by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Rapid transit made its humble debut in Los Angeles in 1874 with the opening of the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, a horse-drawn streetcar line headed by real estate developer, attorney and county judge Robert M. Widney and the first treasurer of which was F.P.F. Temple.
By the mid-1880s, cable railways made their appearance in the city with one of the major companies being the Los Angeles Cable Railway Company, which had a line that ran into Boyle Heights, founded by William H. Workman, during the Boom of the Eighties. Several other cable companies operated in Los Angeles during this period, as well, but their existence was threatened by a new technological advancement.
This was the electric railway, of which the earliest example was the Pico Street Electric Railway, soon renamed the Los Angeles Electric Railway, which launched during the great boom, but failed at the tail end of that period in 1888. A successor company was headed by Moses H. Sherman, namesake of Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley, and it was eventually known as the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway Company.
Much of the 1890s was a period of economic malaise, including the fallout from the national Depression of 1893, and Sherman’s enterprise, which included directors from San Francisco as well as Los Angeles, failed in spring 1895. That summer, bond holders took over the remains of the firm and formed the Los Angeles Railway Company.
Three years later, Henry E. Huntington, whose Uncle Collis was one of the powerful Big Four (or, if you like, the Octopus—get it? 4×2?) who owned the Central Pacific Railroad (the western portion of the nation’s first transcontinental line) and its subsidiary the Southern Pacific, purchased a controlling interest in the stock of the Los Angeles Railway.
Not long after, Collis Huntington died and, the resulting hostile takeover, Henry was cut loose from the Central Pacific/Southern Pacific empire and allowed to take the Los Angeles Railway with him as he moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He rapidly worked to remake and expand the system, which later was part of the larger Pacific Electric Railway which became the nation’s largest interurban rapid transit system in terms of track mileage.
The Los Angeles Railway, operating within city limits, continued to operate for decades and, in 1918, began publication of AZURIDE, which was issued every two weeks. The pocket-sized four-page newsletter was subtitled “Thoughts by the Trolley Philosopher,” and offered tips for passengers, humor, news about rapid transit in the city and elsewhere, and more.
Today’s highlighted artifact in the “From Point A to Point B” series is the 1 November 1929 edition of AZURIDE. On its cover, the publication noted that Armistice Day was coming on the 11th (the holiday was revamped into Veterans Day in 1954) and stated that:
Such a time as Armistice Day affords every true American the opportunity to re-dedicate himself to his country; to love it; to support its Constitution; to obey its laws; to respect the flag; and to defend it against its enemies.
Because it was getting late in the year, the publication also noted that “yes, it is time to begin Christmas shopping!” and urged riders to use the railway, commonly called LARY. It averred that “you keep the thrill of Christmas shopping because you can get downtown and back so safely—so comfortable—during these hours [9 a.m. to 4 p.m.] while the street cars are not crowded.”
Another spur to users of the system was about the purported savings in riding the streetcar as opposed to driving a car. Quoting statistics from the Automobile Club of Southern California, the newsletter noted that autos cost from about six to nearly nine and a half cents per mile, depending on the vehicle size.
Consequently, it was stated that the yearly cost of operating a car was about $187 for the smallest of automobiles, while using the street car system would only cost $39. It was stated that:
When you stop to consider that the average person who rides to work in his car drives from five to fifteen miles a day, it is rather startling to figure out just how much is saved in a year’s time by using the street cars.
To show the viability of the street car concept, a separate short piece observed that Detroit Street Railways, operating in the world’s dominant auto manufacturing metropolis, recently signed a deal to buy a hundred new street cars. It was noted that Detroit banned jitneys, vehicles that ferried passengers in cars or small buses, and which, in some ways, might be considered precursors to our Uber and Lyft services, so the streetcar system had to rent cars from Cleveland’s railway company.
Another short article promoted free lectures at the Los Angeles Central Library on philosophy, foreign language instruction, travel, art, book reviews and other subjects. Patrons were encouraged to take the distinctive LARY “yellow cars” to the evening talks at the library, which was located in a building completed three years before and which is still the home of the venerable institution near Pershing Square.
AZURIDE usually had some etiquette tips for riders and this issue had one about having passengers board the cars, which was done at the rear, and then walk to the front. This would keep aisles clear so that “the poor individual who is trying to get on by his eyebrows (and a few packages)” can easily board.
The piece eased into its advice, however, by making a little joke about how Johnny’s father told him “he used to think nothing of walking three miles to school, to which Johnny replied that he didn’t much of the idea himself.” Elsewhere, there was another attempt at levity, in which one person marveled at advances in veterinary science by saying to a friend that “I saw a sign yeaterday, ‘Horses retailed.'”
Finally, there was a little poem called “‘P’ Car,” which went:
You are THE car—
The car that takes me to Old Sentous
Why the deuce
Waste my evenings
When “P” car,
Takes me where it’s some use—
To Sentous Evening High?
The budding poet was a Louise L. Temple, who was no relation to the Temples who owned the Homestead at the time.
The Homestead collection has fifteen AZURIDE newsletters, most from 1928 and 1929, with a couple from 1924 and 1925, and future posts will highlight these interesting artifacts. As for the streetcar system in our region, it gradually diminished in ridership and profitability, though the Great Depression and World War II kept some viability longer than would have been the case if neither had happened.
The Los Angeles Railway and Pacific Electric Railway experienced steep declines after the war, however, and the last of the cars rode the rails in 1961. While there is no question that auto manufacturers, tire makers and other transportation firms did what they could to hasten the demise of rapid transit, as conventional wisdom states, there was one other major interested party that bears much of the blame for the decline in streetcar use.
This was the consumer—the millions of people who, over time, decided that the freedom, convenience, and increasing affordability of the automobile was the way to go at the expense of rapid transit. The reality of this was well-established by the late 1920s, but the conditions mentioned above in the Thirties and Forties delayed the inevitable by many years.
An irony is that, in recent decades, concerted and very expensive efforts have been made to reintroduce variants of the streetcar system, including trains and subways, some of which ply the same routes as the old cars.
In downtown Los Angeles, there is a system called “Los Angeles Streetcar” that aims to reintroduce electric streetcars on a route from 1st Street between Broadway and Hill Street to 11th Street from Broadway to Figueroa with a potential spur to Grand Avenue on Bunker Hill.
The city council in August approved a funding plan for the project, the estimated cost of which is not far south of $300 million (though doubling that amount is probably pretty realistic if the project gets built). Council member José Huizar, whose district encompasses the route and who has championed the project, stated that there is nearly $600 million in committed funding to operate the line for three decades. Originally planned for completion two years ago, the timeline is now for opening the system in 2021.