by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been noted here before, the Los Angeles Railway streetcar system emerged in summer 1895 as a descendant of early electric lines dating back to 1887 and specifically from the financial wreckage of the Consolidated Electric Railway Company, which failed in 1893, the year a national depression burst forth. Bond holders of the Consolidated line formed what was commonly known as LARY, but, within three years, the system was acquired by Henry E. Huntington, then a senior executive in San Francisco with the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad.
Huntington, who visited greater Los Angeles several years before when he moved from Cincinnati to San Francisco to become the right-hand man of his uncle Collis, president of the Southern Pacific, was, as were so many others from other parts of the United States, astounded when he came to this area. He spent some days at the San Marino Rancho of James de Barth Shorb, son-in-law of the late Benjamin D. Wilson, and was captivated by the climate, beauty and vitality of the region.
His acquisition of the LARY was followed less than two years later by the death of his uncle and machinations that involved a hostile takeover of the Southern Pacific and Huntington’s ouster as an executive (he hoped to take the reins after Collis’ passing.) In 1901, he relocated to Los Angeles and, during the ensuing decade, not only completely rehabilitated the streetcar system with new tracks and cars (the easily seen and widely recognized “Yellow Cars”,) but expanded it within the city and, more vitally, into the expanding suburbs, which were made more viable by having the streetcar connection, through the Pacific Electric Railway (PERY).
With one cartoon calling him the “Modern Colossus of Roads,” Huntington’s accelerating fortune was not so much from the operation of the two lines, which were consolidated in 1911 just after his retirement from active management, but from his investment in real estate that vaulted in value as streetcars were built to serve new towns and communities, including in Pasadena, Huntington Beach, the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere.
Reportedly, his wealth skyrocketed from about $1 million at the dawn of the 20th century to some $55 million a decade later, when he pulled back from daily work and largely devoted himself to his avid collecting of rare books and manuscripts, fine works of art and the lush gardens established at the same San Marino Ranch, now the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, he’d admired so much in the early Nineties and purchased a decade later.
Meanwhile, the LARY and PERY systems continued to grow, including the former as Los Angeles aggressively expanded through annexation, such as west toward the Pacific, through the “shoestring” south to the harbor area and northwest into the San Fernando Valley. Yet, as it did it also included increasing competition from the automobile, with the freedom brought about by the car proving more and more irresistible to locals not wanting to be limited by a train schedule, crammed in cars with other commuters and unable to make spur-of-the-moment travel decisions.
By the late 1920s, the streetcar lines were in serious decline with ridership and one could argue that, had the Great Depression not come, followed by the Second World War, both of which extended a lifeline to rapid transit, the PERY and LARY could well have gone the way of the dodo much sooner than 1961, when the last of the cars rode the rails and signaling the final triumph of the auto.
Twice monthly since 1917, the LARY issued its four-page pocketbook newsletter called Azuride, subtitled “Thoughts by the Trolley Philosopher,” and tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is the 15 February 1929 edition. Befitting the month and at a time when the birthdays of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were celebrated separately as national holidays, there are “Words of Wisdom” from each on the front page.
For Washington, it was “there is but one straight course and that is to seek truth and pursue it steadily,” which was from a 1795 letter to Edmund Randolph, who succeeded Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state in Washington’s administration. Lincoln’s (attributed) quote was “it is the duty of every man to protect himself and those associated with him from accidents which may result in injury or death,” though it is not clear when or where he used these words. In any case, they became common for those promoting safety, including in this issue of Azuride.
The other front page item noted that, since Chicago instituted a no parking ordinance in the Loop section of the Windy City’s downtown, accidents dropped by 10%, passenger traffic went up over 18%, and auto speeds climbed up to 30%, while those of streetcars jumped about the same. It was added that business activity “has undergone a decided improvement” with new highs since the law was introduced a year prior. With this “unqualified success,” the publication asked in its headline, “Why Not Try It In L.A.?”
The back page featured a letter from super-rider William G. Randall, who in response to a letter writer from the previous number, wrote that he was a dedicated rider since 1912 on the West Adams, or “A” Line, and, while he did not keep track of his usage, he noted “I estimate that in a period of almost fifteen years I have travelled considerably over 50,000 miles—say, twice around the world—on the West Adams car.”
Beyond this, and of great importance to the LARY and hearkening back to the quote of old Honest Abe:
During all that time I have seen only one serious street car accident, and I have never seen anyone hurt. Also, I have seen only one instance of serious discourtesy to a passenger by one of the company’s trainmen (That conductor whom I had seen from time to time for some months previous to the occasion mentioned, disappeared immediately afterward, and I feel sure that the man must have been fired.)
