From Point A to Point B with “The Pacific Electric Magazine,” 10 December 1920

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the mid-2000s I was contracted by the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation to write an essay on the Pacific Electric Club, a dues-based employee club, based on its collection of decades of issues of The Pacific Electric Magazine, published monthly from 1916 through 1953 for employees of the Pacific Electric Railway (the PE or PERY), a dominant mass transit firm in greater Los Angeles from its establishment in 1911 as the consolidated company of a number of interurban rail lines. The principal figure in the creation of the PERY was Henry E. Huntington, who, in 1898 while vice-president of the Southern Pacific under his uncle’s leadership, purchased the Los Angeles Railway (LARY), which would control all streetcar service within Los Angeles city limits.

After Collis P. Huntington died two years later, Henry and other heirs agreed to sell the SP to Edward H. Harriman and the Union Pacific, a railroad competitor, when Harriman made a board room maneuver to take control. Huntington, who relocated to Los Angeles from San Francisco, partnered with the prominent banker Isaias W. Hellman, who got his start in the Angel City but also was prominent in the financial world in the City By The Bay, to launch the Pacific Electric system with lines throughout the greater Los Angeles region. Determined to keep the SP in a favorable position against the expanding electric streetcar lines, Harriman forced Huntington into another arrangement in spring 1903 so that the two had equal shares of about 40% of PE stock, with Hellman and others owning the rest. Huntington and the PE were not to compete with the SP, which remained in the firm control of Harriman until he died in 1909. Still, Huntington saw the PE, which only showed modest profitability, as a means to enhance the value of his real estate holdings and their development, while Harriman envisioned it as benefitting the SP.


In 1910, Huntington retired from active business to dedicate himself to his passion for rare books and manuscripts and, then, through his second wife (and widow of his uncle) Arabella, fine art. Yet, during that first decade of the 20th century, Henry, with the valuable assistance of Hellman, oversaw the growth of both the LARY, within Los Angeles, while the PERY, controlled from 1904 by Huntington and Harriman, built on a massive scale in suburban and rural regions in greater Los Angeles. With Harriman’s death and Huntington’s retirement, a deal was worked out in fall 1910 by which the SP gained complete control of the PERY, which was reorganized and put more emphasis on freight which greatly increased profits, and Huntington purchased the SP’s interests in LARY, which he and his heirs continued to operate until the end of World War II.

When The Pacific Electric Magazine was launched in 1916, it was becoming more common for companies to have an employee magazine as part of building camaraderie within the company, as well as to have a means for employers to transmit ideas and attitudes to its workers about the business’s goals and means to achieving them, whether this was worker safety, better customer service, more sales and, consequently, it was hoped, a higher level of profitability. As noted above, the SP put more effort into having the PERY carry freight, but the public perception of the streetcar system was for its commuter and tourist business. This issue was, in fact, largely devoted to explaining the operations of the General Passenger Department, a crucial component of the business.


The inside front cover has photos of the top five managers, including the largest image of General Passenger Agent O.A. Smith and smaller ones for the general agents for the four sub-departments, these being Promotion and Advertising, Solicitation and Service, Publicity and Relations and the Passenger and Freight Solicitation section for the Eastern District of San Bernardino. Also listed as traveling passenger agents, guides and solicitors, and employees of the general passenger office, the Main Street and Hill Street ticket offices, and the information service.

In his introductory remarks, Smith, who went on to be president of the PERY, observed that “this department is, in reality, the creative force of the Railway for the sale of its commodity (Passenger Transportation), and may also be termed the sales department of the road.” Its determination of pricing, dependent on the California Railroad Commission (now the California Public Utilities Commission), and how tickets were to be created and sold were the obvious public functions, but there were also those who compiled information concerning business conditions affecting traffic, as well as keeping tabs on competitors, so “to detect blemishes in its own performances as well as to uncover unscrupulous and unfair tactics and practices of competitors.” Staff also were bound “to cultivate friendly business relations, not only with individual patrons, but with their communities” along some 1,100 miles of lines, the largest inter-urban transit system in the world in terms of track mileage.” The increase in business was, of course, essential, but so was being “of service in directing the stranger within our gates (commonly known as the tourists)” as they traveled on “our Personally Conducted Trolley Trips and the Mt. Lowe Trip” among others.


E.H. Sharpe, who headed the PERY PR section, noted that “public service corporations are a vital part of the welfare of the communities they serve” and the company was obligated to work with these in terms of mutual benefit. Working with civic entities, chambers of commerce and others was done with the goal of “creating a spirit of understanding and a desire for co-operation, rather than a spirit of antagonism, which usually exists when the facts are not fully understood.” Sharpe added that “we are on the largest taxpayers in Southern California” and a vital industry so “it is therefore logical there should be a reciprocal interest between the communities and the Company.” While avoiding “local controversies,” the PERY was to make sure that it voluntarily provided “accurate information concerning accidents, etc.” through the media “in order that we may receive fair publicity” and this was done “on a straightforward manner and without any evasion whatever.” This instilled confidence in media outlets and benefited the company.

