It used to take Spencer Crump less time to travel from Long Beach to his job in Los Angeles than it has taken me to drive to The Times building in Costa Mesa. And I, it should be noted, live in Costa Mesa.
And while Crump got to kick back and read, chat with folks or play checkers, I was stuck in my car, fuming at the Department of Public Obstructions kaffeeklatsch that was freezing traffic, and wishing I had a car phone so that I might beat myself insensate with it.
The difference was that Crump was riding the long-defunct Pacific Electric Big Red Cars, that quaint, archaic transportation system that used to actually get people somewhere. Between its birth in 1895 to its final roll in 1961 the electric trolleys linked Southern California in a way that seems almost unimaginable now. Cheap, convenient and efficient, the Red Cars helped shape the Southland, contributing, among other things, to the viability of Orange County as a place to live.
When it comes to the Red Cars, Corona del Mar resident Crump wrote the book on them--two actually, with a third volume on the way. His first, "Ride the Big Red Cars," has been in print for 30 years. He says sales have never been better than in the last few years, due to renewed interest from the Red Cars pivotal place in the plot of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and to L.A.'s new Blue Line.
The retired journalist and journalism teacher is not the most fixated fellow imaginable--he doesn't live in a trolley car and doesn't trespass through people's condos and yards trying to retrace the system's old rail rights of way. Crump will admit, though, that one of the first things he does when he hits a big city anywhere in the world is check out the ride on its mass transit system.
But his isn't so much a fascination with the cars and tracks themselves as it is with where they went and the effect they had. That even goes back to his childhood thrill at seeing the Red Car trolleys.
"They seemed special to me only because my mother didn't have a car, so this was the way we got around to see the interesting things in Southern California. If she'd had a car I probably never would have given them a second thought," Crump said.
Though he's written and published such other books as "The California Western 'Skunk' Railroad" and a collection of railroad recipes called "Dinner in the Diner," Crump says " 'Ride the Big Red Cars' isn't a train book. It's about California sociology and history, about the way Southern California used to be."
Take Orange County, for example, which Crump said wouldn't have developed as it did without the Pacific Electric line. For most of the first half of this century, he said, "there was really no work in Orange County except in the orange groves or in retail stores. The work was in L.A. The main reason some of these cities down here--like Cypress, Garden Grove and Santa Ana--grew was because they were on the Red Car line," allowing people to easily commute.
The PE line had more than 1,100 miles of track, stretched from Redlands to Santa Monica and up Mt. Lowe. In Orange County it ran as far as Huntington Beach and the Balboa Peninsula.
While the Pacific Electric did a wonderful job allowing the public to work and play nearly wherever it wanted, the company wasn't fueled by altruism. Instead it had been founded by Henry Huntington, rich nephew of Southern Pacific magnate Collis P. Huntington. And while the Red Car line and its other investors rarely saw a profit, Huntington did.
"Henry Huntington was a pretty sharp guy," Crump said, "When he built a line to Newport, he bought Lido Island and other property around there. He bought Pacific City and changed the name of it to Huntington Beach. The same with the area that's now Huntington Park. He bought the land and then he brought the Red Car line to it. That's where he made his money.
"Not only that, he was basically the sole owner of the Pacific Power and Light Co., which became Southern California Edison. So he not only bought and sold the land, he brought the electricity in for people to use, and he made the money off that.
"There's a story that they changed the name of Floral City to Huntington Park in order to get Henry Huntington to build a railroad there. That's fiction. He changed the name of it himself because he bought the company that owned all the land. He was an egotist."
If healthy greed created the transit line, it also hastened its downfall. As serious students of state history and/or "Roger Rabbit" know, the Pacific Electric line was bought out by General Motors, Firestone Tires and other interests, whose chief concern was in doing away with the system to make way for more freeways and cars. With an almost biblical flair for desolation, they tore up the tracks, sold off the rights of way and scattered or demolished the Red Cars. Many were torn up for scrap, others were shipped to South America and some were dumped in the ocean to form a reef.
That there may have been just a bit of conspiracy involved was an idea central to the plot of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" But while Crump feels he had some influence on the film--he says someone from Disney called to pump him for information when the film was in pre-production--he didn't deal with the conspiracy theory in "Ride the Big Red Cars."
"That's my fault, an error in research," Crump said, "I was aware of it (when writing the book in 1961), but to be honest I realized I could spend the next 10 years doing research and never finish the book. A lot of people gather fantastic amounts of information and never write their book because they're still going after the complete answer. I realized I had to stop somewhere and write it."
He says he does deal with the theory in his new book "In the Wake of the Big Red Cars," which he hopes to publish next year. Crump's second Red Car book was a pictorial album. The new one will include more recent photo finds along with a further study of the effects of the transit system on the urban sprawl he calls "the City of Southern California."
Many of the photos for the book were turned up on the East Coast (they were originally postcards, and, logically enough, had been mailed to other parts of the country). Much of the new information in the book will deal with the towns and cities the Pacific Electric served rather than the line itself. He says there really wasn't much else to learn about the Red Cars. "Not to try to be egotistical, but a lot of the stuff people tell me now about the Red Cars comes straight from my book."
He still misses the rail system and thinks we've suffered without it.
"We've created sort of a hell here I think, compared to 35 years ago. People say I'm against progress. I'm not. But I liked it when we could see the mountains. (Our auto-based society) has been a nice deal for the oil companies, but for individual people, we are only faced with a tremendous and complete traffic jam that doesn't give us anything. This freeway driving is not only lonely, but it makes me uptight and stressed being in that bumper-to-bumper traffic."
Crump thinks Los Angeles' Blue Line is a step in the right direction but says that by running it at street level, it has crippled same the way the PE eventually was by having to contend with automotive traffic crossing its path.
His ideal transit system, he said, would be to have elevated mainlines for the major routes--the most sensible being monorails built over freeway medians--fed by smaller "people mover" cars, a system which sounds just a bit familiar.
"Yeah, it's like the one at Disneyland, really," Crump said.
As long as we're looking to our theme parks for inspiration, I could really go for a county connected by a system of aquatic log rides and dizzying teacups. Anything to make it more fun than it is. One friend, who says it takes her 40 minutes to travel five miles to work daily via OCTD buses, maintains that about the closest thing to conversations on her route are the former state mental patients bitterly muttering to themselves.
The only person I knew who did like our transit buses was the late Corona del Mar patriarch Gino Boero. He enjoyed them because he didn't have to go anywhere, but, rather, in his 80s just liked to ride around, see the sights and meet people. One time when he was 88, though, he woke with the idea of heading down to the Scripps Institution in La Jolla to get his ears cleaned. He was able to work out his transfers so that he made it all the way down there for 45 cents. He was sufficiently proud of that fact that it was four months before he mentioned to his family that the Orange County bus had stopped running by the time he was returning and it cost him $90 in cab fare to get home.