Yet, Randall concluded, there were a great deal of instances in which he witnessed “special courtesies” tendered by LARY workers to travelers above and beyond the call of duty, “particularly to aged persons and children” and this represented “the fine spirit of gentlemen rendering service.”
On the third page was the admonition of “Help Us Make Speed,” in which patrons were requested to hand over money to conductors when buying tokens instead of putting cash in the fare box. Additionally, travelers were asked to let conductors know if they were buying tokens, paying for fares with cash or seeking a coach ticket. This, along with a short note on that back cover, which asked users to have their tokens ready when boarding and to quickly take their place, meant that such efforts “will increase our ability to speed up the service and to get people to and from downtown in better time.”
Another short article concerned the Metropolitan Evening High School, a Los Angeles City Schools institution for adults that “offers a splendid opportunity for those ambitious to increase their knowledge on certain subjects or to become adept along special lines.” The school offered classes in commercial art, business English, sales, math for businesses and trades, business law, commercial topics and music, as well as swimming lessons. Today, it is now the Abram Friedman Occupational Center and is located across Olive Street at Venice from where the campus was over 90 years ago.
Issues of Azuride invariably contained bits of humor, including poems and jokes, and there are three examples of the former. One is a four-line version of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” adapted to streetcars: “My Bonnie, she jaywalker o’er Broadway / My Bonnie, she strode ‘cross the street / She zigzagged ‘mong cars in the roadway / Till one knocked her clear off her feet.”
A modern reconfiguration of the classic children’s tale of Mother Goose went: “There was an old woman / Who lived in a shoe / She had so many children / She knew just what to do. / She sent them to school / On a street car that’s yellow / For she knew they’d be safe / With that fine trainman fellow.”
Finally, there is “It Is To Weep,” which appears to be an original composition by an unattributed trolley versifier and which goes: “I start for my office at eight / By street car, for I have a date / That’s important to keep— / But it sure makes me weep / When a lot of autos hugging the car tracks / Cause me to arrive at Seventh and Broadway / About fifteen minutes late.”
Page three also has a couple of pithy one-liners along with a straightforward bit of fact. This latter notes that only 15% of some half-million customers of 76 stores in six cities traveled to do their shopping in their own cars. As for the others, one observes that “a careless man is one who thinks the street car has gone because he sees the tracks,” meaning that one should not have assumed that the coast was clear because the rails were visible. The other cracked that “a parking space is where you leave the car to have those little dents made in the fenders an all-too-often unexpected hazard of driving and parking in busy downtown areas.
A cartoon titled “The Toastmaster” shows a skeleton offering a toast to a baker’s dozen of unfortunates gathered around a large dinner table and representing a full range of risky transportation behaviors. These include the drunk driver; the hit-and-run driver; the speeder; the thoughtless driver; the maniacal truck driver; the one-armed driver and the ignorer of traffic laws on the side next to the ominous toastmaster.
On the opposite side are the ignorer of railroad crossings; the jaywalker; the road hog; the back seat driver and careless mother sitting close together with the young child of the latter gripping a toppled chair; and a young man identified as “hooking rides.” Given the unsavory cast of characters and the morbid setting, it can be assumed that, though this was the era of Prohibition, alcohol was being served, especially if the drunken driver was present.
Beyond the second month of the year being known for the commemoration of two of the country’s best-regarded chief executives, we now celebrate February as Black History Month and do so because of Lincoln’s birthday on the 12th, but also because Frederick Douglass was born on the 14th. Given this it is both disturbing and not at all surprising to see a joke told in the offensive black dialect that was so perversely pervasive in the period.
In this case, the common characters of Sam and Rastus were talking about politics and Sam uttered that, when it came to an incumbent “Ah like him all right, Ah guess; but his platform ain’t no good.” This led Rastus to rejoin “Platfo’m! Platfo’m! Say, don’t you know dat a political pltfo’m is jes like a platfo’m on one o’ dese yere street cahs—hit ain’t meant to stan’ on; hit’s jes’ meant to git in on!”
The casual use of such racist humor in a public utility publication that was distributed to many thousands of people is, of course, unthinkable to us now, but, a little more than nine decades before was considered perfectly acceptable to the white majority of the Angel City as it would have been throughout the vast majority of the United States. Reading this in the newsletter which also quoted Abraham Lincoln, often touted as the Great Emancipator, and published a day after the birth of Frederick Douglass is more than striking, but, again, not unexpected given the era.