Did Auto, Oil Conspiracy Put the Brakes on Trolleys?
It has been 40 years since the last clang-clang-clang of a trolley in Los Angeles. The Yellow Car -- the city’s local electric-car line -- made its final run March 31, 1963, a farewell tour on the “V” Line from Los Angeles City College on Vermont Avenue to Pico Boulevard.
Two years earlier, the interurban Red Cars that once ran from Redlands to Santa Monica for a penny a mile had made their last runs. Once both were gone, so was the golden age of mass transit in Los Angeles.
In the decades since, Angelenos have repeatedly asked the question: Who was responsible for dismantling the electric trolley cars?
The automobile became Angelenos’ preferred mode of transportation so quickly and completely that, for decades, conspiracy theorists have believed that the auto, oil and tire companies secretly did in the smokeless trolleys to promote the need for -- and sales of -- their products. The theory was part of a 1988 big-screen comedy about an animated actor named Roger who is charged with a murder he didn’t commit. As he and a detective work to clear his name, they uncover a conspiracy to wreck Southern California’s public transit system.
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” became to traffic planning what “Chinatown” was to Los Angeles water politics -- but with more laughs.
The giant corporations with a stake in cars and buses were prosecuted half a century ago by the federal government for conspiring to deep-six the region’s streetcars. The consortium of General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire & Rubber, Phillips Petroleum and Mack Truck Manufacturing Co., in turn, blamed the Red and Yellow cars’ demise on Angelenos’ love of their automobiles, arguing that residents had grown increasingly irate over the streetcars’ overcrowding, high fares, aging equipment, accidents and inadequate routes into the new suburban reaches of Los Angeles.
Although it’s tempting to believe that evil forces must have been to blame, most historians agree that GM and the other mega-companies only helped to speed the end of the railway, which already was deep into red ink. There were mixed court verdicts, with fines levied that were considered a drop in the bucket.
Nowadays, in the age of choked freeways, the nostalgic mystique of the old Red and Yellow trolleys remains and the old myths die hard, if at all.
It’s hard to believe in car-mad Southern California, but even before the beginning of the last century, and for a half-century thereafter, the streetcar was the model and the marvel of the nation’s urban mass transit. For the price of a nickel, a dime or two bits, the trolley whizzed over more than 1,100 miles of tracks connecting the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach to the San Fernando Valley, and from San Bernardino to Redondo Beach. Tourists rode from downtown to the heights of Mt. Lowe in the San Gabriel Mountains.
The electric-car system was the combined brainchild of railway and real estate magnates Henry E. Huntington and Moses Hazeltine Sherman.
Sherman was 19 and a New York schoolteacher when he headed west in 1873, seeking a warmer climate. He stopped in Arizona, where he spent 17 years building a fortune in real estate, banking, ranching and railroads, a fortune he would both spend and increase in Los Angeles.
By 1896, he was established in Los Angeles, where he and his brother-in-law, Eli P. Clark, built the first electric-interurban railway that linked Los Angeles to Pasadena. Their first rail cars were green; the line was called the Pasadena & Los Angeles Railway.
That line eventually was bought up by Huntington’s Pacific Electric Railway, which Huntington began building in 1901 -- primarily so people could reach his new suburbs and buy the homes he was building across the vast valley of Los Angeles and beyond.
In 1910, he sold his interest in the rail system to Southern Pacific Railroad. By then, the system linked more than 50 Southern California communities and four counties, making it the world’s largest electric-transit system. Huntington kept ownership of the Los Angeles Railway’s Yellow Cars, which operated locally.
In the 1920s, as Los Angeles grew and residents and businesses began moving to the suburbs, people began to rely more and more on the automobile for transportation rather than the aging trolley system.
With 160,000 cars cramming onto Los Angeles streets in the 1920s, mass transit riders complained of massive traffic jams and hourlong delays. The hard wooden seats and the open-window “air-conditioning system” in the summers were no picnic either.
The conflict between the trolley and the automobile was often played out at intersections, where they collided repeatedly, resulting in many injuries and deaths. Newspaper editorials raised the alarm about the accidents and crusaded against the streetcars.
The Red and Yellow cars became transit villains. Buses began competing with them as early as 1924, when a serious drought caused a power shortage, forcing cutbacks in trolley service for several years.
Pacific Electric tried to win back riders and increase trolley speeds, at the same time retiring more and more electric cars from city streets and beginning work on a subway.
In 1925, a $5-million underground route of slightly more than a mile opened to riders. It was called the Hollywood Subway and the Belmont Tunnel. When the trolleys rolled into town, they would dip underground at Crown and Bunker hills, saving 15 minutes over their formerly circuitous path through downtown. The subway began at the Subway Terminal Building at 4th and Hill streets before surfacing at Glendale and Beverly boulevards.
During the Depression, the electric cars were augmented with more bus service. Then World War II’s shortages of gasoline and rubber crippled bus service. By the end of the war, the trolley lines were decrepit, obsolete and deep in the red. Some Angelenos purchased the trolleys from scrap dealers, moved them to vacant lots and began living in them during the city’s housing shortage. (The landmark Pacific Dining Car restaurant, however, was built only to resemble a Red Car.)
In 1945, Huntington’s estate sold the Yellow Car system to American City Lines, a subsidiary of National City Lines, a Chicago-based company whose investors included General Motors and other big oil and rubber interests.
Here is where the conspiracy theorists have a point.
National City Lines soon controlled 46 transit networks in the Midwest and West, including Los Angeles. The company began scrapping these electric systems and replacing them with diesel buses that -- surprise -- used fuel and rubber.
Clearly, L.A.'s electric-car days were numbered.
By 1946, the Justice Department had caught on. It filed an antitrust suit against National City Lines for conspiracy to monopolize the transit industry. But before the suit came to trial in Chicago, the consortium of big companies bailed out, selling their holdings in National City Lines. That essentially left it as an empty corporation.
In 1949, the case finally came to trial. The verdict was mixed, with acquittals and convictions. Although they no longer owned National City Lines, the companies in the consortium were fined wrist-slapping amounts of $5,000 each, while individual company officials were fined $1 each, for a total of $37,007. By then, the far-flung suburbs were crisscrossed by cars, highways and a few freeways, and the so-called conspiracy plot simply applied the coup de grace to a dying system.
In 1953, Pacific Electric sold its remaining Red Cars to a private bus line, which was bought out five years later by the state-owned Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority for $33.3 million. The LAMTA scrapped the last Red Car in 1961, which was followed to the transit graveyard by the Yellow Car in 1963.
Even a Los Angeles transportation official declared, “The rail passenger operations of Pacific Electric became obsolete, and economically there was no justification for their perpetuation. As a result, like the horse and buggy, they dropped from the scene.”
To commemorate the death of the Red and Yellow cars, the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, near Riverside, holds its annual “Rail Fest” on April 26 and 27. It features a Yellow Car resembling the one that squashed a Model T in a Laurel and Hardy film.
There’s also a Red Car of the sort in which Gene Kelly danced in “Singin’ in the Rain,” just before he leaped into an automobile being driven by Debbie Reynolds -- a symbolic, transitional moment in the history of the Red and Yellow cars.