From Point A to Point B on the Los Angeles Railway, ca. 1900s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Los Angeles humbly entered the mass transit age in 1874 with the debut of the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, which consisted of a single, small horse-drawn streetcar that went up and down Spring Street from Sixth (which was really in the boonies) up to the Plaza and back.

Founded by real estate promoter, attorney and judge Robert M. Widney (who was also a founder of U.S.C.), the little streetcar line’s first treasurer was F.P.F. Temple, who, with his father-in-law William Workman, was owner of one of the two commercial banks in town then.  Times were good then and Los Angeles was enjoying its first significant growth spurt, which sprouted in the late 1860s, with a population increase and new developments in and around the town springing up.

But, when the economy crashed in 1875 and the poorly managed Temple and Workman bank failed, everything went into a holding pattern in Los Angeles for a good decade or so.  After a transcontinental railroad line reached the town directly in 1885, the time was ripe for a revival of Los Angeles’ fortunes.  What followed was the famed Boom of the Eighties, which peaked in 1887 and 1888.

Los Angeles Railway car 1900s 2
This ca. 1900s cabinet card photograph shows a Los Angeles Railway streetcar, with the front sign reading “Pico Heights,” a tract along Pico Boulevard, between Hoover Street and Vermont Avenue, with its three-person crew alongside.  From the Homestead Museum collection.

During the boom, new subdivisions opened as Los Angeles expanded, both within the city and in surrounding areas.  To service these tracts, private companies built miles and miles of streetcar lines, first horse-drawn, then cable, and, finally, electric lines.  Commuters, shoppers and pleasure-seekers, among others, used the city’s transit system to get from point A to point B (and C, D, E, and so on), heading to downtown business and shopping districts, to city parks, and to beach resorts, too.

By the time this photo was taken, probably in the 1900s, one of the many subdivisions built during the boom of the Eighties in close proximity to the expanding downtown area was Pico Heights.  Pico Boulevard, heading west past Hoover Street and towards Vermont Avenue, became the local of this neighborhood and this image shows a streetcar and its crew parked, presumably, in the Pico Heights section not far from a handsome two-story (with a substantial attic to boot) residence with a profuse flowering vine decorating the ample front porch.

The cabinet card photograph identified the system as the Los Angeles Railway, which was founded in 1895 and purchased three years later by Henry E. Huntington when he was an executive with the Southern Pacific railroad empire.  After Huntington was forced out of the SP, he took the LARY (as it is often known) and turned it and other lines into the famed Pacific Electric Railway, which became the dominant streetcar system in greater Los Angeles.

By the 1920s, streetcars were losing favor as Angelenos became more automobile-obsessed.  The Great Depression and World War II prolonged the life of the transit system for awhile, but with the onset of the huge boom of the post-war era, the streetcar was, simply, doomed.  While some assert that automobile manufacturers, tire companies and other interests were responsible for the demise of the streetcar, its fate was really sealed by the consumer, even if influenced by the carmakers, tire firms and so forth.

Recently, however, mass transit has been on the move again and new lines are being built that, in some cases, follow the rights-of-way of their ancestors, while others use existing rail lines.  We’ll see where the latest iteration of transit goes, but looking at this photo from nearly 120 years ago and comparing the car to those of today’s Metro lines is a reminder that what seems archaic and doomed to the dustbin of history might rise like a phoenix again–to a point.

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