The Underground Brewery Stories about brewing beer and train traveling from Tom Coughlin

July 24, 2012

Private RR car trip: Dover Harbor to New Orleans (April, 2010)

Filed under: — Tom @ 11:45 am

[A version of this story appeared in the Summer 2010 edition of Private Varnish]

Meg Waiting for NJ Transit in PJC

Meg waits for Waiting for NJ Transit in PJC (Princeton Junction, NJ) Amtrak stops here a few times a day, unfortunately the long distance trains don’t.

On Thursday morning, April 29, 2010, Meg and I started out on our New Orleans Jazz Fest trip by traveling to Washington, DC by Amtrak coach. I dropped Meg off with our traveling bags at the southbound platform at Princeton Junction around 11 a.m., drove the car back to the house and was able to walk back to PJC in about 10 minutes. The automatic announcement system at the station was declaiming that trains were 10 minutes late, and across the track from us,  NJTransit trains seemed to be showing up at strange intervals on the northbound track. At 11:30 we caught a local commuter train to Trenton, where we waited for a delayed Washington DC train.

The Amtrak train rolled in about 45 minutes late, which was a harbinger of more trouble to come with this particular train. Things started going downhill after Philadelphia. Several times the engine died, the lights went out, and the train slowly rolled to a full stop in between stations, only to resume travel again after a minute or two.  Mindful that the Crescent was running about 20 minutes behind us, Meg and I were getting concerned that the train would quit entirely, and that we’d miss our connection. We made Baltimore more than an hour and a half late. But after that, things improved, and it was a trouble-free 40 minutes to Washington.

As we pulled into WAS, I called Kevin Tankersley on his cell phone to find out where the Dover was parked–it was only nine tracks down from the platform that our train was arriving into. Kevin warned us that the Dover would be very quickly picked up by a switch engine, and that we needed to hurry over, so we made a very quick break to get over to track six. On a typical weekday, this would have taken less than a minute to walk, but today we were stopped three times by various Amtrak employees and asked for identification. Five minutes later, we were onboard the Dover. The car looked great, Kevin was getting dinner ready in the kitchen, and Steward Scarlett Wirt was getting ready for an ice run.

The security at the station was unusually intensive, and a few minutes later, the reason for the intense security knocked on the door–Dr. Jerzy Buzek, the Prime Minister of the European Union Parliament (and also a railfan enjoying a few hours of fun wandering around the station) paid us a visit. Dr. Buzek is a mechanical engineering professor back in Poland, and knew a great deal about railroading and railroad history. We had an enjoyable, but brief chat with him and his escort Jules Jackson (Amtrak President Joseph Boardman’s special assistant). Jim Lilly, our mechanical officer, gave Jerzy a tour of the car. Jerzy wanted to stay, but the switcher was coupling, and we would soon be shunted down to the far side of the station to be attached to the Crescent.

Dover dinner service

Meals aboard the Dover Harbor are a special treat. Silverware is original Pullman stock, and china comes from a special production run that Syracuse China did for the DCNRHS in 1999, using the original artwork and designs that had been in storage in their corporate vault. Add a couple of steaks off the charcoal grill, and it’s 1931, all over again.

Once on the road, Amtrak’s timekeeping improved–we left Washington on time, and promptly picked up passengers Mary, Stephen, Claudia and Jack in Alexandria. Dinner that evening consisted of grilled chicken cooked on the Pullman charcoal grills, with rice pilaf, green beans and corn muffins baked on the car. For dessert, Kevin served strawberry shortcake, Southern Railway style. As we headed southward, the passengers started getting acquainted with each other and collectively reviewing our New Orleans itineraries. Meg and I settled into our berths for the night before the train passed Lynchburg. It was a nice, smooth night on the rails and I slept well in the upper berth.

A passenger stop.

A passenger stop.

I was up early on Friday morning and wandered into the lounge before most of the passengers. Typically, passengers on a New Orleans Dover Harbor trip start to drift into the lounge in the morning as we pause in Atlanta– its a watering stop as well as a smoke break. The air conditioning was running really well and it was very warm outside compared to the inside of the car. Our fellow passenger Steve, who volunteers on the mechanical committee explained that the air conditioning had been upgraded over the winter, and the original DC blower motor and it’s control system painstakingly rebuilt. It seemed to be working well–the car stayed cool and dry for the entire duration of the trip. With no station crew on the ground to service the the train, Jim Lilly flew off the car to add water to our tank. Meg observed one of the Amtrak crewpeople from the diner was outside with a water hose adding water to the Crescent’s dining car.

A heavyweight era Pullman bedroom.

A heavyweight era Pullman bedroom.

