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Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

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Found on EBay

Here's an interesting curio I found on EBay: A badge purportedly issued by the Pacific Electric Railway. I'm always suspicious of items like this because reproductions are common and frankly I wasn't sure the PE had a police force.

Ebay_badge01

However, a quick trip to ProQuest reveals several stories in 1906 and 1907 about Pacific Electric Police Detective George Churchill, who investigated the theft of copper wire from the trolley system, the mysterious death of a car conductor and chased down a man who threw a rock through the window of Car No. 353 on the Long Beach line. He also arrested two men on the Santa Ana line who amused themselves by ringing up $30 in extra fares when the conductor wasn't looking.

(Given stories like these--and there are many more--I find it a miracle that the streetcar system has acquired sainthood in contemporary Los Angeles. Have you ever wondered what happened when a trolley car hit a horse? Think about it. The carnage on the streets of early 20th century Los Angeles is not to be believed).

And no, I don't get a percentage on this item or anything of the kind. Rather, this is another example of the amazing trove of history that turns up on EBay. It isn't a can of smog or photos of Julian Eltinge, but interesting in its own way. EBay has certainly offered me an outlet for excess cash in procuring copies of Confidential magazine for the Daily Mirror. (And to all of you who have asked: No, to the best of my knowledge no library or archive owns a complete run of Confidential).

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Comments (1)

With regards to the Pacific Electric needing a police force. Definitely, PE would have needed one.

PE was more than a "streetcar system". PE was an interurban electric railway system. Meaning it was a rural railroad as well as urban railway. It has a continuing legacy ("sainthood") in Southern California because it was so unique as a transportation system not just in the United States but probably the entire world. First, in the years it was in operation, it was probably the largest electric railway in the world. Also, PE did more than just carry people on "streetcars".

Pacific Electric had an extensive freight business that used the same tracks and catenary as the passenger service. Pacific Electric had electric locomotives that pulled trains of boxcars, flatcars, and tank cars moving all kind of freight; electric box motors (essentially self-propelled, electrically powered boxcars) that ran on the railway system not unlike trucks on a highway; even a United States Railway Post Office service that used PE box motors.

A PE police force was a necessity.

The Pacific Electric railway system was envisioned and built at a time when the competition were trains driven by steam engine and horse drawn wagons and carriages. Passenger buses and motor trucks carrying cargo on highways were decades in the future when PE started operating. In it's early years, PE was described as the most modern and technologically advanced transportation system in the world.

PE played a critical role in the development of Southern California and was a valuable asset to the parent Southern Pacific Railroad. Supposedly, Soouthern Pacific lost money on PE and never recovered it's capital costs. However, given that Southern Pacific was the sole owner and bondholder to PE debt after obtaining control from Henry Huntington, these were losses on paper.

As a huge rail collection and distribution system in Southern California, PE was invaluable to Southern Pacific. PE cars ran on the same gauge as Southern Pacific trains, making freight car transfers between the two systems an uncomplicated matter. Also at the broader gauge, PE passenger cars and trains were more like railroad cars and trains than narrow gauge "streetcars".


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