by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It is a common assumption that the demise of the steetcar system in Los Angeles was due largely to the conspiracy between automobile manufacturers, tire companies and others to get more people to buy cars and forego rapid transit. Obviously, such firms had a vested interest in promoting their industries, but it is a mistake to leave out the clear motivation that the consumer had in preferring the auto over streetcars and buses.
In fact, once the car became more commonplace, the decline in rapid transit ridership was marked and it seems self-evident that the Great Depression followed by the rationing in place during World War II kept those streetcars and buses operating for longer than they would have if those epochal events had not happened. This was especially the case in car-centric Los Angeles, which more rapidly and completely embraced the automobile than any other major American metropolis in the early 20th century.
Tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s holdings, the 29 October 1928 edition of the pocket-sized publication, Azuride, issued twice monthly under the heading of “Thoughts by the Trolley Philosopher” by the Los Angeles Railway, is notable because of drawn-out battle over the company’s fare increase from the long-standing five cents to seven cents. This is reflective of the increasingly problematic economic picture of the company, as well as the battle between government and private companies over utility regulation.
It is worth nothing that, by that time, streetcars had been commonplace in the Angel City for over a half-century, dating back to 1874 and the opening of the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, headed by Robert M. Widney with F.P.F. Temple as its first treasurer. From this simple one-horse drawn car, the next major innovation was the cable system, such as the Los Angeles Cable Railway, which counted William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Worman, as a major booster for his Boyle Heights subdivision project.
Not long after that, by the 1890s, came the electric cars, including the Los Angeles Railway, which was acquired by Henry E. Huntington for the Southern Pacific railroad empire headed by his uncle Collis. When the latter died in 1900, Henry was on his own after a hostile takeover of the Southern Pacific and its parent company, the Central Pacific, but he kept the Los Angeles Railway and moved to the Angel City.
In about a decade, he expanded his streetcar system throughout a large swath of greater Los Angeles and, just after his retirement in 1910, the Pacific Electric Railway was created. The LARY, as it was known, operated within the city limits of Los Angeles, while the PERY ran lines in the suburbs and hinterlands.
It was a remarkable achievement, with the combined network comprising the country’s largest interurban system in terms of track mileage, while Huntington’s personal wealth ballooned from $1 million in 1900 to about $55 million a decade later. While he retired from active business, he continued to own the LARY and, upon his death in 1927, his estate maintained onwership until the mid-Forties.
In November 1926, the company petitioned the California State Railroad Commission, later the California Public Utilities Commission, for an increase in fares from a nickel to seven cents and a token system price of four for a quarter. As stated by the Los Angeles Express, “the concern found it impossible to continue longer at the existing 5-cent rate and yield a fair return to its investors.”
The commission held its first hearing on the matter in early 1927 and, after over a year of subsequent proceedings, the Commission rejected the LARY’s request at the end of March 1928. By summer, the company filed a complaint in the local state district court of appeals and, on the first day of October, three jurists ruled in favor of the firm. On 11 September, attorneys from Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher representing the LARY went before the federal circuit court of appeals and requested an injunction against the railroad commission.
It was at that time that the rate increase was finalized, though pending an appeal by the City of Los Angeles to the United States Supreme Court for a final review and ruling. As part of the ruling by the federal appellate judges, the LARY posted a bond of $50,000 and was ordered to print refund checks for two cents (the difference, of course, between the old and new fares) so that a rebate could be issued to customers in the event that the federal supreme court was to rule against the company.
The position of the city and the railroad commission was that the five-cent fare was settled by a contract that could not be revoked nor could the fare be changed without approval of the commission as the regulator. It was asserted that the matter was entirely outside of the jurisdiction of the courts “unless they care to usurp the police powers of the State of California,” as stated in the Los Angeles Times of 13 October 1928.
As for the LARY, attorney Woodward Taylor argued the court rulings in the company’s favor showed quite the opposite when it came to jurisdictional authority and it was added that “the lower courts refused a stay which would give the city of Los Angeles and the Railroad Commission opportunity to carry an appeal to the United States Supreme Court.” Taylor also claimed that the denial of a rate increase was confiscatory. The Times added that a ruling from the federal high court would take probably a year.
What the LARY decided to do, once the injunction was ordered by the trio of federal judges and then a stay enacted by a federal supreme court justice prohibiting the city or railroad commission from trying to interfere in the enactment of the fare hike, was begin charging the seven-cent fare, with the refund checks printed and distributed in case the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against it.
The Express of 15 October reported that the two-cent increase would add some $6.7 million to the firm’s coffers each year based on the collection of about 335 million fares. Advertisements, however, taken out by the LARY informed the public that “the increased revenue collected will not become available for the use of the company until final action by the United States Supreme Court,” though the new rates became effective as of the 21st.
As for those tokens, the paper added, on the 17th, that they “are to be modest little things.” LARY officials told the Express that it was “decided on a token smaller than dime—and much smaller than those in use in many other cities—feeling they would be less trouble to carry.” The Homestead has several of these tokens in its collection. The article also noted that the fare increase would not apply to such outlying areas of the city as Eagle Rock, Inglewood and Hawthorne.
