A Glimpse Into San Diego’s Rich Transportation History

The San Diego Union :: Special Transportation Edition :: July 1, 1924

While going through our historical archives over at San Diego Historic Streetcars a couple weeks ago, I stumbled upon this incredible gem: a full, original copy of the San Diego Union Newspaper from July 1st, 1924. This copy of the paper was the “Special Transportation Edition” and touted the benefits of streetcars and the expansion of streetcar service to a number of beach communities in San Diego: Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla.

This San Diego Union is full of interesting tidbits and provides a fascinating glimpse into San Diego’s transportation history. The positive tone throughout the newspaper shouldn’t be too surprising— streetcar service was very popular and successful in San Diego. Plus, the San Diego Union was a holding of  John D. Spreckels back in the good ol’ days of those sometimes-benevolent robber barons. Of course, the Spreckels family was also responsible for a lot of the development in these communities and owned the San Diego Electric Railway Company which expanded streetcar service to encompass most of San Diego at that time. Aside from those obvious questions of conflict of interest, there were actually a number of material benefits to this kind of regulated monopoly: one obvious benefit being our efficient city-wide streetcar system. Virtually anyone living in San Diego could easily travel across town on a charming electric streetcar via the extensive Speckrels-built rail network. No horse, buggy, or automobile required!

Perhaps most interesting is that the benefits of streetcars as potent engines of economic development were well recognized even back in 1924. In fact, many of these headlines of yesteryear could easily be the headlines we may see again in San Diego, if our city decides to make the commitment to restore streetcar service in the present day. For example, “Today Starts the Splendid Electric Streetcar Service That Will Add […] Many Millions of Dollars To [Pacific Beach’s] Property Values”, is something you could expect to read in the coming era of streetcar revival.  Well, maybe you won’t see the word “splendid” in any of today’s papers, but regardless of the exact wording it has been widely shown that streetcars greatly increase private development, business revenues, and property values around any new alignment. In Tampa, Florida, the Tampa Downtown Partnership has identified over $1.2 billion dollars of new investment and development in the two block radius around their historic streetcar line that opened in October 2002.

That is just one example of the powerful economic boon that investment in a historic streetcar can bring to a city. The good news for San Diego is that we are getting closer and closer to realizing our goal of restoring the Class 1 streetcars to America’s Finest City. On Nov. 5th, the Little Italy Association voted to unanimously approve the concept of restoring our historic streetcars to a new rail alignment in their district. We are looking forward to working with their association and the numerous city leaders who are supportive of this project to make that commitment a reality.

For now, please take a look at the full San Diego Union paper below— I recommend perusing the slideshow in full screen mode– and imagine the possibilities for San Diego’s future. Sometimes our history can provide an important framework for solving current problems. Let’s get to work to bring back a practical and charming form of transportation that is best suited to serve our downtown and uptown neighborhoods: the historic Class 1 streetcars.

Thank you to everyone who’s supported us along this journey. We couldn’t have made the progress we have so far without you!

Flashback Friday: Historic Postcards

1915 California Exposition Postcard

A depiction of a Class 1 streetcar at 5th Ave & B street, taken from a 1915 Panama-California Exposition postcard. Originally published by Eno & Matteson, San Diego, CA.

Every once in a while our organization comes across some interesting historical artifacts related to the Class 1 streetcars and San Diego’s early history. You may recall some of our previous posts on the topic, and if you follow our Facebook page, you’ve definitely seen some pretty cool historic photos of these streetcars and their old stomping grounds. This time around, we’ve got a pair of antique postcards to share with you.

Please scroll through the photos in the slideshow below to follow along.

The first postcard depicts an evening scene at the junction of 5th Avenue & B Street and bears the official seal of the 1915 California Exposition on the reverse side. The shape of the streetcar pictured, as well as the historic importance of the Class 1s in relation to the Exposition, suggests that this is indeed one of the twenty four original Class 1 streetcars. To top off the historic charm, a short and whimsical note from one friend to another on the reverse reads: “This street has a good many picture shows on it, so I’m generally on it when in San Diego” and is signed “Yours looking South”. This is easily one of our favorite finds yet!

The second postcard is equally interesting, showing two San Diego Electric Railway Company motormen in front of a Class 1 streetcar that ran out to “East San Diego”, which at that time was City Heights. The #2 streetcar line ended at University & Euclid Ave. If you peer closely, you can even catch a glimpse of some of the advertisements that lined the roof of the Class 1s interior… wow!

Hope you all enjoy seeing San Diego as it once was as much as we do. We hope to restore a bit of that history– and a bit of practical public transportation– to San Diego’s streets in the near future. If you’d like to help out, please head to our website and find out how you can get involved!

The Seven Bridge Walk

Quince St. Bridge, which crosses Maple Canyon

Quince St. Bridge, which crosses Maple Canyon. (Photo courtesy of sdrocksnroads.com)

Hello again to all of our supporters and streetcar enthusiasts! We hope you all had lovely holidays. We took some time off to enjoy friends and family, as well as a little bit of San Diego history.

