Good times on L&N’s ‘Riviera’

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, July 19, 2019

Louisville & Nashville E6 diesels lead the eastbound Azalean across a swing bridge at Pascagoula, Miss., in May 1963. Such water crossings abound on L&N's route along the Gulf Coast. J. Parker Lamb, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection
Of all the possible expansions of Amtrak service, perhaps the one that appeals to me most is returning passenger trains to the delightful section of former Louisville & Nashville main line that stretches along the Gulf Coast from New Orleans 160 miles east to Mobile, Ala.

I’ve never ridden this piece of railroad. I missed my chance when the triweekly Sunset Limited, which had pushed past New Orleans all the way to Orlando, was suspended after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But I’ve driven along this seaside line several times and it’s loaded with potential. Funky beach towns and tourist cities, mostly in Mississippi — Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Pascagoula — are strung along it like pearls, the very definition of a corridor.

As Trains’ Bob Johnston reported a few days ago, Amtrak and CSX are beginning to figure out how a new service of twice-daily corridor trains might work. The proposal even won a $33 million federal grant related to infrastructure improvement. The state of Alabama is balking at the idea over concerns about port interference in Mobile, but supporters sound optimistic.

The people pushing for Gulf Coast trains need look back no further than the 1950s and ’60s for inspiration. Back in the day, the L&N offered excellent service with a mix of fragrantly named overnight trains and day-coach locals. “Revel in the sunshine on the Gulf Coast,” heralded an old L&N ad. “Say goodbye to winter and hello to spring!”

L&N's eastbound Humming Bird arrives at Biloxi, Miss., circa 1965, not long after a modern metal depot replaced a decrepit old wooden structure here. Jim Roberts
L&N historian Ron Flanary recalls that era fondly. “The L&N always knew it had a gold mine for passenger traffic along its route south of Montgomery, through Mobile, and down to New Orleans. It was advertised as ‘America’s Riviera,’” Ron told me. 

In the postwar years, a dozen total through trains ran along the beaches, among them the Cincinnati–New Orleans Pan-American, the Azalean, and the Humming Bird, which for a time included a Chicago section via C&EI. The Pan-American was the most famous of the bunch, but the others shared the L&N’s genteel traditions.

There was also the Jacksonville–New Orleans Gulf Wind, which was combined with or split off from other mainline trains at Flomaton, Ala. The route east from there ran through Pensacola to Chattahoochee, Fla., then via Seaboard Air Line to Jacksonville.“During the ’60s the train was noted for using the two double-bedroom-lounge-buffet-observation cars Royal Street and Royal Canal, two of the L&N’s cars built for the Crescent when it was first streamlined in 1950,” Ron recalls. “It was a classy little streamliner and lasted as a triweekly train until Amtrak.”

For years the L&N even ran a limited commuter operation along the coast. The last iteration was a three-car train between Pass Christian and New Orleans that remained in the timetable until 1964.

The L&N route east out of New Orleans once featured commuter trains. Here, a Pacific waits at the old Canal Street station to depart with a run to Ocean Springs, Miss., in 1951. J. Parker Lamb, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection
“The L&N was mostly considered a ‘Kentucky’ railroad in the minds of those familiar with the company, but its operations and influence were much more significant throughout the South,” Ron explains. “And despite the extreme southern location of the company’s main along the Gulf Coast, it was just as much ‘The Old Reliable’ there as it was in Corbin, Ky.”

It’s also always been a challenging railroad, for L&N then and CSX now. There are countless causeways and bridges along the way, including lift and swing spans over all navigable waterways. Most impressive are the impossibly long spans at Bay St. Louis and Biloxi, stretching across open water for a mile or more, with through-truss swing bridges in the center.

Sometimes even the coastal wildlife gets in the way. “Instead of hitting groundhogs, raccoons, and possums, it was alligators ending their lives daily on the pilot of an E-unit on the Humming Birdor some other train,” says Ron.

That Gulf Coast influence extended to L&N’s dining cars. “The L&N’s food service was quite good, and they featured two major items system-wide: the Kentucky country ham breakfast, and the Gulf Coast Seafood platter,” recalls Ron. “The only time I got the seafood platter was on the southbound Pan-American somewhere around Birmingham. It was a selection of just about everything, all deep fried, and delicious. I couldn’t finish my platter.”

In this era of lowest-common-denominator food on Amtrak, it’s probably too much to hope that anything like the Gulf Coast Seafood Platter will be served again. But at least we might get the trains back, slicing through the palmettos and along the beaches amid sea breezes. Cross your fingers. 

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