Red Car Memorial : Amid Rail Controversies, Historic Trolley Station About to Be Declared a Landmark
At a time when controversy continues over a proposed trolley line for the San Fernando Valley, an old Red Car station in Van Nuys--one of the few relics of an era when the Valley had streetcars--is about to become a Los Angeles landmark.
A bar has been added to the former Picover Station for Pacific Electric Railway. Otherwise, the small bluish-gray, wood-frame building remains much the same as when the Red Cars rumbled along Sherman Way half a century ago.
The Picover Station is expected to be declared a historic-cultural monument by the Los Angeles City Council on Jan. 11. It is “one of the last remaining historic railway structures in this area and represents a significant period in the history of our community,” Councilwoman Joy Picus said.
The Saylor family, which has owned the building at 16710 Sherman Way since 1952, applied for the designation to the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, which recommended council approval.
Historical status is usually sought to save buildings from demolition. But, in this case, it was requested to call attention to a little-known remnant of the Valley’s past.
The owners plan to convert the station, which has been used for antique shows and private parties, into a trolley museum. They are considering purchasing an old Red Car used as a diner in Santa Barbara to display in front of the building. And they plan to exhibit trolley memorabilia, including a piece of rail and spikes they discovered while planting flowers on the property.
“You can’t go anywhere on this property and plant anything or dig down more than a couple of feet without coming up with railroad spikes,” said Philip Saylor, 39, of Northridge.
The landmark designation comes as the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission is studying four routes for a proposed Valley subway or trolley or combination of the two. The proposed above-ground routes have drawn opposition from homeowners who live nearby. One of the proposed routes--along Chandler Boulevard--ironically is the same path traversed by the Red Car a quarter of a century ago.
The Red Car made its entrance into the Valley on Dec. 16, 1911.
The line ran from downtown Los Angeles into Hollywood, through Cahuenga Pass, onto Vineland Avenue to Chandler Boulevard. It then went up Van Nuys Boulevard to Sherman Way, where it split into two branches. One ran west along Sherman Way to the community of Owensmouth, now known as Canoga Park. The other ran to San Fernando via Van Nuys Boulevard, Parthenia Street, Sepulveda Boulevard and Brand Boulevard. A separate line ran from downtown Los Angeles to Glendale and Burbank.
In 1913, the 29-mile trip from downtown Los Angeles to Owensmouth took 95 minutes, according to “Ride the Big Red Cars” by Spencer Crump.
The vehicles were widely credited with helping to open the Valley to settlers. They stopped running between Van Nuys and Owensmouth in 1938 because they were unprofitable. Then the Red Cars were replaced by “motor coaches.”
In 1949, when Pacific Electric proposed ending trolley service between downtown Los Angeles and Van Nuys, Councilman Edward J. Davenport protested: “The rapidly growing San Fernando Valley will suffer disruptions akin to partial isolation if rail lines are abandoned.”
Despite the protests, the last Red Car to operate in the Valley--called “A Streetcar Named Expire"--made its final horn-tooting run in 1952.
“It was a sad day,” said cowboy Montie Montana, who, as honorary sheriff of the Valley, joined other dignitaries in riding the last Red Car.
“They should never have taken them out,” Montana, 78, added in a recent interview from his home in Agua Dulce. “You could ride downtown for a quarter and have no traffic.”
Red Cars continued running between Los Angeles and Long Beach until 1961, when they became a victim of progress. Automobiles became available at reasonable prices, and more and better roads were built. However, some have suggested that the trolleys were victims of a conspiracy involving auto and tire companies.
Little remains in the Valley of what Pacific Electric boasted was “the world’s greatest electric railway,” said Craig Howell, landmarks chairman of the San Fernando Valley Historical Society.
Most of the track, which ran down the middle of streets, has been torn up and replaced with landscaped medians. Some of the track on Chandler Boulevard, built for the Southern Pacific Railroad and used by the Red Car, remains. It is still used by freight trains.
A former station, also built by Southern Pacific and used by Pacific Electric, still stands in North Hollywood, though it is in poor condition. It now houses a building supply company.
Another former Pacific Electric station is a private residence in Van Nuys, its occupants unaware of their home’s historic status.
“I often drive the old route to see what is left,” Saylor said. He pointed out that the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard and Sherman Way still has a wide curve, known as Sherman Circle, “because the trolley had to make that slow turn.”
“Very few people have ever given it a second thought,” he added. “They don’t realize that was built for the trolleys.”
The Picover Station will be the first former trolley facility in the Valley to be declared a historic-cultural monument, but not the first in Los Angeles. Old trolley stations in downtown and West Los Angeles and Watts have received the special designation.
David Cameron, president of the Electric Railway Historical Assn. of Southern California, supported designation of the Picover Station as a landmark.
“The site is historically significant in at least two respects,” he said.
The Picover Station--no one could say where the name originated--was built in 1914 and was originally located in the farming community of Marian, now known as Reseda. It was moved in 1917 to the middle of Sherman Way, between Balboa Boulevard and Hayvenhurst Avenue, where it remained until the Red Cars stopped running in the West Valley in 1938. Then it was moved to its present location at 16710 Sherman Way, where it was attached to a larger building.
“The larger building, a 1932 vegetable-packing house, is one of the most important surviving relics of the era of the San Fernando Valley as a major agricultural region,” Cameron said. Valley produce was loaded onto rail cars there and shipped to downtown markets.
From the outside of the structure, all one sees is one large building. Inside, it is easy to distinguish the 20-by-40-foot station from the rest of the building because it is a separate room.
In converting the station to a trolley museum, the Saylors plan to use the larger part of the building as an exhibition hall for antique shows and other special events.
The family is renovating the building and plans to install a reproduction of the original “Picover Railway Station” sign on the front, Saylor said.
Inside, memorabilia from the Red Car’s days in the Valley is piling up.
The Saylor family has gathered tokens, tickets and timetables from the Pacific Electric line, as well as a row of seats from a trolley and a potbellied stove. Passengers sat around the stove in the old station to keep warm, Saylor said.
Several longtime Valley residents fondly recalled the days of riding the Red Car.
“It was a very pleasant experience,” said 69-year-old Bill Lakey, a Canoga Park resident since 1922.
Lakey, who lived on Sherman Way next to the tracks, said the Red Car was “no bother. When it went by, you stopped talking until it passed.”
“We moved there knowing it was there,” he added. But Lakey said he can understand Valley residents who oppose having a new trolley line built in their neighborhood.
Olive Reynolds, 77, a Valley resident since 1914, said she cannot understand the fuss over a proposed new trolley line.
“All of this about people saying they don’t want to live along the route I can’t understand,” she said. She said that during the Red Car days, “the elite of town, the people who were somebody” lived near the Pacific Electric tracks.
Lucy Allen, 81, whose father opened the first hardware store in Owensmouth in 1912, added: “Everybody who went into town rode the Red Car. . . . They should never have taken it out.”