Why San Diego got rid of its trolley system

Spreckels' death was key factor

Eleven-year-old Sylvia Benson could think of nothing better to do on a Saturday than take a dip in the surf. There was little extra money available for recreation—her father was a fisherman, and the family lived in a relatively poor Logan Heights neighborhood—but even for them the five-cent trolley fare was cheap, and during that summer of 1938 she often grabbed some beach attire and a few friends and headed for the trolley stop a few blocks from her home.

The spacious trolley car carried them up Sixteenth Street and down Broadway, where at Horton Plaza they switched to the line heading up what is now Pacific Highway. As the trolley cruised out Midway Drive and across a stretch of Mission Bay, the scenery changed from that of a sparse business district to an open sea marsh. The trolley would lumber north through the wind-blown frame-cottage community of Mission Beach and pass by thinly populated Pacific Beach, stopping at various points to pick up or drop off a few passengers. There were no homes or businesses to speak of at the point called Birdrock, just a few vegetable gardens, and along the barren stretches the speed of the trolley would pick up quickly. The journey would come to an end at the Prospect Street station in La Jolla. From there Sylvia and friends walked the few remaining blocks to La Jolla Cove.

Now married and working as an elementary school administrator in San Diego, Sylvia Brandais savors her memories of the city’s electric transit system. “We could afford to use the trolleys .... In the summer you could get a fifty-cent pass for the whole week.” She recalls passing her ticket out the window to a friend to squeeze two rides for the price of one, joining others in rocking the vehicle back and forth until the motorman became angry, and using the trolley to ride to San Diego High in the morning or to music lessons in the afternoon. “That was your lifeline out of your neighborhood,” she says now.

There are few remnants from the days of the San Diego Electric Railway Company and its trolley predecessors. The overhead lines have been tom down for many years, and trolley tracks now lie beneath layers of pavement. However, for an important chapter in its history, San Diego was largely dependent upon the trolley-car system, which took root downtown and then spread its lines, like twisting tentacles, out across the city. The first West Coast city to establish an electric street railway, San Diego later became noted as one of the first cities to scrap its trolley system.

Mass transit in San Diego dates back to the 1880s and the San Diego Street Car Company, which consisted of a few horse-drawn wagons with hard wooden benches for the passengers. Later, there was the Coronado Belt Line, San Diego & Old Town Railroad, and the San Diego Cable Railway Company. But it was as the San Diego Electric Railway Company that the trolley system reached its zenith.

That company was owned and managed by John D. Spreckels, the wealthy businessman and investor who adopted San Diego as his personal development project and poured millions into the building of hotels and upgrading of the city’s cultural and transit facilities. He achieved the title of “the great builder” and acquired a fortune in the county totaling about $25 million. Spreckels saw mass transit as a crucial factor in the establishment of San Diego as a prominent city. “Before you can hope to get people to live anywhere,” he said, “you must first of all show them that they can [travel places] quickly, comfortably, and, above all, cheaply.”

The investor furnished the system with hundreds of the most luxurious trolley cars available and spurred the construction of routes to outlying communities.

A map shown in Richard Dodge's book Rails of the Silver Gate and dated December, 1918, indicates the extensiveness of the electric railway company. Downtown the trolley lines crisscrossed about every three blocks, then branched out in all directions to serve less congested areas. One route ran north from downtown up through Old Town by way of India Street; another ran east on M Street (now Imperial Avenue) and out to the city limits; beginning on Twelfth Street, one of the more scenic routes wound north through Balboa Park, continued up Indiana Street, and upon reaching Adams Avenue turned eastward and extended out to Normal Heights; another line extended from Euclid Avenue in East San Diego, west down University and Washington, and out almost to Old Town.

A trolley line also served Coronado— dating back to the days when the island served as the “Tent City” recreational haven. And though the 1918 map doesn’t include them, trolley lines were also established to Point Loma and La Jolla shortly thereafter.

But even as work was being completed on new routes to some communities, other lines were being gradually singled out for elimination. In 1922 the bus came into use and set in motion the system's increasing reliance upon the “motorcoach” as a means of remaining flexible to meet changing demands. Contributing to the demise of San Diego’s trolley was the death of Spreckels, June 7, 1926. He had served as the primary financial support, in good times and bad, for the mass transit system.

The frantic war effort of the Forties provided for a sudden resurgence of San Diego’s trolley activity. Metals used in the manufacture of automobiles and buses were suddenly restricted to the production of war materials, and the rail system became crucial in the transport of workers to local plants manufacturing munitions and aircraft. But that time of prosperity was short-lived, and transit officials reported that with peace came a drastic cutback in ridership.

