by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As mentioned here before, rapid transit in Los Angeles got its modest start in 1874 when the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, whose president was attorney, judge and real estate developer Robert M. Widney and whose treasurer was F.P.F. Temple, was opened with a single horse pulling a single car.
Within fifteen years, the city was criss-crossed with a number of streetcar lines, using more advanced forms of locomotion such as cable and electric systems. The first electric line, the Pico Street Electric Railway, was inaugurated during the famed Boom of the 1880s, but failed shortly afterward. What followed was what became the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway, headed by San Fernando Valley developer Moses H. Sherman, but that enterprise collapsed in the mid-1890s during a depression.
Bond holders in Sherman’s line, however, resuscitated the system and it was renamed the Los Angeles Railway. In 1898, Henry E. Huntington of the Southern Pacific railroad empire purchased a majority interest in the LARY, marking his first foray into local transportation. When, after his uncle Collis, who was president of the company, died and the Southern Pacific was taken over, Huntington was cut loose, but was allowed to take his streetcar line with him when shown the door.
Huntington moved to Los Angeles, soon buying the Shorb estate at San Marino that is now the Huntington Library, Art Galleries and Botanical Gardens, and, working with a syndicate of powerful figures, such as banker Isaias W. Hellman, moved rapidly to expand his streetcar empire.
Between, roughly, 1900-1910, through acquisition and expansion, Huntington’s mass transit system became the largest in the nation with respect to track mileage. While the Los Angeles Railway operated specifically within the boundaries of the expanding city, the Pacific Electric Railway (PERY) canvassed much of the greater Los Angeles area. The impressive building of this railway empire went hand-in-hand with yet another of the successive booms that resounded in the region in that first decade of the 20th century. .
The year, however, before Huntington acquired the LARY, the first automobile made its appearance in Boyle Heights and it wasn’t long before the “horseless carriage” began to become more widespread. As more Angelenos (and Americans, broadly) entered the middle class during the nation’s economic surge and as technology in manufacturing and volume allowed prices to become more affordable, greater Los Angeles, with its incomparable weather, quickly became car-centric.
Naturally, this posed a serious threat to the long-term viability of the streetcar system, efficient and effective as it generally was. The freedom, excitement, convenience, sense of ownership, and other conditions attendant to the auto were forces too compelling and powerful for the attention of consumers. Gradually, ridership on streetcars declined as auto registrations ascended.
In 1923, when Walter P. Temple, owner of the Homestead, paid tribute to his family by developing the Town of Temple, much was made in promotional materials about the extension of the PERY line from Alhambra to the new town. It was deemed a major convenience for residents and their access to work, shopping and leisure in downtown Los Angeles. The reality, though, is that those moving to the new town were far more likely to drive than ride the cars.
So, it is not surprising to see, in today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection—the 15 December 1928 issue of the LARY’s pocket publication, the semi-monthly Azuride (with a subhead of “Thoughts by the Trolley Philosopher”)—mention of “A Good Investment.” In this brief note, the railway company advocated that “a small increase in fare per passenger is the cheapest investment the public can make to promote the general prosperity of the city.” The firm was seeking an increase as the volume of users dropped for obvious financial reasons, but couched the concept as necessary in that “it will enable the company to secure funds for public improvements to meet growing transportation needs.”
It was also vital for the LARY to remind readers of the essential aspect of safety when it came to using the system. Consequently, another item in the newsletter informed riders that, in the previous five weeks, the company’s trainmen training program “selected, trained and put into service on the added cars 322 men as conductors and motormen.”
The firm was sure to add that mental and physical tests were given first, followed by instruction at a school where the trainees “are carefully observed” as they learned the operation of cars. After finishing training, these men (no women!) were “sent to the various divisions where line instructors complete their schooling.” It was added that ability determined the length of training, but that “these applicants were of an exceptionally high type.”
On another page was a piece about letters of commendation from the public about the conduct of trainmen, as well as operators of buses, which were also part of the LARY system. These were published in the employee newsletter, Two Bells, but here it was noted that “last month an unusual number of commendations were received” and it was hoped that these were “indicative of an increasing courtesy and carefulness on the part of our men.”
The flip side of the praise were what were termed as “kicks” and it was noted that “we cannot say that we are glad to receive kicks about our service but when we do, we investigate every one of them very carefully to remedy the cause if it can be remedied, or to ascertain if the complaint is justified.” The bottom line was that “either brickbats or bouquets help us to build better service.”
Another item of note concerned the fact that “267,000 Los Angeles school boys and girls depend principally on the street cars for their transportation” to and from campuses. What this meant was that “the mothers [not the fathers?] of Los Angeles depend upon the Los Angeles Railway to bring their children home to safety,” and, presumably, get them to school in the same condition.
There was another reminder that “motormen and conductors are carefully trained in safety” and that each “has the welfare of these precious children at heart” so that “every precaution is thrown around their transportation.” Declaring that “the street cars are enabling these boys and girls—our citizens of tomorrow—to obtain their heritage of learning,” the company concluded with “the prosperity of the Los Angeles Railway is essential to the prosperity of each citizen and the whole city.”
As if that last point was hammered home enough, another little tidbit advised that though some reading the publication might “drive to your office in your own car every day,” but it was important to convey that “the people who keep your business out of the red are the street car riders.” The argument was that less crowded city streets meant fewer delays in employees getting to work, shipments and deliveries being made, and other money-wasting activities curbed.
Regarding efficiency of money and time, the publication, under the heading of “Please!” allegedly quoted one of its trainmen in imploring riders: “please do not roll or fold transfers” and to have them flat and ready to present so that “you will not delay other passengers boarding the car.” The message was “every second counts. Help us make better time.”
Another regular feature of Azuride were little snippets of humor and streetcar related poems. For example, the newsletter advised that “every year is leap year for the pedestrian who doesn’t look out for traffic until he gets in the middle of it.” Or, “another thing that doesn’t turn out as it should is the automobile just ahead of you.” A cute little poetic rendering was:
Little Miss Muffett
Fate couldn’t buffet
SHE shopped by street car all day.
To another car rider
Who sat down beside her,
She said, “It’s the only only smart way.”
It being ten days before Christmas, the front panel of the publication features a festive colored garland of ribbons and holly leaves and berries and a wreath with a bell and bow on it. Within this were statements about the holiday, such as “Christmas time is ‘Giving’ time” and “The ‘Giving’ time of Christmas time renews our spirit and prepares us for the new year ahead.” Gifts that were “measured in love and friendship” and reflect “one’s kindness in word or act” were also touted as the firm gave its “hearty wish for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”