In the Pipeline: Red Cars become part of the ecosystem

The author Michael Crichton said, "If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree."

And so I think he would've been impressed by the many messages I received last week in reaction to my column on tracing where the Pacific Electric Red Car trolley lines used to run throughout Huntington Beach. Not unlike the reaction I got after the recent Meadowlark Airport columns I wrote, the words from readers were passionate, nostalgic and even a bit mournful for these bygone things that once helped sculpt the city of Huntington Beach.

Bob Hoenig was generous enough to send me a fascinating map that traced all of the Pacific Electric Railway stops throughout Southern California. Paul Stone sent me a wonderful photo and let me know that his brother-in-law is a trolley car expert with lots of information and photos should I ever need more in the future.

John Osborne wrote with memories of actually riding the Red Cars with his parents from Long Beach to Huntington Beach. In fact I received a number of first-hand accounts of what it was like to ride the old trolleys. For me, that is what brings history alive — personal accounts from those that were there. Thank you, everyone that reached out to me.

And much like the Meadowlark Airport series I did, this is a story that does not want to be contained in one piece. Just after I finished writing about the Red Cars in Huntington Beach, I read an intriguing post on This is a site created and maintained by Mary Urashima, who as of late has been doing a remarkable job documenting and leading efforts to protect and preserve the historic Wintersburg site here in Huntington Beach.

In the post, Urashima wrote about the history of the Pacific Electric Railway in Huntington Beach. She included some interesting photos, quotes and background information that help flesh out the history of the trains and their effect on the city. Near the end of her story, she included something I'd never heard about: information about a bizarre repurposing of many of the cars once they were pulled off the tracks and ready for the garbage heap.

It seems that someone had the idea to use a number of the cars to create artificial reefs off the coast of Southern California in an effort to create wildlife habitats. And while it sounds like an urban legend, as Mary discovered, it is actually true.

Red Car trains were sunk off the coast of Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach where today, they remain on the ocean floor, living on as a home for marine wildlife. But, did the same thing happen off the coast of Huntington Beach? Urashima happened upon some tantalizing clues in her research and so we spoke about it.

She explained to me that through the course of her research, she initially stumbled upon a fish and game website that first made a reference about attempts to use old Red Cars as artificial reefs. From there she kept on digging and then also learned that large concrete blocks were also being used as part of this project, which developed in the late 1950s through the 1960s, to help create these reefs.

As she detailed on her site, "In 1964, the California Department of Fish and Game published 'Fishing Bulletin 124' titled "Artificial Habitat in the Marine Environment." The report explained that National Metal and Steel Corporation at Terminal Island donated six street cars used to establish a reef off Redondo Beach and that the United States Navy provided a ship to transport and place the first streetcar reef."

Urashima also discovered that there were 20 other test sites for artificial reefs from San Diego to Santa Barbara.

While she could not confirm whether each location had a red car or concrete block submerged off its coast, she did happen upon this intriguing nugget: "One unsuccessful attempt was made to install an artificial reef in 55 feet of water off Huntington Beach in an area of completely exposed coast frequently subjected to heavy swells. Five artificial rocks, made of wood frames and wire mesh covered with gunite, were donated by Marineland of the Pacific. They varied in size from a few pounds to about one ton. All attempts to relocate them have failed. Presumably they were either rolled out of position in heavy swells or were buried by sand."

But were any Red Cars positioned off the coast of Huntington Beach? Urashima is still trying to get to the bottom of that but she would love to believe that somewhere out there, one of the historic trolleys is still doing some good as wildlife habitat around the Dog Beach area where it is thought the reef experiment took place.

As any amateur or professional historian can appreciate, there is nothing like the moment when you're researching something and you stumble upon some unexpected piece of information, so rare and startling, that it almost makes you forget what you were looking for in the first place. Should information arise about any cars off the coast, I promise to write about it here. In the meantime I invite you to visit Mary's blog as she has included some compelling images of divers actually examining the submerged cars off the Southern California coast.


Student Writing Competition

Also, it's time again for the annual In The Pipeline Student Writing Competition. If you're a high school student that lives in Huntington Beach or Fountain Valley and you'd like to participate, here's the assignment: In 600 words or less, write a story that reveals something unique and original about a person place or thing in the city where you live.

Photographs are fine but not mandatory, what is important is telling a good story that will leave the reader feeling better for having experienced it. The deadline is April 19 and you can email entries directly to me Your work will be published here in the paper, I will sign one of my books for you, and you and a guest will be invited to the ever-amazing Taste of Huntington Beach food festival on April 28, which I will be appearing at. 

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at

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