In March of 1948 the Spreckels interests agreed to the $5.5 million sale of the San Diego transit system to City Transit Systems, a company owned by J. L. Haugh of Oakland. Haugh made clear from the outset his intention to carry on with the elimination of the trolley cars from the system (by that time only 78 cars remained, as opposed to 284 buses).

A parade down Broadway on April 24, 1949 gave emphasis lo the trolley’s last day of operation. It was a demonstration of the passing from the old to the new, led by a twenty-five-piece band. A procession of some of the oldest trolley cars owned by the transit company moved slowly down San Diego’s main street, followed by forty-five glistening buses. Local residents who over the years had developed a strong affection for the clanging trolley took part in the final official run, line number seven, which passed through Balboa Park and ended at a storage barn on Euclid Avenue.

“That day my traffic was heavier than most,” remembers Edwin Herold, one of the motormen serving the electric railway during its last days. “I had people that I knew, friends would come over, and they made it a point to ride so they could be with me on the car that last day. I ran a little over eight hours that day . . . kept my schedule, but I also kind of held off, you know, took it easy with my car. I took more of an effort to operate it smoothly, and I did everything to please people. You know something is coming to an end, and you don’t want it to end.”

The passing of the trolley system has left Herold with more than an occasional touch of sadness; he harbors resentment. Herold operated a trolley for the last sixteen years of the system’s existence, then drove buses for another six years before initiating his current career as a business machine repairman. Having viewed both sides of the transit picture firsthand, he still doesn’t understand why the nonpolluting electric trolley was scrapped.

“I was in favor of the [trolley] car over buses any day. I feel they give you a better ride, and they’re safer and faster. Buses are rough; the passengers fall down easier. With the streetcars, you knew where they were—smooth starts and stops. They weren’t swaying back and forth—therefore, less accidents. And with a streetcar operating over the same lines, 1 could make faster time than I could with a bus. We used to run from downtown San Diego to La Jolla in thirty-five minutes, and you don’t put a bus out there in thirty-five minutes.”

Travel time is difficult to compare fairly—traffic congestion and road conditions were not the same decades ago, and exclusive rights-of-way on some trolley routes would distort measurements—and transit officials supporting the bus would have argued with Herold on that point. It is true that the trolley—especially on University Avenue—often caused a backup of frustrated motorists, since it traveled down the street’s center and allowed for little passing room on the sides. The bus had an obvious advantage in its flexibility— trolley lines could not be easily altered to meet changing needs. Trolley supporters claim, on the other hand, that the inner-San Diego areas, which most of the system served, will never decrease in population density and thus the transit demand would have remained. As the argument goes, buses would have been best utilized as “feeders” into the outlying trolley stations.

“I do know buses cost more to operate, and the life expectancy of a bus is much shorter than that of a trolley car,” Herold contends. “Some of those cars they took out of service were close to thirty years old . . . and look at the number of motors you have to put in those buses, in rebuilding them constantly to keep them on the road. ” The former motorman says the life expectancy of a bus is about seven years, whereas some of the trolley cars purchased for the San Diego system in 1936 are still operating in Juarez, Mexico.

Unlike today ’s San Diego Transit Company, which is city controlled and heavily subsidized, the electric trolley was a venture in private enterprise, expected to operate in the black. But according to available records, the electric railway company had been in a state of financial decay almost from its beginning. About the time the Spreckeis interests agreed to sell the system in 1948, figures were released to the Public Utilities Commission (which could grant or deny permission to eliminate routes) indicating that the trolley network during its half century of operation had never achieved a decent profit margin for the owners; rather, it had sustained a net loss of $1.7 million. The report implied that public transit was not a feasible investment for a private company, although it wasn't until eighteen years later that the city got into the transportation business.

It is generally acknowledged that the public's infatuation with the automobile and the corresponding attractiveness of privacy and leisure during the post-World War II period was at the root of the trolley’s demise. But for Edwin Herold it seemed less clear. The freewheeling mood of the late Forties did result in an exodus to the suburbs and a growing dependence upon the car. Herold. however, maintains that a substantial percentage of San Diego’s populace would never willingly have turned to the automobile. “Many of the riders I had had, when they went to buses, they wouldn’t ride any more .... The buses are slow, and they didn’t give you the ride the [trolley] car did, so a lot of people took to driving cars.”

Even with the popularity of suburban living, Herold. who compiled experience as a motorman on almost every route, doesn't recall a time when ridership was low enough for concern. He also is skeptical of the reports of vast deterioration in the system by the company officials during hearings before the state authorities. And he hints that those reports may have been intentionally misleading. He believes at that time the system was still sound economically.

