man to drive the train. He had made the round trip seven times every day for 32 years, except for his two days off each month.
Nothing remains of Smoky Mary today. All the cars and engines were scrapped.