Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Take a ride on the Red Car: When the Pacific Electric Railway came to town

THE RED CAR: The Pacific Electric Railway, car #607 to Huntington Beach.  Train trolley cars were the happy red color of every child's dream.  The color is recreated on the trolleys at Disneyland.

   "As a little kid, I loved those street cars.  My dad took them to work.  My grandmother took me everywhere on them.  Grandpa preferred the big "new" buses.  At 5 or 6 years old I just remember the Red Cars being so FUN -- It was like riding an amusement park ride.  The buses were smelly and no fun, so I far preferred going to downtown Los Angeles with grandma rather than grandpa.  It was really no big deal that my grandparents didn't drive cars.  They got around everywhere on public transportation..."
                                                               Linda Sapiro Moon, Huntington Beach resident
ABOVE: A crowd waiting for the arrival of the first train, the Pacific Electric at Huntington Beach, circa 1904. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)
    Once upon a time, train trolleys known as "Red Cars" traveled up and down the coast of Southern California.  A deep Corinthian red, the trolleys featured plenty of large windows for sight-seeing, a cattle-guard in front, and a sharply dressed conductor.  (See a few of the Red Cars at the Orange Empire Railway Museum, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sun58cBvNMo)

   Passengers enjoyed the fresh air and beautiful scenery, packed a picnic, and left the hassles of driving to others.  It was a carefree way to travel through Southern California, save the occasional obstacle on the track.

LEFT: Mooove!  Welcome to farm country: a cow on the tracks slows things down for Huntington Beach car #995.  Notice the weeds growing up through the tracks.

    The Pacific Electric Railway was established in 1901 by land and railroad tycoon Henry Huntington (yes, THAT Henry Huntington, the reason we are Huntington Beach).  In a genius move, Huntington simply made it easy for people to get to the land he wanted them to buy.   While it wasn't necessarily a profitable rail line, it functioned as a draw for highly profitable land sales.

   Coaxed by local leaders who needed financial support to realize the dream of Pacific City, land shares were deeded to Huntington, he brought the Red Car to our beaches, and as part of the deal we became Huntington Beach.

RIGHT: A tinted postcard image of the Saltwater Plunge at Huntington Beach circa 1912, a Pacific Electric Railway trolley and station in the distance.  A little over a decade later, oil was discovered and Hawaiian surfers brought a new sport to our shores. Soon after, the dressy beach attire relaxed.

   The Red Car brought passengers along the Pacific Coast from Los Angeles into Huntington Beach, with a stop at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands for the wealthy duck hunters staying at the Bolsa Chica Gun Club (more about the Gun Club, http://historicwintersburg.blogspot.com/2012/05/wintersburgs-okuda-family-and-bolsa.html).  Two train cars were parked along the beach in that area to host visitors.

LEFT: The Pacific Electric Railway's Huntington Beach station, circa early 1900s, was located at the beach near the pier.  The attraction of miles of sandy beach and a pier boardwalk brought Angelenos to Orange County. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

RIGHT: Dressed for a day at the shore.   A mother and children crossing the tracks near Huntington Beach's Pacific Electric station, circa 1915.  The Pacific Electric Railway station had a view up Main Street in one direction and out to the pier in the other direction. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

Huntington Beach downtown walking tour:  The Red Car brought passengers directly to the Huntington Beach pier and Pavalon, turning around near Railroad Avenue (now Lake Street).  

   Although this historical point for one of Huntington Beach's founding fathers is not currently marked by signage, we suggest you stand where Main Street meets the pier at Pacific Coast Highway and imagine the clickety-clack of a trolley ride along the beach.
LEFT: All "the great beaches" were on the route of the Pacific Electric Railway.  Special banner-clad "Huntington Beach Excursion" trolleys made an event of a day trip to our beaches.  Modern-day development in the area uncovered old bottles and other items left by train travelers' picnics. (Image, Los Angeles Herald, May 21, 1905)

RIGHT: Passengers could arrange to travel in Victorian splendor, inside the parlor car of the Pacific Electric.  Some of the "business" class cars featured leather club chairs.  (Photo, Los Angeles Herald, December 20, 1908)

   In 1904, C.M. Pierce took on the management and promotions of the "Balloon Route Excursion" and other day excursion trips on the Pacific Electric.  

   In a 1955 interview*, at age 90, he described the turn-of-the-century experience: "the car was somewhat ornate on the outside with electric lights around the roof as was customary with excursion cars in those days. But the inside had no fixed seats, just folding camp chairs. We went to work assembling a staff of guides and advertising men. For guides I hired big men of commanding presence. When they said anything, the people listened."