It was a perfect day to stand in the vestibule and watch the miles fade into the distance. Mike Martin, the DCNRHS ticket agent had sold himself a ticket for this trip, and was enjoying being a passenger. He and his stepson Brandon took in the view from the rear of the train as we road along.  Lunch was served as we rolled through Alabama– Chicken Salad sandwiches with bowls of Southern Railway style vegetable soup.  Our dinner of braised pork loin with apples and potatoes was served as we approached Lake Ponchartrain. Passengers were enjoying their after-dinner coffees as we rolled into New Orleans.

Upon arrival in New Orleans, the train was wyed, and we were backed into the station. We arrived before 7:30 p.m. and felt well-fed and well-rested, so we immediately leaped off the car and headed in the direction of the French Quarter with our fellow passengers Jack and Claudia. It was damp and overcast, but still there were hundreds of people in town for Jazz Fest wandering around the French Quarter.

Officially, The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is held for six days on the afternoons of two consecutive weekends at the Fair Grounds Race Course, the municipal horse-racing track on the north side of town, however there are literally hundreds of late night shows that are presented at various venues all over town in the evening, after the main performances end for the day. Some of these shows go on at bars and regular nightspots, but there are a few surprising impromptu venues as well (including a funeral parlor and the WWII Museum.) These evening shows are seldom put together more than a few days before, almost never sell out, and provide a unique opportunity to see well-known performers playing long, passionate musical sets well into the morning in an intimate setting.

I had done a little research before our trip, and had an idea where to go, so the four of us wandered down Decatur Street through the French Quarter down to Frenchmen Street, which is located slightly outside the French Quarter in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. After about an hour of walking, we found ourselves at D.B.A., a bar known for an excellent selection of micro-brew beers, and being a venue for unusual musical acts. We got there at the perfect time (around 9 p.m.), and the four of us were lucky to scoop the seats in the snug in the front window of the bar. This seating spot is particularly nice– you can hear the bands playing, and scope out the folks dancing and carrying on at the bar, yet it’s removed from the noise, so our group could have a conversation. We also had a catbird’s seat for the neighborhood’s amazing nightlife, and could watch the revelers out on Frenchmen Street. Jack bought a round of Chimay trippel, which they have on draft, and we settled in for a couple hours of innocent voyeurism–there’s a lot to see in New Orleans. We had a big day planned for Saturday, so we skipped the midnight show and wandered back to the car around 11 p.m. In New Orleans, this is still early in the evening, and we passed large congregations of hedonists and jazz fans on Bourbon Street.

The window Snug at DBA

The window Snug at DBA–perfect place to watch the nightlight and catch the band at the same time.

On Saturday morning, I got dressed early, and headed out in the direction of Canal Street and Claiborne to fetch our rental car at Enterprise Car Rental. The morning walk took me past a host of very large commercial buildings that are still abandoned five years after Katrina. Charity Hospital (one of the oldest hospitals in the nation, and up to the time of Hurricane Katrina, home to one of the busiest emergency rooms in North America) had been closed down shortly after the hurricane, and never reopened– a tall cyclone fence protected the front courtyard and the imposing WPA-era edifice from street vandals. Around the corner, Poydras Center’s main entrance was covered over with sheets of plywood that were starting to look weathered. Up on Canal Street, various small office buildings were shuttered with plywood, and a former gas station entirely removed except for it’s large tower-mounted sign.

Picking up the car, I drove back to the station and picked up Meg. The Dover crew was busily cleaning and picking things up in the car after the trip down, and most of the other passengers had already headed out. Our automobile trip took us northward out of New Orleans over the Ponchitrain causeway and through Hammond and Baton Rouge. West of Baton Rouge, the interstate highway crosses the Mississippi, and ten-mile-long stretches of bayou are bridged with four-lane causeways. West of Baton Rouge is Cajun Country. Our first stop was Breaux Bridge, a quaint little town that is home to an annual crawfish festival and is a center of Cajun culture. Unfortunately for us, the crawfish festival happened to be going on the day we visited, and most of the shops downtown were closed for the day so that the shopkeepers could go to the festival. The town was full of visitors though, and the restaurants were busy. After our visit, we headed west to Lafayette, which is pretty much the county seat of Cajun Country, and home to LSU Lafayette. Driving past the Cajun Dome, we stopped for dinner in Dwight’s, a roadside place with a regional reputation for excellent Cajun food. Our dinner of oysters, catfish and crawfish étouffée was as delightful as it was inexpensive.

After Dwight’s, we were set for a fast drive back to New Orleans. The rain had been threatening all day, and the downpours started as we drove. We were back at the Dover Harbor around 7 p.m., and took a quick walk into town in the misty rain for coffee and Beignets at Cafe Du Mond. After that we, headed back to the car and settled in for the evening before the station was locked up for the night. For security purposes, and out of safety concerns for passengers waiting overnight for very early morning train departures, Amtrak locks the station at 10 p.m., allowing passengers already in the station to occupy the waiting room overnight. In the case of private car passengers, Kevin had given a list of our names to the security staff, and we were allowed to enter at any time, but needed to show ID at the door.

