My ongoing series, Long Beach Lost, was launched to examine buildings, places, and things that have either been demolished, are set to be demolished, or are in motion to possibly be demolished. This is not a preservationist series but rather an historical series that will help keep a record of our architectural, cultural, and spatial history. To keep up with previous postings, click here.
Above: A Pacific Electric Red Car turns west onto Ocean Blvd. at American Ave. (now Long Beach Blvd.)
It seems history is coming back full circle.
As the Southern Californian region begins to truly invest in revamping its transportation—especially including the major projects that Metro has completed, like the Expo Line, and has in-development-as-we-speak, such as the Purple Line extension—there is little discussion about how the Los Angeles region actually used to be home to one the nation’s most extensive fixed-rail transit systems in the nation.
And Long Beach was a key connector and contributor to that network. (A contributor, mind you, that has led to the creation of a park along its old right-of-way near Colorado Lagoon.)
“The Red Cars played a major role in early Southern California,” said David Housh, curator of the Pacific Railroad Society’s museum in San Dimas. “In the first half [of the 20th century], that was the only way people could get around—and that, historically, needs to be remembered.”
The Los Angeles Inter-Urban Railway, most commonly known nowadays as the Pacific Electric Red Car Railway, was once a booming network that, in less than a decade after its creation by Harry Huntington in 1901–he’s the man behind the famed Huntington Library & Gardens as well as one of California’s most influential figures of wealth—had hundreds of electric rail cars zooming from Pasadena to LA and beyond.
The success of the lines brought Huntington to an idea to garner even more wealth: if he sold the railway to rival Southern Pacific (SP), they could then merge every system in the Southland and he could more easily connect money from the properties he owned—and this was no small achievement. We’re talking not just SP taking over the Inter-Urban Railway but the Los Angeles Pacific Railway, the Los Angeles and Redondo Railway, the San Bernardino Valley Traction Company, the San Bernardino Interurban, the Redlands Central, and the Riverside and Arlington systems. This was dubbed “The Great Merger” and thereafter became known as the Pacific Electric Railway, allowing Huntington not only easy access to his swath of real estate throughout SoCal but connect millions of people each year and forever cementing the Southland’s place as a destination.
In fact, by 1914, some 1,600 red cars were coming in and out of the DTLA hub every single day.
At its pinnacle in the mid-1920s, one could take a streetcar from Riverside to DTLA to Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach—and the contemporary myth that the Los Angeles region was predicated on the freeway is just that: a myth. From Glendale to Gardena, Pasadena to Palos Verdes, many of these places became towns and cities because of the Pacific Electric Red Car network—and outside of its hub in DTLA, Long Beach was the area most patronized by and attractive to riders.
Long Beach’s network of electric trolleys was not just vast but exorbitantly convenient. It ran the entire stretch of what is now Ocean Blvd., from the eastern edge of the Los Angeles River across the coastline and into Naples, constructed in 1903 and a common destination once the Red Car network was expanded.
By the end of 1923, Long Beach’s local lines had over 4.5M riders that year alone, bringing in some nearly $400K in revenue to the rail system with its contribution.
The most prominent of these lines was our namesake track, the Long Beach Line which opened on Jul 4, 1902 and offered a 2.85-mile track that connected folks from our city to Los Angeles (later prompting the inspiration and creation of the Metro Blue Line in 1990). Its downtown terminus was, unlike the current transit mall, at the corner of Ocean and Pacific since, during the early 1900s, Pacific ended directly into our City Hall at 3rd and just east of Lincoln Park. From there its cars operated east on Ocean to American (now Long Beach Blvd.), north on American to a terminus in North Long Beach at the junction of the Newport Line, a short distance north of Willow St.
Here is an entire interactive map of the network:
“Imagine what Long Beach would be like today if it featured a streetcar system more extensive than those of San Francisco or Portland, current sterling examples of urban fixed-rail transit,” said Brian Ulaszewski of City Fabrick. “People would be able to access areas more efficiently, more healthily, more enjoyably.”
But as companies like Standard Oil and General Motors began to garner power by the creating buses and the almighty car, the popularity of the red cars dropped significantly, particularly when targeted by the auto and oil industries, who painted trains as unsafe, uncouth, and unbearably archaic.
Come April of 1961, the Long Beach Line was the last of the red car lines to be in service, with a ride looking like this before it was replaced by a bus line via connection through what we now call the 710 Freeway:
Interest in the red cars re-emerged after the millennium, with older folks and new schoolers alike wanting to taste what the red car system was like. It prompted the Port of Los Angeles to resurrect the line along San Pedro’s famed Ports O’ Call complex, stretching from the Marina Station at 22nd Street to the Cruise Control Center where luxury liners would take off into the Pacific.
The line consisted of two replicas, modeled after the 1909 red car, as well as an original 1907 trolley that occasionally ran the tiny line. The $11M project opened in July of 2003, only to be shuttered just over a decade later in 2015, with the Port citing rising costs as the reason it had to abandoned the reuse project.