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

2015, Here We Come!

Christian Chaffee interviewed by local TV

On June 1st, Class 1 #138 celebrated 100 years with great support and enthusiasm from the local community. Councilmember Todd Gloria and former State Senator Jim Mills came to express their support for historic streetcars in San Diego and an array of green transportation and historical preservation exhibitors joined us at Trolley Barn Park. There was excellent farm-fresh food by MIHO Gastrotruck and some live music courtesy of jazz ensemble The Heliotrope Ragtime Orchestra and the impeccable Miss Erika Davies. And thanks to Betsy McCue from La Vida Creations Photography for donating her serious skills to capture images for the event. We love to have fun with the community and we’re grateful for everyone that attended or helped make this event great.

Of course, we were also there to make an announcement! San Diego Historic Streetcars Board President Christian Chaffee unveiled a plan to have the Class 1 streetcars up and running just in time for the Balboa Park 2015 Centennial Celebration.  The plan would have the Class 1s restored and refurbished with lithium batteries by TIG/m, the same company that installed this technology on the trolley that has been running for ten years between the original farmer’s market and The Grove in Los Angeles. For the 2015 Centennial, the double-ended streetcar would run on a temporary loop in Balboa Park connecting the east and south parts of the park to 6th Street.  In the years to follow, it can be expanded to include routes down to the waterfront, ultimately connecting downtown to uptown. See a map of the proposed routes below.

Balboa Park 2015 loop

Please take a moment to help make this a reality in San Diego by donating to our organization here. Thank you for your support!