The Daily Mirror

Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

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The streetcars


Photograph by the Los Angeles Times, 1911
Dropcap_i_1886_2 seem to have antagonized some people by having the audacity to question the notion that Los Angeles' streetcar system was anything less than a shining glory and by poking fun of the idea that it was the victim of a shadowy cabal (think wheels within wheels of corruption). In Los Angeles, this is, of course, heresy of the worst sort. (And here are the results of a Google search for cabal, shadowy, conspiracy, streetcars, "Los Angeles")

OK, let's go reality. Above, here's a photo of the Los Angeles streetcar system on Main Street in 1911, with a detail at left. Note how the streetcars are flowing with clocklike efficiency. Notice that the streetcars aren't backed up at the intersection. Yes, the wonderful old streetcars are gliding along the shimmering tracks, whisking  passengers to their destinations quickly and safely without a care in the world. (It's a bit difficult to tell from the photo, but I believe these are the "Huntington Standard" cars of 1902).

Don't take my word for it, read The Times editorial (Aug. 19, 1911) at left about the wonders of the city's streetcar system.

Let me quote a bit of it:

"Each car clings tenaciously to its overhead wire, waiting like a sailing vessel in the doldrums to catch some favoring breeze; "as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean." Once in a while a barnacle is detached and creeps painfully and laboriously from its resting place on the corner of 2nd and Main to another snug berth prepared for it between 2nd and 3rd. Then the great calm returns, the delicious peace of eventide settles again on the motorman and the conductor. The yellow and red dragon wags its tail and goes to sleep once more."

Don't get me wrong. I support mass transit and I use the Red/Purple Line almost daily. But history shows that congested traffic in Los Angeles is a century old and that the city's streetcar system was problematic at best. 

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Comments (14)

I have found myself in similar conversations with people who love the GM conspiracy theories and remark at how perfect a system was already in place. The streetcars worked great when L.A. was empty and when there were no cars. They also worked great when they were subsidized by people selling outlying tracts of land. Add vehicle traffic to the picture above and it is easy to see why the streetcars didn't work. The only streetcar systems that survived in this country (Philly, SF, Boston) are the ones that were partially underground or were put underground in the most congested areas. I love conspiracy theories and always favor transit over automobiles, but the efficient, perfect LA streetcar system is more myth than reality.

I'm sure Harnisch has a good point about the streetcar system. But I always wonder why he reproduces the same snarky phrase ("our sainted streetcar system") whenever he mentions the issue. If this was once amusing, it has long since become an annoying mannerism, and I'm not surprised if some people find it a provocation. I wish journalists didn't imagine that a smart-alecky tone was part of their professional equipment. It's one of many bad choices that have estranged them from their readers.

Still, that last line says it all -- "Our street cars are a good thing. Let's push them along."

The larger and more detailed version of the photo of the Streetcars on Main Street in 1911 is great. Not the picture posted on the blog but the picture that opens up when the computer mouse is clicked on the photograph. The left side mouse button is adequate but the right side mouse button opens up to a dialogue box that will "Open LInk in a new window" that will display the entire picture.

The problems people occasionally have of not having the entire newspage display when they click on the left side of the computer mouse to read the text does not happen when the right side of the mouse and "Open Link in a new window" is used.

amazing photo

Tony R, while I agree there is not really a conspiracy theory, I must add that there are several compelling that streetcars work in modern day traffic in big cities: San José, San Diego, Denver, numerous European cities, etc. L.A. is doing the right thing (at least for posterity) in working on more metro lines, and street lines (Gold line & Expo Line). Light rail is a piece of the overall traffic-woes solution.

Paul C, couldn't agree more. I was just noting that the five streetcar systems that survived the streetcar era all shared the characteristic that they were underground or put underground in the congested downtown areas. I think that if L.A. had been able to do something similar and run the Red Cars underground downtown some of the lines could have been saved. For example, the Blue Line has been a fantastic success since the day it opened but riding it down Washington Blvd. by Trade Tech is a nightmare. Vehicle traffic can barely move, the trains have to proceed very slowly, the intersections are confusing and the trains are constantly slamming on the brakes (not pleasant for the riders).

I live at 510 South Spring and can see my windows in the building that was then Security Bank. Great photo.

The Red Car did have a subway system under downtown L.A. It began at what was then called The Subway Terminal Building, and ran for some distance beneath the then vibrant downtown. When buses began replacing Red Cars, the tunnel was shut down and sealed. It may still be there somewhere beneath your feet.