Sharpe readily acknowledged “that publicity through newspaper articles . . . is invaluable as an advertising medium,” especially with news concerning facility upgrades, better schedules for riders, new equipment additions, fare changes and others. The idea, as well, was to convey “the value of our institution to the communities of Southern California in the matter of the large number of people we give employment to, etc.” He found that “the average public official is fair-minded and open to conviction as to the right or wrong of the Company’s attitude on any given subject, which is reflected on to the citizens whom he represents.” Working with other PERY departments, he concluded, was also vital to the success of the Publicity and Relations section.


E.C. Thomas, who oversaw the Promotion and Advertising Department, used the analogy of fishing in suggesting that “the longer the line [and with the right lure] the better the fare (or larger the fish.” Obviously, promotion and the costs incurred was tied to expectation of revenue generation and, sometimes, being an “anti-promoter” was necessary, such as in discouraging events that took place when lines were running full already, because the situation would be detrimental to riders and, thus, to the firm. Determining the supporting or holding of events depended on factors like the time of the month, days of the week, weather, location (city as opposed to beach), proximity to population, and conflicting or competing events. The ability of the company to handle traffic on given lines, the quality of the ride (including scenery) and location, and the charged fare were also important considerations. Knowing the community intimately was also vital, especially in identifying that “one particular person who has the pulling power; who is the natural leader.”

Thomas, in stating that “advertising is a co-partner of promotion,” noted that “nothing has yet been devised that will supersede the personal equation in the acquisition of business.” He continued that “the advertising portion of the work on the Pacific Electric Lines during the past year ran in cost to a large sum,” including working with 150 newspapers and the creation of more than 500,000 folders, with a like number of flyers for events, such as city birthdays, seasonal celebrations, fiestas and more. Having good descriptions of local points of interest, consistent distribution of literature in racks and cabinets (such as at hotels), and well-placed signs, portable and permanent, were among the core components for promotion and advertising, while the firm offered services of layout, photos, and text for communities and their own printed material. Thomas expressed pride in the in-development work for “our standard sight-seeing folder in tri-color that promises to be as beautiful a folder as any issued by other railways of this country.” A map and folder of mountain trails was to be issued in a matter of days “and should be of particular interests [sic] to hikers who love the paths of nature, and will appreciate the direction and information given, and who in turn will repay us by patronizing our lines to the portals of entrance to the forests and mountains.”


For the Division of Service and Solicitation, images of staff members at work and portraits of some of them accompanied text about those proclaimed to be “The Salesmen of Feature Transportation for the World’s Wonderland Route.” An emphasis was placed on securing more business through personal contact, with correspondence secondary, in working with fraternal orders, schools and businesses holding annual outings, such as company picnics, while it was noted that large-scale picnics (like those of people who hailed from other states) were, after some years of lost business to buses and trucks, “coming back to the rail lines for transportation” because the PERY “is better equipped to furnish them with comfortable, safe and dependable service.”

Sometimes there were major surprises, such as one instance in which the company contracted to take 900 children from Los Angeles to Point Fermin below San Pedro, but found that there were 2,500 who were ready for the trips, and another in which the PERY arranged for transportation for some 3,000 sailors from San Pedro to Pasadena. In both cases, these large customer amounts were handled successfully. Trying to determine need when there were so many “privately owned machines” in competition was also a challenge. It was added that the PERY was keeping busy supplying the needs of touring theatrical companies in greater Los Angeles performing such shows as “Girl in a Limousine,” “The Famous Georgia Minstrels,” and “Scandals of 1919,” while the firm worked in close cooperation with the burgeoning motion picture industry for location filming using cars (some retired and repurposed) and other company property. Special arrangements were also made for large conventions, which were increasingly finding Los Angeles to be a popular spot, so that the company would “send traveling representatives to outlying cities to meet the trains and to secure if possible special parties for trips over the Pacific Electric Railway.” These traveling passenger agents also worked on training new conductors in classrooms and on the job to deal with handling fares, tickets, rules and regulations.


Researching volume on lines for bases for cars and other materiel, recommending the creation of new or eliminating unnecessary stops. having shelter stations, changing the names of stations, and other duties were also carried out by the division. Keeping tabs on travel, especially generating reports, was a major function, too, as part of “ascertaining whether or not adequate service is furnished on certain lines” and for defending the company’s interests before the railroad commission “when our service is being attacked by our competitors.” Lastly, there were the all-important time tables, the most visible public production of the division, as these were distributed to agents and information bureaus, and there were over thirty such documents, totaling 800,000 in distribution in the first half of the year.

The ticket stock clerk, H.D. Priest, wrote an article concerning this important function of the PERY, reporting that there were 350 such regular forms, with another 250 comprising “skeleton” versions for specific use “between any two points to justify a printed form”, as well as those for special or excursion. From the first of 1920, he noted, there were almost 4.8 million tickets issued with two beach lines being the most popular with over a million each. The third most used ticket was the line from Los Angeles and Pasadena which numbered just a little more than a tenth of the others, at 120,000. Of the non-regular forms, 600,000 tickets were printed during the year. Moreover, for special military rates for personnel traveling from San Pedro to Los Angeles, another 100,000 tickets were issued and another 260,000 were “for use of Uncle Sam’s boys between” San Pedro and Los Angeles and the former to Long Beach.


