THE BIG RED CARS

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.

Starting in 1894 Moses Sherman and Eli Clark began acquiring the various cities’ horse-car and cable-car systems, eventually forming the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway. One of the new company’s first project was the University Line, which included the University of Southern California. Until this time, all the systems had operated within cities. But in 1895 the first intercity line opened; an electric rail line that linked Pasadena and Los Angeles. This intercity line was such a huge success that others soon followed: by 1896 tracks ran from Los Angeles through what would one day be Beverly Hills, Hollywood to Santa Monica.

In 1898, financial difficulties forced Sherman and Clark to give up control of their company. A group of investors, including Collis Huntington, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and his nephew Henry Huntington took over control of the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway. This period also marked the birth of “Red Cars”. prior to Huntington’s takeover, the trolley cars had been olive colored, trimmed in yellow.

Henry Huntington, seeing an opportunity to move in on the still small public transportation market in southern California, began buying land in growing areas not yet reached by existing public transportation. In 1901 he established the Pacific Electric Railway to handle these holdings. Pacific Electric took over the Los Angeles-Pasadena interurban line, then built a new line to Long Beach in 1902. By 1914, you could go from downtown L.A. to San Bernardino, Santa Ana, San Pedro or San Fernando. Pacific Electric offered low cost trips to a variety of southern California destinations. The Old Mission trip went to San Gabriel Mission, Pasadena, Busch Gardens then back to L.A. The Mount Lowe trolley, which was a narrow-gauge cable car ride to the top of Echo Mountain. The Balloon Route ran from downtown through Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Redondo Beach and back to L.A. via Culver City. The Triangle Trolley went to San Pedro, Long Beach and south to Balboa, then east to Santa Ana and back to L.A.

By the 1920s, as the popularity of automobiles increased, service to some communities was discontinued as tracks were paved over, and the trains had to yield their high speed right of ways to traffic crossings. Lack of public support defeated plans for a subway or elevated rail system, and bus lines began to replace the red cars in many areas.

World War II brought a brief resurgence in popularity to rail travel, and the refurbishing of some lines, in fact ridership numbers hit an all-time high in 1944. But by the 1950s it was clear that the automobile had become the premier means of travel in L.A. In 1953, Pacific Electric handed over control of the bus lines and the red car lines to Metropolitan Coach Lines, and then in 1958, the newly created Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority took over both bus and rail passenger service in southern California. The explosive growth and sprawl of L.A. in the postwar years, lack of public money to keep up the existing lines, the huge increase in automobiles and the freeways that were built to accommodate them all conspired to kill the red cars. By 1959 only the Los Angeles to Long Beach trolley line remained, and on April 8, 1961 it, too, ceased operation.

At its peak, the Pacific Electric Railway was huge: 1,150 miles of track covering four counties and 900 cars. 1944 marked the highest ridership: over 109 million passengers.

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