This past weekend, we finally had the chance to take this wonderful 5.5 mile walk forwarded to us by San Diego Historic Streetcars board member Ernie Bonn (Thanks, Ernie!). The Seven Bridge Walk, published in the San Diego Reader in October, took us through several beautiful San Diego neighborhoods, including Bankers Hill, Hillcrest, University Heights, and also into the heart of our city’s crown jewel: Balboa Park.

We especially enjoyed the bridges that allowed access to the trolley lines that connected San Diego neighborhoods. As streetcar lovers, we love being able to walk along (and across!) history— especially a history that opened our beloved uptown neighborhoods to development in San Diego’s earlier days.

When you cross Quince Street bridge, imagine the trolley station that sat right across the way on Fourth Avenue. As you cross the Vermont Street bridge, think of how it might have looked as a wooden-trestle bridge that was used as part of the University trolley line (which ran 1888-1949). The Georgia Street Bridge, the seventh and final on the tour, was built as Greater North Park began to develop because of increased streetcar access starting in 1890. You can read more about how real estate development followed streetcar expansion in section 4.2 of this historic planning document. And you can read more about some of these historic bridges over at Hillquest.

Be sure to check out the entire walking route for yourself in the original article in The Reader.

We encourage you to walk along your local history… and while you’re at it, imagine what it would be like to have the historic Class 1 streetcars return to our cities uptown neighborhoods. Happy rambling, everyone!

The 1915 Panama-California Exposition

Photo of the Groundbreaking Ceremony for the Panama-California Exposition

The opening of the Panama Canal was an event that was expected to usher in a new era of growth and prosperity for the West Coast. As such, San Diego’s leaders began to plan a grand exposition to advertise San Diego as the first U.S. port of call for ships traveling westward through the Panama canal. The 1915 Panama-California Exposition not only helped elevate San Diego’s international profile, but it also led to the development one of San Diego’s most treasured resources, Balboa Park.

Of course, there was another historic treasure of San Diego that was designed and  built for the 1915 Exposition. John D. Spreckels had already donated the first $100,000 (nearly $2.5 million in today’s dollars) to kick off the fundraising drive for the development of the Exposition site, but he knew that they would also need to facilitate transportation for this event. Spreckels directed the engineers of his San Diego Electric Railway Company to design a special new streetcar to carry patrons to and from the Exposition. Homer MacNutt and Abel A. Butterworth drafted the designs for the Class 1 streetcar, a new model that combined the strengths of previous streetcar designs and uniquely refashioned them with the mild climate of San Diego in mind. These cars would serve both the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 and the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935 during their 1912-1939 run in San Diego. You can read more about the history of our Class 1 streetcars over at our website.

Recently our organization acquired a number of original antique items from both of the Expositions and we thought we’d share some photos with you all here! We’ve got a few postcards, souvenir tickets, an original menu, commemorative coins, and even medals from the groundbreaking ceremony of 1911. In the photo above you can actually see the men who wore those very medals! [1] Take a look at the slideshow below to get a glimpse of our collected turn-of-the-century relics.

The Class 1s: From Streetcars to Homes

Class 1 Streetcar Homes in Old Town, San Diego. Photo courtesy of the Coons Collection.

The story of the Class 1 streetcars is nothing if not fascinating, with the survival of the existing three practically left to chance. This limited edition of streetcars — only 24 were ever made — were built specifically for San Diego and the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park, providing much of the transportation for attendees who came to Balboa Park during that monumental event. The Class 1s themselves truly embodied the innovative spirit of the Exposition, helping to evolve the streetcar model with their center entrance construction and a half-and-half closed / open-air design developed for San Diego’s mild climate.

After serving as a popular form of San Diego transit for over 25 years, the Class 1s were retired in 1939. In order to reclaim the resources of the streetcars during the Great Depression, the city sold off many of the Class 1 streetcars as makeshift homes for $50 a streetcar body. Free from any major alterations, they were ultimately clustered into small neighborhoods, immediately recognizable to any passer by as Class 1 streetcars. Above you can see a charming photo of such a neighborhood, taken in Old Town San Diego sometime in the early 1940s*. There were streetcar neighborhoods in Little Italy and El Cajon as well. Eventually a law was passed that made the transfer of a streetcar body as a home illegal and as people slowly moved out of them, the streetcars were torn down and lost. Luckily, there was one couple who stuck it out longer than most.

In El Cajon, two young newlyweds moved into three Class 1 streetcars — car #’s 126, 128, and 138 — during the seven month window in which they were being sold and ended up living there for 57 years! After her husband passed away, the now elderly woman thought about taking care of the property and felt it would be too much for her. Unfortunately as she prepared to sell the lot and move on she was notified that she would have to pay a $30,000 disposal fee for the removal of the streetcar bodies. After hearing about these cars from a small group that was trying to find a way to save them, Christian Chaffee, antique dealer and now Board President of our 501(c)(3), went out to examine them. He purchased the cars and had them transported from the lot in 1996.

Now we’re making real progress in returning these San Diego historic landmarks (#339) to the rails, but we’ll need your help to make it happen! Please take a moment to find out how over here. You also can read more about the story of the Class 1 streetcars at our website.

*Photo courtesy of the Coons Collection