by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the many transformations in greater Los Angeles touched upon in my remarks yesterday to the Homestead’s Non-Fiction Book Club was about the massive changes in transportation that took place during the time period covered in the club’s most recent book, Jackson Lears’ Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920.
I adapted that era to focus on this region and pointed out the dramatic change in the regulation of people’s time on the basis of train schedules (not to mention the introduction of electric lighting and other aspects). In greater Los Angeles, the earliest movement for the age-old methods of individuals walking and using horses for travel was when stagecoaches began to operate on schedules.
By the mid-1870s, the streetcar made its appearance during the region’s first significant and sustained growth period with the formation of the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, headed by attorney, former county judge and real estate speculator Robert M. Widney, who was assisted by F.P.F. Temple, who served as treasurer until his Temple and Workman bank failed in 1876.
The Spring and 6th was a simple system with a car pulled by a single horse on a narrow track, but it wasn’t long until the next innovation came through the cable car. This was during the Boom of the 1880s, but another phase was not far behind when electric streetcar systems supplanted the cable ones.
One of the early electric systems was the Los Angeles Railway, which was organized in 1895 in the aftermath of an earlier line, the Consolidated Electric Railway Company. The LARY, as it came to be commonly called, was soon purchased in October 1898 by Henry E. Huntington as part of the Southern Pacific railroad empire run by Huntington’s uncle, Collis.
Huntington worked on developing and consolidating streetcar systems in San Francisco, the headquarters of the Southern Pacific, and found a valuable ally in banker Isaias W. Hellman, who got his start in Los Angeles and was a partner of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple from 1868-1871 before launching Farmers and Merchants Bank. Hellman rose to be president of the Nevada Bank, the largest in San Francisco, and partnered with Huntington in streetcar development.
Huntington quickly revamped the Los Angeles Railway system with new rails, ties and cars and extended the line throughout the city limits of Los Angeles. In 1900, his uncle died and in a hostile takeover of the Southern Pacific, Huntington was cut loose, taking his stock in the company and the LARY with him. He promptly moved to Los Angeles and in that first decade of the 20th century built the nation’s largest interurban rapid transit system in terms of track mileage—a staggering achievement by any standard.
In 1901, Huntington incorporated the Pacific Electric Railway with Hellman as a major partner and guided the PERY through a decade of enormous and rapid growth throughout greater Los Angeles. Directly tied to the development of the system was Huntington’s vast network of real estate projects, including several in the San Gabriel Valley (such as San Marino where his estate was situated and Oneonta Park, named for his New York hometown, in Pasadena), Orange County (where Huntington Beach is named for him), and much of the San Fernando Valley (where he and partners bought largely water-less land cheap while fully aware through close political connections that the Los Angeles Aqueduct was coming, a development that sent land values skyrocketing to great profit for him and his compatriots.)
By 1910, Huntington’s personal wealth leapt from about $1 million to in the neighborhood of $55 million, a more-than-handsome return, and he decided to retire from day-to-day business activity (though he hardly abstained from work in that arena) to pursue his passion of book and manuscript and art collecting, culminating in the creation of the Huntington Library, Art Gallery, and Botanical Gardens.
His work in building the LARY and PERY through new construction and the acquisition and incorporation of other lines led to an agreement in September 1910 with the Southern Pacific that yielded the formation of a new Pacific Electric Railway Company a year later. Huntington kept control of the LARY as part of the arrangement and this was retained by his heirs until 1945.
When the “Great Merger” took place, there were over 2,150 trains operating on some 1,000 miles of track, but the Southern Pacific put more emphasis on freight than the earlier PERY version which highlighted passenger transit. Expansion of the new PERY continued, yet, within a decade or more, the streetcar increasingly lost patronage as the region’s residents embraced the automobile, to the extent that Los Angeles became the nation’s ultimate auto-centric city.
So, by the time tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection, a PERY Pocket Time Table from June 1929, was issued, the system continued to be in deep competition with automobile-based transit. This timetable is for lines between Los Angeles and Pomona; Los Angeles and La Verne; Pomona and Claremont; Pomona and San Bernardino; and La Verne and San Bernardino.
The time table was issued on 8 June, but was corrected a week later and demonstrates just how developed the PERY was at great distances from the Los Angeles hub with nineteen trains operating to and from there and Pomona from a little before 6 a.m. to not long before 2 a.m the next day. For the line going from Pomona to San Bernardino, the earliest train ran at 6:30 a.m. while the last to arrive at Pomona was almost a quarter to 3 a.m. the following day.
For the Los Angeles to La Verne line, trains ran nearly 24 hours from the former to the latter, with the first train leaving at 2 a.m. and the last arriving at 1:36 a.m. the next day. The reverse route did not operate as long, going from about 6:30 a.m. to 12:15 a.m. A line from La Verne to San Bernardino and Riverside operated with fewer trains, though on a time frame from 3:12 a.m. to 12:42 a.m. There were fifteen minute gaps in returning trains from the latter two cities back to La Verne. Finally, there was the short line from Pomona to its neighbor Claremont, with trains running from 5:13 a.m. to the following 2:28 a.m.
Also shown on the document were the names of main PERY officials, including Vice-President and General Manager David W. Pontius, Passenger Traffic Manager O.A. Smith, and F.L. Annable, who was the general superintendent. All had offices at the PERY’s massive headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.
As a nod to the increasing threat to the line from autos, there was a statement encouraging people to “avoid the congested highways when traveling” and to “use the Big Red Cars.” This not only saved money, but time while passengers “ride, read and rest.” The Great Depression and World War II likely prolonged the life of streetcars in the region as economic problems and wartime rationing forced many regional residents to ride the cars.
The post-World War II period not only saw a return to personal auto use, but a massive expansion of the car and a transportation system tailored to it. The PERY tried to move more into bus service to compete, but it proved to be inadequate. The last of the Red Cars traveled the rails in 1961 and the system finally shut down.
Ironically, the Metrolink and Metro systems have tried to recreate something of the reach of the old streetcar systems. Expansion has continued steadily in the last quarter-century and plans continue to take lines further out into the suburban hinterlands and we’ll see where rapid transit systems go in the future.