The Streetcar systems [and heavy rail systems] of older eastern cities and S.F. from the early years of the twentieth century have survived because public entities (be they municipal governments, "authorities" created by state legislatures, or corporations owned by the government) assumed control of the streetcars and subways and provided the financial basis to maintain them and keep them operating (athough just barely in some cases).

The privately owned streetcar sytems that were not taken over by a public entity or public corporation during the period of the 1930's through the 1950's were abandoned or bought up, shut down and replaced with buses.

The origin of the "GM conspiracy" grew out of the business practices of National CIty LInes, a private bus company. National would buy up streetcar lines, shut down the streetcars and replace them with buses. The "GM conspiracy" angle is that GM, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of CA were all shareholders in National City LInes. It's possible National City Lines could have been a scheme to get the street cars off the road and replace them with buses. Most likely it would have happened anyway.

The question is how much public support was there for the saving old street cars? Doesn't look like there was much.

The Los Angeles MTA (later RTD, then MTA again) was created by the California legislature in 1958 to create a NEW mass transit system, not to preserve an old one. MTA was the entity responsible for shutting down the last P.E. Line and the last few Yellow Car streetcar lines, not National City Lines although National did do it's share in L.A.

Another aspect of National City Lines taking over LA Railway was that the Huntington Estate, which owned it up until the mid-40's, had developed a policy of divesting itself of "operating properties" and holding only securities. This I heard from a retired Huntington manager in San Marino, who said the basic idea was "If it eats or has to be painted, you don't want your money in it."

Contrary to what many believe, NCL had little to do with Pacific Electric. In 1941, they did buy PE's local lines in Pasadena, but PE was glad to be rid of them, in fact, PE had already converted several Pasadena line to buses in 1923, long before NCL was created or GM had any interest in motor coaches. The LA to Pasadena and the LA-Monrovia lines were abandoned because construction of the Santa Ana Freeway south of Union Station cut off the route into downtown, and there was no money to build a new (preferably elevated) connection to 6th & Main. I lived in Monrovia at the time, and even as an 11 year old boy could tell that the tracks were in bad need of rebuilding. Various proposals were made, but nobody came up with the $$$$$.

Bob Davis
San Gabriel Valley native

Most of what are being built today are light rail systems, not "streetcars" as such. Light rail has the advantage of having its own lanes, providing for faster, more consistent service.

GM conspiracy aside, there's a bit of false nostalgia for the old systems. They were really starting to fall apart, and, without the political will to keep them going, they were doomed. Most non-railfan people at the time were probably glad to see them go. Automobiles were the future...heck, more than a few people were dreaming about a personal *helicopter* in every garage!

Fast forward a few decades into 2008, home of the $4/gallon gas. There seems to be an interest in expanding what little transit we have. Will the annoyance of high gas prices translate into the right amount of political will? Time will tell...

No conspriacy theory, Larry, merely conspiracy fact. National City Lines did conspire to buy up streetcar lines and replace them with bus lines. Ironically, they did not do so in Los Angeles, at least right away. When they bought Los Angeles Transit Lines, they tried updating it, and eventually sold it to the government (first MTA).

But did NCL destroy our wonderful streetcar systems through their pulling of puppet strings behind the scenes? No, they were not omnipotent dieties, but they did have their part to play.

Perhaps more problematic was the fact that almost streetcar systems did not make a profit, and all were owned by private companies. Those few that were controlled by governments (e.g., Toronto, Pittsburgh, San Francisco) were NEVER ripped out and still rolling to this day, as Richard H. rightly notes above.

The private companies couldn't make a profit. They couldn't update their ancient streetcars. People would not ride in 30 or 40 year old streetcars. People did not cry when the streetcars were removed. And so it goes.

I have to agree with Richard H; that is truly a wonderful photo... and so good a quality for its time.
But Richard, if you aren't able to view the entire picture after clicking it open, you may have your screen resolution set too low. Higher screen resolutions fit it in quite nicely. The lower resolutions will give you a great big picture but poor picture quality; higher resolutions will result in a slightly smaller but higher quality view... which in this case is really worth it because this is such a great print to begin with.
(you wrote)
"The problems people occasionally have of not having the entire newspage display when they click on the left side of the computer mouse to read the text does not happen when the right side of the mouse and "Open Link in a new window" is used."


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