The Red Cars route to downtown Los Angeles. The subway tunnel.
Picture Los Angeles today, and most people summon up images of cars and freeways. But if you talk to people of a certain age who grew up in Los Angeles, and mention the words “red cars”, you will hear about a time before the freeways, when a network of rail lines and electric streetcars connected L.A., Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. They reached their peak in popularity in the 1920s, then slowly fell victim to Angelenos’ love of their automobiles. By the time the last Red Car was retired from service in 1961, only rail hobbyists expressed much regret. But in the years since, fond memories, and perhaps freeway gridlock, have made the Red Cars more than just a forgotten bit of L.A. history. As the new Metro Green, Red, and Blue lines now follow routes often very close to those once traveled by the old Red Car lines, this seems an opportune time to stop and remember what once was the premiere means of getting around southern California.
The first streetcar system in L.A. dates back to 1874, when Judge Robert M. Widney convinced his neighbors in the vicinity of Third and Hill Streets (then considered the sticks) that they needed a convenient way to get to the business section of the city. A single-track railroad stretched for 2 1/2 miles from the Mission Plaza down Main and Spring Streets to Sixth Street. Subsequent horse-drawn streetcar systems were developed in other growing communities like Pasadena, Ontario, Santa Monica, and San Bernardino. A portion of the L.A. system along Pico Street was electrified in 1887, and expanded in 1890.