An editorial in the Hollywood Citizen on the 15th noted that the conflict was important in determining whether such regulatory bodies as the railroad commission should be able to fix rates. It added that, if such entities could “never help the public to secure or maintain the lowest rates commensurable with a reasonable return [to investors],” governments would have to decide whether “to consider the public ownership and operation of such utilities as are not offering a service at rates that seem to be fair to the public.”
The paper did praise the LARY for offering nickle fares as long as it did and added that the Pacific Electric was allowed to charge ten cents for trips no longer than those offered by the Los Angeles Railway. On the other hand, it was averred that the latter “was making a profit on its business at the comparatively low rate” and it was to be determined “what is the proper profit for the company to enjoy.”
In its edition of the 22nd, the Times ran an article accompanied by a photo of a conductor attending a winsome female passenger, while a pair of cartoons gently lampooned the issue of the fare hike. The piece, however, observed that:
from a rather cursory survey of the situation, old Jonathan Taxpayer didn’t mind paying the extra 2 cents half as much as he imagined he would. Nor was there such a demand for the rebate vouchers . . . Conductors offered them to every passenger who paid a single fare, but many rejected them, some scornfully and others with a wry smile. The demand for tokens . . . was brisk and not a few purchased them by the dollar’s worth, perhaps hoping for a discount.
Some conductors complained of the fact that the tokens fit too easily into the dime slots of their change carriers “but Angelenos were surprisingly tolerant” of the changes and extra effort and time needed. Noticing how many of the “rebate checks” were found lying on the floor of cars, however, the paper concluded that “many persons consider the 5-cent fare already a fond memory.”
With the fall elections around the corner, the matter also crept into local campaigns, with one candidate for a state assembly seat declaring “the need of municipal competition with private ownership is demonstrated in the recent raise of rates onthe Los Angeles railway” and provlaiming “the railway would not have dared to bleed the people of Los Angeles for thousands of dollars more per day to ride on crowded cars if we had a competing municipally owned bus line.”
As for the publication, it had a cover image recommending that patrons buy tokens while adding “CONDUCTOR MUST GIVE YOU REFUND CHECK.” Inside was a statement by George J. Kuhrts, president of the railway, who noted that the increase in revenue would allow the firm to upgrade to “the very latest in street cars, combining comfort, speed, safety and appearance,” provide additional service, allow for the “speeding up of our entire service,” and pay for extensions to those “districts of the city not now adequately served.” Nothing was said about increased dividends to shareholders, but, rather, that the company’s policy was “sharing with our patrons and the city of Los Angeles the proceeds of increased rates.”
With regard to the refund checks, a statement about it was on the last page and it was said that “these tickets should be preserved as they will evidence the holder’s right to receive payment for such sums [above the five-cent fare if such was upheld by the federal high court] as are shown on the face of said refund tickets. These tickets will be refunded on presentation at the company’s offices in the event that the action . . . is finally decided against this company.” It was added that a court order mandated that the LARY file a bond “to insure the payment of such refund tickets in case of reversal.”
Another short piece recorded how a city official contacted the LARY to inform it that he’d found a novel way to use a token: needing a washer for a home repair, “he cut the Mission bell out and used the ring.” There were also a couple of short statements of advocacy for rapid transit, with one headed by “Think Of It!” and informing that “it would require 37 automobiles to accommodate the number of persons carried in one street car” and another affirming that “no city ever grew large without a good street car system.”
As was typical for Azuride, there were several attempts at humor, including the little jest that “in the old days crossing the Atlantic afforded a thrill, buyt now it is more exciting to stay at home and cross the street” because of all of the autos plying the roads. There was also “The Conductor’s Dream” in which someone waiting for admission to heaven at St. Peter’s Pearly Gate impatiently demanded to be let in, but as told by the saint that, when reviewing the person’s record, “I find you never seemed to hear conductors when they called out clear: ‘Move forward, please!’ but, ‘gainst rule or reason, blocked the vestibule.” The sentence of twenty eons was imposed during which the person “must wait outside with me and meditate. Then, you’ll long to hear, ‘move forward, please.'”
Given that the last week included posts on this blog in commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Chinese Massacre of 24 October 1871, it is notable that another joke was all to emblematic of how casual and widespread racist humor was in 1928. The story was that “a venerable Chinaman” boarded a streetcar and handed a two-cent refund ticket for his fare. When the conductor replied, “This is no good,” the rejoinder was “Chee long soy me vella song chung fee!!” After going back and forth, the passenger was convinced to pay the seven-cent fare and was given another refund check. Then, “the Chinaman remembered his English: ‘Me got one—he no damn good—you keep ‘um!” and he angrily walkked to the front of the car.
As noted above, the Great Depression and World War II eras kept streetcars in use longer than would have otherwise been the case, but, the last cars ran their routes in 1961 as automobiles became supreme in local transportation. With crowded freeways and streets, increasing pollution, and other factors, efforts to reintroduce rapid transit were ramped up again starting in the 1980s. With gas now at $5 a gallon in many local areas, but with the pandemic also meaning much lower ridership on transit systems, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for regional transportation.