   Pierce--who said his "fondest memories" were "taking our tourists down to the beaches and back again"--recalled an advertising spiel: "...not up in the air but down on the earth. The scenic trolley trip, goes one way and returns another. A hundred and one miles for a hundred cents. One whole day for a dollar. Thirty-six miles right along the ocean shore. The only way to see it all and see it right."

   ""Every one of our men wore white caps with 'Balloon Route Excursions' on them," remembered Pierce"We were proud of our excursions and made sure the public knew we were proud. We ran a taut ship, as the saying goes." 
LEFT: The 1914 relief map for the Pacific Electric Railway show train lines from various points in Los Angeles directly to Huntington Beach and back again.  The "balloon route" was advertised as a sight-seeing adventure.

RIGHT: "Comfort, Speed, Safety": Pacific Electric trolley clatters on its way through Huntington Beach to Newport Beach.  It was a ride directly on the sand, near the ocean waves. Sand drift onto the tracks was an ongoing problem. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   Post World War II, the Pacific Electric Railway was bought by a consortium of companies--with both petroleum and automotive interests--which began touting "the modern trend...buses."  The Red Car hung on for another decade.

LEFT: The Red Car was still a popular way to get to the beach when this photo was taken near the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1950.  (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

  "In my first year or so at UCLA I lived in West Hollywood (La Cienega/Sta. Monica Blvd area) and took the red car to Beverly Hills to transfer to a bus to school. What I remember was really neat about that was sighting stars as I waited for the bus. I spotted Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, Elizabeth Taylor, Igor Stravinsky, Rhonda Fleming, Tallulah Bankhead...all passed my bus stop on a regular basis."
                                                                      David Carlberg, Huntington Beach resident

   If you want to understand how much the Red Car remains deep in the Southern California psyche, take a ride on the Red Car Trolley on Main Street at the Disneyland Resort.  In Huntington Beach, our summertime Surf City Shuttle buses are red.  The idea of a charming Main Street with red trolleys is something we lost, but refuse to let go.  

   The University of Southern California Regional History Collection describes the demise of the Red Car.  "By the 1920s, as the popularity of automobiles increased, service to some communities was discontinued as tracks were paved over, and the trains had to yield their high speed right of ways to traffic crossings. Lack of public support defeated plans for a subway or elevated rail system, and bus lines began to replace the red cars in many areas...by the 1950s it was clear that the automobile had become the premier means of travel..."

RIGHT: Perch swimming between trolley cars off Redondo Beach, circa 1958. (Photo, Artificial Habitat in the Marine Environment, Department of Fish and Game, University of California, 1964)

Urban legend or fact?
   One of the more curious rumors about the Red Car is that there may be a few in the waters off Huntington Beach, installed to create an artificial reef.

   John Salanoa, orangecounty.com, wrote about Huntington Beach's famous "Cliffs" and the rumored Red Car reef ("Spot Check: The Cliffs in Huntington Beach", November 24, 2009).

LEFT: Marine biologists inspect the street cars to be used in artificial reef pilot projects in 1959. (Photo, Artificial Habitat in the Marine Environment, Department of Fish and Game, University of California, 1964)

   "If you happen on The Cliffs at 6' or over, you might have the chance to see a break that only the locals know about - Cable Cars or Trolley Cars - depends on how old the local is  who you are talking to," writes Salanoa.  "Cable Cars is a man-made reef, created by old HB Cable Cars that used to run the streets back in the 20's through the 40's. It sits out about 50 yards past the outside break of The Cliffs, and only the bravest of men go out there to catch a triple overhead and get pitted."

RIGHT: A surf contest at Huntington Beach, circa 1963, a few years after Pacific Electric train cars were submerged off the coast of Southern California as part of an artificial reef experiment. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   According to Surfer Magazine's Guide to Southern California Surf Spots (Chronicle Books, 2006) the "Trolley Car" surf spot is off Hermosa Beach.  Sam Gnerre for the South Bay's Daily Breeze reported on "trolleycars" surf spot off Hermosa Beach in August 2010 ("Red Cars and reefs", August 4, 2010).  

   Gnerre cited a March 19, 1967, Daily Breeze article stating, "old Pacific Electric Red Cars had been dumped into the ocean years ago just off the Hermosa Beach pier to make an artificial reef."

