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

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