Eric Sanders, a teacher at Briar Patch elementary school in La Mesa who maintains an interest in trolley history, said San Diego's trolley system during its final months had been whittled down to about three routes; thus, officials may have wanted to eliminate quickly the lingering trolley lines to avoid the problems of coordinating both bus and trolley operations. Another possibility is that company officials desired a modem, all-bus image. In any case, even if the officials were eager to see the trolley phased out, a belief that they intentionally misled the PUC is highly speculative with the limited evidence available today. There exists, however, circumstantial evidence to indicate that General Motors may have had a hand in the termination of San Diego’s trolley.

In March of 1974 Bradford Snell, a lawyer for a U S. Senate subcommittee on antitrust and monopoly, released a report titled “American Ground Transport,” which alleges that General Motors, often with the aid of Ford and Chrysler (they comprise, in Snell’s words, the “Big Three”), was instrumental in the destruction of more than one hundred electric surface-rail systems in forty-five cities, with the goal of selling more trucks, cars, and buses. "The economics are obvious, ” the report asserts. “One streetcar, subway, or rail-transit vehicle can supplant 50 passenger cars; one train can displace 1000 cars, or a fleet of 150 cargo-laden trucks.“

Snell charged that GM and other “allied highway interests” brought about the conversion of rail transport to GM buses through direct and indirect means. His report states that through ties with the stock and management of Omnibus Corporation in New York in 1936. GM influenced the conversion of that extensive streetcar network to buses. And by channeling money through a holding company. National City Lines, GM. he alleges, bought out and brought about the destruction of the huge Pacific Electric Railway system in Los Angeles. “The noisy, foul-smelling buses” that replaced the extensive electric rail system in l.os Angeles, Snell claims, “in effect, sold millions of private automobiles. Largely as a result, this city is today an ecological wasteland. ...”

GM responded to the Senate subcommittee with a report titled “The Truth About ‘American Ground Transport,’ ” in which it is argued that GM couldn't have destroyed thriving trolley systems, since most were in a state of economic decay long before GM exerted any influence or buying power. The response also cites a 1951 Circuit Court of Appeals decision in which GM was acquitted of charges that the company had conspired to control a number of transit companies across the country.

However, GM did not explain the motive behind its investment of $500,000 in National City Lines in 1937, or acknowledge that it had initially directed three GM employees to form that holding company. According to the Senate report, over a fourteen-year period following 1936, GM joined with Standard Oil of California, Firestone Tire, and other companies to contribute $9 million to National City Lines for the purpose of converting rail transit systems to bus operations.

In the years before Oakland-based City Transit Systems purchased the trolley-bus system in San Diego. J.L. Haugh. that company’s owner, had direct contact with General Motors. For six months in 1946 Haugh served as a director for National City Lines, the holding company used as a tool by GM in the acquisition of rail systems. Also, other transit systems owned at one time by Haugh in five other cities— Oakland; Fresno; Butte, Montana; and Bellingham and Everett, Washington— are among the streetcar companies listed as having been “bought up” by GM in the Thirties and Forties, according to a 1974 report in Environmental Action magazine.

J.L. Haugh is dead now; however, his son Jim, who heads the local investment firm of Haugh Enterprises, denies that GM influenced the elder Haugh’s decision to convert the system here to buses in 1948. Jim Haugh said, however, that since GM did produce the “best bus” at the time, it was chosen as the main vehicle supplier for the new San Diego Transit Company. This contention is disputed by former employee Herold. though, who claims there were better buses available than those produced by General Motors. He says he learned during his years as a driver that the frame of a GM bus did not withstand impact in an accident as well as the frame of other lines, such as the ACF Brill. The GM engine frequently caught fire, he claims, and there were problems with the brakes on the early GM buses. Herold is unsure how GM ranked against others in fuel efficiency.

In Herold’s mind, the current funding uncertainty within San Diego Transit Company and the resulting cutback of bus service adds weight to the position that bus transit is no improvement over what was offered by the trolley system, and on many counts is inferior. He and other trolley buffs feel authorities should have demonstrated more skepticism during the hearings over cutbacks in the trolley system, and they resent the fact that city officials didn't work to preserve trolley rights-of-way for future use. Such foresight would have made a return to light rail transportation today much less costly.

But it wasn't just the public officials who may have failed to question the conversion from rails and electricity to wheels and gasoline. The general public, although saddened by the close of the trolley story, showed little interest in actively opposing the transformation. There were public hearings, a few letters to the editor, but no widespread protests. Many undoubtedly viewed the transition as a symbol of progress; the trolley had been faithful, but it was time to step aside.

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