   Surfer Magazine's writers report trolley cars were "dumped here before the EPA was created" after World War II and that "trolleycars lights up when the swell is big enough."  The same thing is reported in a local history book, Hermosa Beach (Arcadia Publishing, 2005), but the surfing spot is referred to as "Cable Cars."

   We don't argue with surfers.  We know there were various train trolleys and streetcars operating in Southern California.  And, we're used to getting confused with Hermosa Beach. Ahem.  Nonetheless, we looked further.

   In 1964, the California Department of Fish and Game published "Fish Bulletin 124," titled Artificial Habitat in the Marine Environment.  The report explains that National Metal and Steel Corporation at Terminal Island "donated the 6 streetcars used to establish a reef off Redondo Beach. The United States Navy provided a ship to transport and place the first streetcar reef."

LEFT: The sad faces of Red Cars stacked at Terminal Island, waiting to become scrap metal, circa 1956.  A few survived, but much of the tangible evidence of Orange County's Red Car train history was lost forever. (Photo, WikiMedia Commons)

RIGHT: A U.S. Navy salvage ship lowers an unknown trolley or streetcar into the Pacific off Redondo Beach / Palos Verdes in September 1956.  (Photo, Artificial Habitat in the Marine Environment, Department of Fish and Game, University of California, 1964)
   Apparently there were 20 test sites for artificial reefs, from San Diego to Santa Barbara (Huntington Beach being in the middle).  Utilizing various materials--such as automobiles and concrete blocks--it's unconfirmed whether or not each has a trolley.

LEFT: Marine biologist Charles H. Turner inspects a submerged trolley in the South Bay, July 1959. (Photo, Artificial Habitat in the Marine Environment, Department of Fish and Game, University of California, 1964)
   As far as Huntington Beach, Fish Bulletin 124 states, "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 1 ton. 

   All attempts to relocate them have failed. Presumably they were either rolled out of position in heavy swells or were buried by sand."

   Verified by science, the surf at Huntington Beach is fierce.   If there ever was a trolley submerged as part of an artificial reef off our beach, it might have left on its own Red Car adventure.  Just how we'd like it.

RIGHT: Off on an adventure: the "special" Huntington Beach Excursion day trip on the Pacific Electric Railway, circa 1915.  Local venues like the Huntington Inn offered lunch for travelers.

The Orange Empire Railway Museum has a great video tour of a Pacific Electric "business" or "parlor" car at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgdO-0uQzwQ

The Pacific Electric Railway Historical Society posted "The Pacific Electric Trolley Waltz," written in 1905 by Miss E.M. Greenough for the Pacific Electric Railway Company (with historical images) at http://www.pacificelectric.org/pacific-electric/pacific-electric-video/pacific-electric-trolley-waltz-of-1906/

*Electric Railway Historical Association.

All rights reserved.  No part of the Historic Huntington Beach blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, M. Adams Urashima.    


  1. A contemporary note in "Railroad" magazine claimed that competing Los Angeles Rwy. (LARy)yellow trolley cars were used as artificial reefs off California about 1960. A later rumor claimed that they lasted about 10 years because of their high wood content. That Sept. 1956 car the Navy is lowering does look more like a city trolley than a Big Red Car.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jim! There definitely are various reports referring to "Red Cars" used for artificial reefs and I'm still chasing down information. I added a little more information to clarify the sources of the reports. You might be interested in seeing the different types of Red Cars on the Orange Empire Railway Museum website, as there were some larger cars: http://www.oerm.org/collection/red-cars-pacific-electric. There also is a great black and white Pacific Electric training film at that link.

  3. My Mother Alicia Wentworth former Huntington Beach City Clerk,and HB CIty Historian until her death, arrived in Huntington Beach from New York in 1947 with her Sister.They lived in a trailor on the beach in Huntington, and traveled daily to her first California job in Los Angeles for Kodak Company. She would catch the Red Car at train station at the foot of the pier, and for a quarter ride to her job in LA, then back in the evening. Great Article! Thanks for the memories, as I also remembered the red cars in operation until almost the 60's. David E. Wentworth SR. Huntington Beach

  4. An excellent story...thank you very much for sharing it!

  5. I also remember the red cars in the early sixties off hb and as kids later we pulled out the rail road spikes painted them gold or silver and sold them to the tourist !....HB 3RD G.


Historic Huntington Beach highlights local history. We appreciate the inquiries, anecdotes and memories of our readers. Comments with embedded commercial / advertising links will not be published.