Sunday was the wettest day of our visit with a misty rain falling most of the day. Undaunted, most of the Dover passengers headed up Canal St. to the Jazz Festival in the morning. Meg and I were all set to trod over to Canal Street in our raincoats and umbrella, however as we crossed the roadway immediately outside the station, a gentleman who must have been in his seventies driving in an old Ford Tempo stopped and asked us if we were going up to Jazz Fest, and adamantly offered us a ride.  Meg and I felt that the situation was harmless, and he was insistent on being helpful, so we took him up on his offer. He turned out to be an interesting guy– a former high school basketball coach and radio sportscaster who had spend his life in New Orleans and spoke with that amazing New Orleans accent. He pointed out the sights to us as we drove uptown, and gave us a detailed background history on the evolution of Jazz Fest. Glancing at his dashboard, we noticed that he was out of gas and that his warning light had come on, but he insisted that he could make it up the festival grounds with us, and find a gas station before he would completely run out.

Up at the Jazz Fest, an aggregation of large tents and truck trailers had put into service to convert the horse racing track into a nine-stage music venue for the two-weekend festival. We handed our e-ticket day passes to the gatekeeper for scanning, and wandered in. It was rainy and dreary, but there were nonetheless a few thousand hearty music lovers wandering around–some in raincoats and ponchos, others drenched and muddy. Meg and I watched a modern jazz performance and stuck our noses into the gospel music tent where a large and loud choral ensemble performed. The humidity and dampness was starting to get uncomfortable, so we settled in for a couple of cooking exhibitions being put on hourly by local restaurants, that was presented inside one of the permanent buildings. One presenter, Elizabeth’s on Chartres Street, demonstrated cornbread waffles with sweet potato and duck hash and pecan bacon. The food was hypnotic–one sample and we were hooked. We immediately hatched a plan to include a visit to their restaurant that evening.

The rain was abating and we were getting uncomfortable from the dampness and the heat, so we decided to make a break for it. We walked back to the trolley line on Canal Street, and rode downtown to the transfer point with St. Charles Avenue streetcar line. By the time we got downtown, it was starting to rain again, so we decided to ride out the downpour by going out the end of the line in Carrollton, It rained really hard. I had never realized this before, but the historic St. Charles cars do no have windshield wipers. The motorman had to open the window in front of him so he could see clearly when he crossed congested intersections. The tracks were slippery, and the car had run though it’s traction sand, so it slipped and skidded noisily as it accelerated away from stops.

An hour and a half later we had completed our circuit, and were back again at the French Quarter. The rain had abated again, and Meg and I were looking forward to going to Elizabeth’s, the restaurant that had swept us off our feet at Jazz Fest with their pecan-encrusted bacon. We started walking down Chartres Street past the French Quarter, through Faubourg Marigny, and then into Bywater. This area of town was spared much of the flooding damage from Katrina, and was resettled relatively quickly during the post-Katrina reconstruction. It’s a trendy neighborhood these days, and home to a new artist’s loft complex and art center. We passed Piety and Desire Streets and arrived at the restaurant only to find it closed. (We had talked with the owner earlier in the day and unfortunately they misspoke regarding their Sunday hours. The kitchen staff was there working, but they weren’t serving food.) Meg was disappointed to say the least–she was looking forward to something involving well-cooked root vegetables and pork fat.

We weren’t too far from Frenchmen street, so we wandered back to the edge of the French Quarter, and had a light dinner at the Marigny Grill. After which, it had started raining again but it was starting to be time for the evening shows so we went down a few doors to D.B.A. who presents live swing dancing music every Sunday night. Tonight was a little strange: the Tin Men, a New Orleans based three-member band that plays jug stomper blues on guitar, sousaphone and washboard percussion played Fats Waller tunes while the usual Sunday night swing dancers tried as best as they could to dance to it. It wasn’t half bad, it was strange to look at however. At midnight, guitarist Anders Osborne, drummer Stanton Moore, and Hammond Organ virtuoso Robert Walter joined onstage for a very impressive set. Meg and I got seats in the snug in the front window and had a great time watching the very offbeat people promenading on Frenchmen Street. We got in a few minutes before the cover charge collector had set up for the night, so our evening out, including about four hours of live music and a couple of beers came to about $40. I ran into a famous old school rocker wearing a tuxedo, with his long white hair in a ponytail. I still can’t figure out who he is. I am constantly amazed by the quality of musicianship in New Orleans. It’s almost as if you have to pass an audition before they let you move in. Famous and non-famous performers; blues, jazz, rock, whatever–everywhere we went, the music was very, very good.