Tourist excursions to Mt. Lowe, Catalina Island, the Orange Empire, Old Mission-Balloon Route, and to Cawston’s Ostrich Farm were all with special tickets and the most popular of these was the excursion to Catalina with 206,000 tickets for 1920. Mt. Lowe had just over 100,000, while the others were at 20,000 or fewer. As for commutation tickets in books, there were nearly 375,000 dispensed to date, with 50,000 for the route between Los Angeles and Santa Monica, Ocean Park and Venice, another 37,000 for the route from Los Angeles to Pasadena, and 20,000 for the line from the city to the southern beaches. Conductors also had transfers, special round-trip, and triplex (multiple destination) tickets, totaling nearly 4 million for the year, nearly a third of which were used to the Pasadena line and about 900,000 each for the west and south beach routes. The triplex tickets exceeded some 4 million, while transfers topped 9 million (4 million within Los Angeles and half that for those in Pasadena.) Notably, the cost to print some 10 million units was $3,200, while overall costs associated with supplying forms through the division amounted to about $50,000 for the year.

The heads of the city ticket agencies, at Main and at Hill streets, also provided synopses of their work and, for sake of space and time, we’ll just note that Morris Thompson of the latter proved to be more of a snappy writer than his compatriots, opening with “every day in the year, 6 a.m. to midnight, Jerry on the Job, that’s the local ticket office.” He wrote of “The Wise Virgins who in olden time kept their oil lamps trimmed and burning have nothing on, figuratively speaking, the ticket office force” and noted that “to be up against Gen. John Public day in and day out and not lose out temper nor our money requires eternal vigilance and a serene head and stomach.” While he continued to praise the hard work done by the ticket agent, he averred that “day and night we keep busy, and the busier we are the better we like it, for the harder we work the more money we take to aid in the diminution of that ‘pestiferous’ deficit!”


One more department to mention in some detail is the Information Bureau, which consisted of all women, headed by Sybil Mather, the chief information clerk who wrote the article, and assisted by Grace Anstead, Isabelle Smith, Hazel Raymond, and Pearl G. Snyder. As with most industries, this one was male-dominated, but the handling of a dizzying number of questions, said to be 20 per minute, with the bureau obviously required a feminine touch. It was observed that “in this city, where climate and the outdoor life conspire to ring pleasure seekers, the need to an Information Bureau is a very imperative one in order that the visit of the stranger may be pleasant” and productive. Leaving a pleasant impression was essential so that the customer was in good spirits when ready to travel with the PERY. It was also pointed out that the font of knowledge possessed by the clerks must be considerable in order to be able to answer the wide range of questions directed at them. Mather concluded that “there may be times during stress of heavy demand, when sharpness and irritation enter our voice tones, but the first and cardinal principles of our information servce is ‘courtesy, consideration and efficiency,” so that “we strive hard to be happy all the time.”

There are plenty of other contents, including a financial statement showing the firm operating at a not-insignificant loss, notes from various departments (engineering, electrical, freight, regional branches or divisions, etc.), minute from various “Trainmen’s Meetings,” and a report from the company’s Rod & Gun Club for fishing and hunting excursions, but there was also a Pacific Electric Club, which operated at the main terminal building at Main and 6th streets and a calendar for most of December and early January listed shows, association meetings, the rehearsal times of the PE Band, movie presentations, dances (including a Jazz Novelty one), and more. A short article, accompanied by a photo, discusses “Our Big Minstrel Show,” held over three days in November with some 3,000 in attendance. It was noted that “there is no doubt but what the many funny jokes and catch songs and specialty numbers will long be remembered by the employees of a most pleasant evening spent at the Club,” but the image of fifteen white men in blackface on the stage of the auditorium is a disquieting reminder of just how prevalent and pervasive open and blatant racism was during the era.


Finally, the front cover had a message from company Vice-President H.B. Titcomb, who left in 1921 to run the Southern Pacific’s Mexican rail line and who was succeeded by David W. Pontius, conveying “The Season’s Greetings” and stating that “on behalf of the management I desire to extend to all the employees of the Pacific Electric Railway Company greetings of the yule-tide and sincerely wish them and their familes [sic] a most Happy Christmas and to extend the hope that they New Year will bring them continued prosperity and the greatest of their desires.”

Reading this issue of The Pacific Electric Magazine, as with any company magazine or newsletter, is always an interesting exercise in understanding business philosophies and relations between firms, as expressed by content from executives and managers, and their workers, as well as learning about operations, recreational and leisure opportunities, and other aspects. It is also reflective of attitudes and behaviors of business from a century ago and provides plenty of room for reflection on how much conditions have changed.

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