Facebook Page

By Jack M. Turner

A familiar feeling swept over me as my wife and I stepped inside New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal on Wednesday, June 15 to board the City of New Orleans headed to Chicago.  Our ultimate destination, Seattle, was a three night journey away and we looked forward to seeing outlying parts of the Pacific Northwest that we had missed on previous trips.  The familiarity with the New Orleans station was in part due to multiple visits through the years but mostly stemmed from having stood in the same place this past February when boarding Amtrak’s Gulf Coast Inspection Train bound for Jacksonville.  Interestingly, a part of that train and I would cross paths at the tail end of this trip.

The drive from our north Florida home to New Orleans dictated an overnight stopover outside the Crescent City but close enough to allow a leisurely drive on train departure day.  A friend whom I  met on the Gulf Coast trip suggested the Bay Town Inn in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi and his recommendation was right on target.  The inn is a charming property located right across the main city street from a St. Louis Bay marina with a clear view of the CSX bridge crossing the bay.  Our suite was decorated in a beach motif and came complete with a kitchenette, front porch, and inviting sitting and bed rooms. The swimming pool was welcoming on a hot summer day and oak lined sidewalks following the bayfront were perfect for an evening stroll.  With popular local restaurants adjacent, going to dinner did not even require a car.


Bay Town Inn, Bay St. Louis, MS exudes southern charm


The pool and suites at the Bay Town Inn


The kitchen and living room of our Bay Town Inn suite


A westbound CSX freight train crosses St. Louis Bay a block from our hotel

Seeing Bay St. Louis up close and personal was an objective of this writer as its citizenry tuned out en masse for the 1993 Sunset Limited inaugural when Amtrak began service along the Gulf Coast to Florida.  After Hurricane Katrina roared ashore in August 2005, rail passenger service to the region was suspended and just recently the light began to shine at the end of the tunnel as Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission partnered to survey the route in hopes of resuming service in the next three years.  I was uncertain what my tour of the town would reveal as Katrina had devastated the area, washing away the original bed and breakfast inn located where the Bay Town Inn today stands leaving owner Nikki Moon and neighbors clinging to the top of a tree to survive.  This survival trait obviously lives on in many area residents who have restored their community to the beautiful place that it is.  It was, in fact, Nikki who was instrumental in drumming up support for the huge crowd that greeted the inspection train in February to the amazement of officials aboard the special run.

Hancock County tourism official Jane Byrne picked me up and gave me an excellent tour of the town starting with a visit to St. Rose de Lima church which featured a magnificent alter made of driftwood.  From there we took a look at the stadium where Doc Blanchard, the first junior to win college football’s Heisman Trophy in the early 1940s, played high school football.  We then drove past buildings used in the 1966 movie “This Property is Condemned” which starred Robert Redford and Natalie Wood and featured the railroad prominently.  The movie includes scenes filmed aboard passenger trains as well as shots of the depot, railway bridge, and surrounding area including many buildings that stand today.  Next we visited the historic railway depot served for decades by Louisville & Nashville passenger trains and later by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited.  The lobby of the depot contained an impressive exhibit of Mardi Gras costumes used in the annual celebration in Bay St. Louis as well as a locally focused railroad exhibit.  Upstairs an excellent art gallery featuring the works of local folk artist Alice Moseley is open to the public as is the Hancock County Visitors Center.  The railway platform stands ready to welcome Amtrak back but until then visitors may watch passing CSX freight trains as I did during my tour of the station.  Indeed Bay St. Louis and the Bay Town Inn is a great place to visit for a taste of life along the Gulf, a quiet getaway, and train watching on a busy CSX main line, all just a short rental car drive from New Orleans.


The Bay St. Louis train station remains busy and is ready for Amtrak’s return


Mardi Gras costumes are displayed in the railway station waiting room


An eastbound CSX freight passes the Bay St. Louis depot

Upon reaching New Orleans we spotted the iconic street cars that run along St. Charles Avenue as well as the Canal Street line, and the new route along Loyola Avenue which passes the Holiday Inn Superdome where I stayed before the Gulf Coast trip in February.  That hotel is an excellent place to stay when visiting New Orleans, especially before catching the early morning Crescent or Sunset Limited. 


