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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Father of SoCal’s First Mass Transit System

By Tom Morrow

One of the most convenient yet controversial bygone public entities in Southern California was known to commuters as “The Red Car.” Long before there were freeways, a complex electric-powered commuter transit system went throughout the Greater Los Angeles area.

The man ultimately responsible for building most of the electric car system was Henry Huntington, nephew of Collis P. Huntington, who was one of the “Big Four” tycoons responsible for building the Central Pacific Railroad – a.k.a. known as The Southern Pacific line.

Electric trolleys first appeared in Los Angeles in 1887. In 1895 the Pasadena & Pacific Railway was created from a merger of the Pasadena and Los Angeles

In 1898, in friendly competition with his uncle’s Southern Pacific, Henry Huntington bought the narrow gauge, city-oriented Los Angeles Railway known colloquially as the ‘Yellow Car’ system. In 1901, Huntington formed the sprawling interurban, standard gauge Pacific Electric Railway (the PE), known as the ‘Red Car’ system, centered at 6th and Main Streets in Los Angeles.

By 1910, the Huntington trolley systems stretched over approximately 1,300 miles of southern California. At its most robust size, the system contained more than 20 streetcar lines and 1,250 trolleys, most running through the core of Los Angeles and serving such nearby neighborhoods as the Crenshaw district, West Adams, Echo Park, Westlake, Hancock Park, Exposition Park, Vernon, Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights; The system integrated the 1902 acquisition, the Mount Lowe Scenic Railway above Altadena in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Steam-powered railroads were one part of the Pacific Electric Railway. Revenue from passenger traffic rarely generated a profit, unlike freight. The real money for the investors was in supplying electric power to new communities and in developing and selling real estate. To get the railways and electricity to their towns, local groups offered the Huntington interests opportunities in local land. Soon Huntington and his partners had significant holdings in the land companies developing Naples, Bay City (Seal Beach), Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Redondo Beach.

The Huntington Mansion, built in 1915 is now the centerpiece of the Huntington Library.

In the pre-automobile era, electric interurban rail was the most economical way to connect outlying suburban and exurban parcels to central cities.

However, by 1920, when most of the company’s holdings had been developed, their major income source began to deplete. Many rural passenger lines were unprofitable, with losses offset by revenue generated from passenger lines in populated corridors and from freight operations. As early as 1925, he least-used Red Car lines were converted to cheaper bus routes.

Huntington’s involvement with urban rail was intimately tied to his real estate development operations. Real estate development was so lucrative for both Huntington and Southern Pacific they could use the Red Car as a losing leader.

In 1927 Henry E. Huntington died in Philadelphia while undergoing surgery. He and his wife, Arabella, are buried with a large monument in the Gardens of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Continuing on, the PE carried increased passenger loads during World War II, when Los Angeles County’s population nearly doubled as war industries concentrated in the region attracting millions of workers..

Aware that most new arrivals planned to stay in the region after the war, local municipal governments, Los Angeles County and the state agreed a massive infrastructure improvement program was necessary. At that time politicians agreed to construct a web of freeways across the region. This was seen as a better solution than a new mass transit system or an upgrade of the PE.

Large-scale land acquisition for new freeway construction began in earnest in 1951. The original four freeways of the area, the Hollywood, Arroyo Seco (formerly Pasadena), Harbor, and San Bernardino, were in use or being completed. Partial completion of the San Bernardino Freeway to Aliso Street near downtown Los Angeles led to traffic chaos when inbound automobiles left the freeway and entered city streets.

For years, even to this day, the demise of the Pacific Electric was thought to have been bought down by General Motors and various rubber companies, all of which stood to sell more of their products from the millions of automobiles traveling on L.A.’s vast freeway system. A 1974 inquiry by the U.S. Senate heard allegations about the role that General Motors and other companies played in the dismantlement of streetcar systems across the United States and in particular in Los Angeles. The investigation became known as the “Great American Streetcar Scandal.” The plot of the 1988 movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” is loosely modeled on the alleged conspiracy to dismantle the streetcar lines in Los Angeles.

For more than a half century a nickel would take you all over most of Southern California’s urban areas, but those days are gone forever. Thanks to politics, Mr. Huntington’s vast and efficient electric-powered transportation system has given way to gasoline and rubber.


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