Only one TV at DBA

Only one TV at DBA

We stayed out late Sunday night. The music was good, but more than that, it started raining really hard around 10 p.m. and wouldn’t let up. Finally around 1 a.m. we made a break for it, and quickly trotted back to the station in about 20 minutes. The station guard once again checked our IDs before letting us into the locked-up station, which was nonetheless occupied by probably about 70 people waiting for the early departure of Monday morning’s Crescent.

On Monday morning, Meg and I were a little groggy from our late night on Frenchmen Street. I drove Chef Kevin over to Rouse’s Market for a morning shopping trip, and by the time we got back, Meg was ready to go out for lunch. Monday was our official big foodie day of the trip with lunch and dinner at top restaurants. Conveniently situated in the Warehouse District about eight blocks from the train station, La Cochon provided a delightful Cajun lunch. The food critic at the New York Times is enraptured with this place, and writes about it frequently (most recently, the week prior to our visit), which meant that it was difficult to get a reservation. They were moderately busy for a Monday lunchtime crowd. People were turning over very quickly, and despite the place being pretty much packed, there were some folks just wandering in off the street getting seated. There was a convention at the exhibition center down at the riverfront, and attendees were stopping in for a quick bite. A few blocks to our east, New Orleans’s new mayor was being inaugurated, and the large temporary bleachers required the St. Charles streetcars to be short turned at Lee Circle using some seldom-used parking tracks.

After lunch, we took off in our rental car and headed out to Jefferson Parish to explore some antique malls. We didn’t make any big finds, but it was sunny and dry, and we had a nice drive through the Garden District. After antiquing, we had some additional shopping to do for Chef Kevin, pick up some pralines at Southern Candymakers, and return the rental car. The driver of the Enterprise car rental hotel shuttle was very obliging to drop us off in front of Irene’s Cuisine in the French Quarter, our dinner foodie stop.

Irene’s is one of the old-guard restaurants in the French Quarter, but unlike Antoine’s and Tujague’s, their orientation is more toward Italian than old-school French cooking. This is the place to go if you like roasted duck– the know how to cook it, and give you a generous portion. Their cheesecake is unique: fresh and packed with mascarpone and loose, runny Cajun cream cheese, which contributes to a creamy, buoyant and zesty cake. After Irene’s, Meg and I enjoyed another leisurely stroll through the French Quarter. The weather was sunny and we had a great time browsing the art galleries on Royal Street. On the way back, we cut through the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel to see the renovations there. The hotel had been recently taken over by the Hilton chain and is part of their Waldorf Astoria collection of historical properties. The bar and coffee shop were busy, the interiors were rehabilitated with new marble floors recently installed. From there, we walked back to the train station. While we were out, the Dover had been taken to the shop and had been inspected, had its retention tanks dumped and its water tanks refilled. Kevin, Jim and Scarlett had spent the afternoon getting the car cleaned and readied for the return trip in the morning– they were expecting some first time riders who had purchased a pair of Dover Harbor tickets in a charity auction to be joining us. Meg and I sat and chatted with our fellow passengers in the lounge for a while before going to bed.

On Tuesday morning, we slept in a bit. The train was well underway before we woke up. As the Crescent passed Slidell, Meg and I wandered into the lounge and enjoyed our bacon potato frittatas that Kevin had kept warm for us.

Kevin Tankersely in the kitchen

Kevin Tankersely in the kitchen. Kevin has been a fixture in the private car world for more than 20 years, and is equally at ease serving as chef as he is as tour promoter and director of operations on a PV. Away from the railroad, he’s a landscape architect in Northern Virginia.


Lunch was served as we passed Tuscaloosa: shrimp salad with cocktail sauce. Once again, the Crescent was running ahead of schedule and was making long station stops in order not to leave intermediate stations early. At Birmingham, I got off the car and wandered the station for a bit to stretch my legs. At the Atlanta station, Jim had plenty of time to water the car, and Kevin and Scarlett served dinner. (Serving food is much easier on a railroad car that is not moving.) Our dinner consisted of a steak spiral with prosciutto and provolone, which was served with potato and carrot salad. Kevin served a bread pudding that he had made on the car for dessert. People were pretty tired after the trip–it seemed like most of the passengers had been walking for miles each day while in New Orleans, along with staying up late and getting up early. We all were in bed pretty early that night, and slept through the Carolinas and much of Virginia.  Breakfast on the last day of our trip was served as we rode through Culpepper, Virginia and  consisted of blueberry pancakes and sausage patties. Once again, we were ahead of schedule and passenger luggage was starting to accumulate in the lounge close to the vestibule door as people prepared for their arrival. Arriving at Washington Union Terminal before 10 a.m., Meg and I were able to change our 12:30 p.m. Amtrak tickets to New Jersey to an earlier train, and were back home again before 3 p.m.

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