One of the ironies of Los Angeles history is that a city synonymous with freeway and automobile traffic once transported its residents over the largest regional rail transit system in the world.
Today, Los Angeles is redefining itself yet again by aggressively building a new rail transit system. As Southern California reconnects with its rail transit roots, institutions like the L.A. as Subject member Orange Empire Railway Museum are more important than ever.
With an extensive collection of maps, timetables, photographs, company ledgers, and other documents detailing Southern California’s golden age of rail transit, the museum can offer valuable historical perspective, said John Smatlak, the museum’s vice president of collections.
“It’s useful to understand where rail was before and why. There are certainly useful lessons from the rail infrastructure that used to exist,” Smatlak said. “Streetcars, for instance, are being viewed as this wonderful new thing, when in fact they aren’t new at all.”
The railway museum was founded in 1956 by a group of teenage trolley enthusiasts dismayed at the decline of Los Angeles’s streetcar system. The group’s initial collection of streetcars and a 1958 purchase of 10 acres outside the town of Perris grew over the years into one of the largest rail museums in the United States. Today, the museum is situated on a 100-acre campus and encompasses several buildings with hundreds of locomotives and rail cars from the Southern Pacific, Santa Fe, and Union Pacific railroads.
At the core of the museum’s collection, however, remain the preserved Yellow and Red Cars that once bisected downtown streets and connected urban hubs across Southern California.
Pacific Electric Railway
Traveling over 1,000 miles of track, the Red Cars of the Pacific Electric (PE) Railway connected cities and towns as distant as Newport Beach and San Fernando or Santa Monica and Riverside. The railroad incorporated in 1901 by Henry Huntington, who later founded the Huntington Library. First under Huntington’s control and later under the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Pacific Electric rapidly expanded across Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside Counties.
As the Pacific Electric’s rail system grew, so too did Southern California. Quick and easy access over the PE’s rails spurred suburban development; towns like Huntington Beach were developed as a destination for PE passengers, while the existence of a PE line through the San Fernando Valley helped sell the idea of Valley life to prospective residents. And because the efficient electric rail cars made living miles or tens of miles from the original center of Los Angeles practical, the region developed the sprawling nature it is known for today.
By the mid-1920s, the Pacific Electric had peaked, operating over 2,700 trains daily. Its vast network linked urban cores separated by dozens of miles, and local lines served some of Los Angeles’s larger suburbs with streetcar service. The railroad even built Los Angeles’s first subway, which connected Hollywood with downtown Los Angeles 74 years before the modern-day Metro Red Line opened. Taking the San Bernardino Line at peak hours, a commuter could reach San Bernardino from Los Angeles in just over two hours – not much worse than most commutes on the present-day San Bernardino Freeway (I-10).
Los Angeles Railway
Although not as well known today as the Pacific Electric’s Red Cars, the Yellow Car street trolleys of the Los Angeles Railway (LARy) boasted nearly three times the ridership of the Pacific Electric. If the PE was a hybrid between today’s Metro Rail and the commuter rail Metrolink services, then the Los Angeles Railway was the predecessor to today’s Metro local bus service.
Streetcars first rolled down the streets of Los Angeles in 1874 – then pulled by horses. Cable propulsion and then electric trolleys soon followed, and by 1898, a consolidated Los Angeles Railway with a network of electric trolleys was under the control of Henry Huntington, the same railroad magnate who would later create the Pacific Electric.
Between 1900 and 1910, Los Angeles’s population tripled, and the city’s streetcar system grew quickly to accommodate the new residents. At its peak, the 3 foot, 6 inch narrow-gauge tracks spanned 642 miles, crisscrossing downtown Los Angeles and radiating out towards the surrounding communities of Echo Park, Eagle Rock, Inglewood, Boyle Heights, and Lincoln Heights.
Despite explosive growth and record ridership in the first couple decades of the 20th Century, by 1961 the last Red Car and by 1963 the last Yellow Car had rolled off the tracks. Replacing the rail networks were local bus lines and a concrete web of freeways stretching across Southern California.
According to local folklore, these developments were the product of a nationwide conspiracy involving oil, tire, and automobile companies. The theory even figured prominently in the plot of the 1988 Robert Zemeckis film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Smatlak, the museum’s vice president of collections, is often asked about the purported conspiracy.
“Like most such things,” he said, “there is some truth, and a lot of urban legend in it.”
What is true is that in 1945, the estate of Henry Huntington sold the Los Angeles Railway to National City Lines, a company under scrutiny for buying rail transit systems and quickly converting them to bus service. And the Pacific Electric, which began dismantling lines in the 1930s and 1940s, was sold in 1953 to Metropolitan Coach Lines, another company specializing in converting rail systems to bus. Although the historical narrative does deviate from what the conspiracy theory would predict – National City Lines at first invested in more rail transit after purchasing the LARy – by the late 1950s Red and Yellow Cars were being stacked in junkyards like shoeboxes.
Smatlak stressed the importance of putting such developments in historical perspective. At the time, the government did not subsidize transit – all lines were run by for-profit companies beholden to stockholders. In a pattern that was playing out across the country, lean economic times, growing public fascination with the automobile, and hidden government subsidies for bus and automobile travel all conspired to depress rail ridership. World War II, which made gasoline scarce, granted Los Angeles’s rail systems a “stay of execution,” to use Smatlak’s phrase, but their decline continued in the postwar years.
In the end, explained Smatlak, the railway operators made a realistic business decision. The government was building freeways, and there was relatively little automobile traffic on the roads. Instead of paying taxes on private railways, and paying for rail maintenance, why not route passengers over the free and uncongested government-maintained roads?
Although many Angelenos decry the loss of the Red and Yellow Cars now, then “there was no public outcry to put pressure on local governments to fund local rail operations.” And so the rail systems died.
Decades later, Los Angeles realized that it needed alternative modes of transportation. The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority inaugurated a new era of rail transit in 1990 when it opened Metro Blue Line from Downtown L.A. to Long Beach.
The line, Smatlak pointed out, largely follows the route of a Pacific Electric interurban line that opened on July 4, 1902 and ran for almost sixty years. It is not surprising, then, that the Blue Line has become the nation’s second busiest light rail line since it opened in 1989.
With plans for a downtown streetcar system and a potential “subway to the sea,” rail transit is experiencing a renaissance in Los Angeles. As the rails spread across the coastal plain and over foothills once again, there is much Southern Californians can learn from the collections of the Orange Empire Railway Museum and other L.A. as Subject member institutions with similar collection strengths, like the MTA’s Dorothy Peyton Gray Transportation Library.
“These topics about urban transit and alternatives to the beloved automobile are very timely,” said Smatlak. “The museum’s collections are well-suited to help a new generation of transit engineers and planners tasked with rebuilding light rail and streetcar systems. After all, the principles of rail infrastructure are unchanged.”
The museum recently launched a capital campaign to finance a new Library and Archives Building, which will house and preserve the library’s important collections. The museum has already raised $320,000 of a total $800,000 for the project.
Apart from its preserved and restored Red and Yellow cars, the museum also has an impressive collection of steam and diesel locomotives, passenger and freight cars, and other unique artifacts related to rail transport. Among the museum’s special collections is Disney animator Ward Kimball’s 3-foot gauge Grizzly Flats Railroad, which was part of the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Anaheim theme park.
The Orange Empire Railway Museum is located in Perris, 17 miles southeast of Riverside. Admission to the grounds is free, but the museum does charge for train rides. An all-day pass is $12 for adults or $8 for children ages 5-11. To learn more about the museum and its collections, visit http://www.oerm.org.