The St. Charles Avenue streetcar line is a New Orleans icon and worth a ride

The City of New Orleans was ready for boarding shortly after 1:00pm and we settled into roomettes 3 and 4 in sleeping car 32037 which was cool and comfortable on a hot, humid day.  Using two roomettes proved a great choice throughout our trip as this allowed ample legroom compared to a shared roomette and avoided either of us having to sleep in tight quarters in the upper bed in either a roomette or bedroom.


Train # 58 The City of New Orleans prepares to depart from New Orleans

The on-time departure at 1:45pm was followed a half hour later by the passage of the southbound City of New Orleans as a jet departing from the international airport passed over the train on its takeoff.  Shortly crossing the edge of Lake Pontchartrain provided one of the trip’s scenic highlights revealing views of the huge lake, waterfowl, and the parallel I-55 bridge.  Beyond the north end of the lake train # 58 crossed Pass Manchac, a typical Louisiana setting featured in Illinois Central publicity shots in the 1960s. 


Lake Pontchartrain and I-55 seen from my roomette window


Marine facilities located at Pass Machac

Station stops in Hammond, LA and McComb, MS preceded a brief stop at the attractive new looking brick station in Brookhaven at 4:20pm.  Our early dinner seating was called as we approached Jackson just after 5:00pm.  While dining I noted that the Kansas City Southern line from Meridian joins the Canadian National (ex-Illinois Central) line used by the City of New Orleans south of town and branches off for Shreveport and Dallas just north of the station.  This would facilitate the routing of the proposed Dallas to Meridian connection to the Crescent that is under study.  Our meals, meanwhile, tasted fine but lacked in presentation as well as offering limited choice of entree as the City of New Orleans menu differs from that used on other long distance trains.


An old structure standing beside the railroad at McComb, MS


The City of New Orleans menu


Christine prepares to eat dinner on the City of New Orleans

The northern Mississippi part of the route took us past countless trees, a number of agricultural fields, and through the edge of a storm that produced a great deal of lightning to the east.  Our pleasant car attendant Tony prepared our rooms for the night as requested prior to Memphis then we observed arrival in that city at 9:55pm.  Shortly after our departure 45 minutes later I dozed off into dreamland, waking as we pulled out of Effingham, IL at 5:17am.  Another hour of sleep was interrupted by my alarm clock as we needed to head to the dining car for breakfast before the announced cutoff time of 7:30.  Only a continental breakfast was served and, though sufficient, it was not the equivalent of a hot cooked breakfast offered on most other overnight trains.


The train pauses at Greenwood, MS in early evening


The station in Kankakee, IL seen during breakfast

The morning sun revealed miles of healthy cornfields interspersed with small communities as we made our way through the heart of Illinois.  Highway traffic appeared light on parallel US 49 to our east and I-57 on the distant left.  The dining car was not especially busy, perhaps the byproduct of train 58 having but one full sleeper and a transition sleeper along with three coaches and a Sightseer lounge car.  One could expect a busier train if service between Florida and New Orleans resumes in the future as that would reopen a market that currently does not exist.

The southern suburbs of Chicago flashed past and we traversed the St. Charles Air Line route along the south side of the city then backed into Union Station at 9:02am, only two minutes late.  We checked into the first class Metropolitan Lounge one last time before it was relocated from its long-time location, left our luggage in the check room, and set out for a stroll around the Loop.  In a few hours we would depart for Seattle.


Chicago’s skyline seen as the City of New Orleans traverses the St. Charles Air Line


A last visit to the old Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago Union Station


Bay Town Inn, Bay St. Louis, MS 

Hancock County/Bay St. Louis, MS Tourism

New Orleans Streetcars

Holiday Inn New Orleans Downtown/Superdome

Other reports by Jack Turner:

Next Page: