by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the late 19th and very early 20th centuries, the rise of rapid transit in American cities was a necessary component of urban development as the burgeoning number of city dwellers and suburbanites relied heavily on streetcars (first, horse-drawn, then cable, and, finally, electric) to get them to and from the hinterlands to the city, as well as within the latter. Suburbia also benefited heavily from the establishment of these transport systems as their residents could live further from urban centers because of the relatively inexpensive and quick travel they provided.
The challenge by the 1920s for the viability of streetcar systems was clearly the dramatic increase in the use of the automobile and the level of freedom it gave its owners, who had, as a preeminent example, more choice in how to travel rather than be subject to the timetable. There were, of course, downsides, not the least of which was the ever-growing crowdedness of city streets, which, in downtown areas, were not laid out for the car. Ownership not only entailed the purchase price of the “horseless carriage,” but also expenditures for gasoline, insurance, maintenance and so on.
Yet, once the auto was made affordable for the masses, thanks to the innovations of Henry Ford and others, it was impossible to hold back its incredible ascent and streetcar companies struggled to maintain ridership in the face of consumer preference. This was especially true in greater Los Angeles, which quickly became the car capital of the planet and where there was seemingly endless growth potential in the suburbs, much of which was linked by the aggressive development of the Pacific Electric Railway system, which was paired with the Los Angeles Railway as largely the brainchild of Henry E. Huntington, the transportation king and books, manuscripts and art collector who moved to Los Angeles as the 20th century dawned and moved so quickly to build his rail empire that his personal wealth skyrocketed in that first decade from $1 million to $55 million.
While Huntington largely retired by the time the PERY, as it was often called with the city system being known as the LARY, was formed, he maintained a majority ownership until his death in 1927, while the estate carried on after that. This brings us to this eighth post in the “From Point A to Point B” series on this blog dealing with issues of the LARY’s pocket-sized bi-monthly newsletter called Azuride. The four-page publication was written in a simple, often breezy, style with a variety of topics ranging from safety to community events to bits of humor and much else.
This post highlights the 15 September 1928 issue, the first item of which was a basic admonition that, with Los Angeles city schools returning to session on the 11th, commuters were to “don’t forget to watch out for the kiddies” especially with the need to slow down “when passing schools, and when in the vicinity of schools.” In addition to a small note on the back page that a Washington, D.C. streetcar company was requesting a ten cent fare (or 6 tokens for half a buck) from Congress, on the front page was a report that the Chicago Rapid Transit Company successfully fought in court to increase fares to ten cents (it was not stated what the previous rate was, but there were tickets of 3 rides for a quarter), though fares of a nickel for students and three cents for children were kept.
This was a major victory that the LARY took hope from because it was engaged in a protracted battle with Angel City officials over the railway’s attempt to raise fares from a nickel to seven cents. The Los Angeles Express of the 12th called the conflict “one of the hardest fought battles in the city’s history” and it added that city council member Frank Shaw (recalled as mayor a decade later over rampant corruption in his administration) “bitterly flayed the granted increase” by a federal court on the grounds that it brushed aside the franchise the City gave to the LARY.
Shaw then moved and the council approved that the decision should be appealed to the United States Supreme Court, the chief justice of which was former president William Howard Taft, while the LARY strove to get the 2-cent increase implemented as soon as it could following the posting of a $50,000 bond made part of the court order with hopes the new rate would be in effect before the end of the month. After three attempts in six years, with the earlier ones rejected by the California Railroad Commission, the streetcar line looked forward to boosting its bottom line as quickly as possible.
The Los Angeles Record of that day lamented that “three federal judges decided Tuesday that the people of Los Angeles should pay several millions of dollars more each year for their yellow car rides,” which was that much less money to spend with the Angel City’s merchants. The claim was that the increase “will hurt business and make more meager the living conditions of the people” by taking money out of the pockets or savings accounts of citizens to line “the treasury of the Huntington estate.”
The paper excoriated the LARY for insisting on more profit for the use of city-owned streets and regardless of the investment of shareholders, while reiterating “the sanctity of contracts” via the franchises given to the firm. It was hardly the fault of anyone but the streetcar company if it made a bad deal, but it was also noted that, from 1913 to 1926, the Railway earned just north of 6% of a return on its 5-cent fare service, but, the Record fumed, “the three federal judges decided that the present fare is confiscatory.” It ended with the view that the Supreme Court right the wrong and note that contracts “are more than mere scraps of paper.”
As for the Los Angeles Times in its edition of the 14th, the issue was more than the fares, the key was jurisdiction and authority. It was noted that the company’s experts marshaled evidence and made arguments as to why the hike was needed, but, likewise, the railroad commission’s professional staff took these into consideration and rejected the request. The federal court’s ruling was deemed “well-considered” and that it did opine that the denial was confiscatory to the railway’s right to a reasonable return, though its requirement of a bond and that the LARY produce 2-cent rebate coupons with its 7-cent fares was an indication that its ruling could well be overturned by the higher court.
With respect to the rising tide of automobile use cutting into the LARY’s ridership, there was a few references to this in the publication. The first was what looked like a clever way to tout the growing presence women as drivers, but asking the man whose family had but one car why he couldn’t just leave his vehicle at home and taken the streetcar into the city so that “your wife and family will be able to get so much benefit and pleasure from the automobile during the day.”
The other two were drawings and cartoons with the former suggesting “when shopping park your car in the outlying district and ride the street car into the congested area” while the latter showed two gents jawing at each other after a fender bender because of tight parking in town and the caption, “—And Then They Rode the Street Cars Down Town.”
The lengthiest piece in the newsletter was titled “Twenty-Two in August” which was the number of persons injured by autos passing by street cars, with nine of those seriously hurt and one near death. All were passengers in the process of boarding or leaving streetcars, while a pair were the victims of hit-and-run drivers. Two women were within a safety zone when hurt, a man was receiving change from a conductor when he was hit and two conductors were flagging streetcars at railroad grade crossings were struck.
It was emphasized that these incidents constituted “criminal carelessness in the majority of instances” and whether unthinking or careless, they were still violations of law, especially as half of the total of injured were hit by cars passing stopped streetcars where no safety zone (a crosswalk or otherwise) was present. Readers also sent letters occasionally noting that passengers left streetcars while autos had a “Go” signal (there were no lights then, but signs for “Stop” an “Go”) and “dash through the moving stream.” For this reason, it was cautioned that passengers leave streetcars and go to a safety zone or curb for safety.
In September, there were a couple of reports of suits filed against the LARY by passengers claiming injuries from the negligence of conductors or drivers of buses, which the company also operated as it tried to head off losing business to other operators of buses or jitneys. In one case, a 6-year old girl suffered serious facial injuries leaving permanent scarring and “marring her beauty,” as the Express expressed it when a streetcar collided with the auto driven by her mother in a South Los Angeles crash a year prior. While over $50,000 was sought, a jury decided that 20% of that amount was to be given in the child’s favor.
The second incident involved actor Maude Leone, who performed on the stage and in a few early films and whose former husband was the well-known actor, director and playwright Willard Mack. Leone sued for more than $11,000 in damages from a February incident in which she claimed she suffered injuries that prevented her from working when she was walking down from the top deck of a Wilshire Boulevard bus, which then lurched causing her to be thrown against a guardrail. In this case, it appears she lost the suit and, sadly, wound up being committed to the Norwalk county home because of purported insanity.
The 16th is Mexican Independence Day and the publication included a brief note that a celebration was to be held at Lincoln Park in Lincoln Heights with the LARY offering additional cars on the North Main Street and Hill Street/North Broadway lines. While the English-language newspapers in the Angel City provided generally brief mention on the holiday, it was reported that a two-day fiesta began with a late Saturday night traditional reading of “El Grito de Dolores” by Mexican Consul Alfonso Pesquiera at the exact time that Father Miguel Hidalgo issued the famous proclamation of revolution against Spain after 300 years of colonization and rule. Mexican and American patriotic songs were also played and sung.
On Sunday morning, an automobile parade proceeded from the Plaza to the park, where it was estimated that there were 10,000 persons enjoying the festivities, which included speeches, music and dancing, In the mid-afternoon at Blanchard Hall downtown, the Liga Cultural Mexicana held an event at which Ignacia Chavira, the fiesta queen, denoted as Miss México, was crowned, while her attendants were Elvira Marti and Xzulla Lyda Ballinger, with Chavira and Marti were featured in a Times photograph.
The paper ended its short account by observing that “another event which aroused great enthusiasm was the unveiling of a huge portrait painted by Antonio Estrada Olivas of the young aviator, Emillio [sic] Carranza, who lost his life recently in an attempt to fly from New York to Mexico City.” Carranza, styled the “Lindbergh of Mexico,” was killed when his plane was downed in New Jersey during a thunderstorm.
Meanwhile, another Mexican Independence Day event was held at White Sox Park in Boyle Heights on land formerly owned by William H. Workman in the flats at the southeast corner of 4th and Clarence streets near the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railway yard and where an all-black team called the White Sox, led by Oscar Charleston, a Negro League star of the highest order, played in the winter. The Ortiz Fords and the Wilmington Tigers, which were local all-Latino clubs, faced off in a double-header, while boxing exhibitions featured the well-known Whittier-born Bert Colima as well as Lupe Vélez (not the film star, though she was a passionate fan of the sport) were also presented.
Lastly, the publication reprinted a humorous little verse from the Georgia Power Company called “All Are Awful” and which intoned:
The bozo I’d like
To bury in style,
Is the guy who sticks
His feet in the aisle.
I’d like to beat—
He parks his dogs
On a street car seat.
But the worst of them,
Whose visage I’d mar,
Is the guy who spits
On my clothes from a car.
These little publications from the Los Angeles Railway are interesting documents relating to the streetcar system of Los Angeles during the 1920s as rapid transit was facing increasing competition from automobiles.
The Great Depression and the Second World War (with the intensive rationing of materials and resources for the all-out mobilization required) extended the life of the streetcar system for quite some time, but the last of the yellow cars rode its route in 1961. In recent decades, however, we’ve tried to resurrect some of this system, though the pandemic has greatly impaired rapid transit use and what the future holds will definitely be interesting to see.