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After they were retired in 1939, there was a brief period when several of the Class 1 streetcar bodies were sold as houses for $50 each. A young newlywed couple purchased three Class 1 streetcar bodies and settled in El Cajon where they continued living in the streetcars for over 50 years. By the late 1990's, all of the other cars had been destroyed and out of the 24 original Class 1 Streetcars that John D. Spreckels commissioned for the 1915 Exposition, these three streetcars were the last remaining.

In 1996, local antiques and art dealer, Christian Chaffee, heard about the streetcars and decided to go to El Cajon to see them for himself. When he arrived he saw a structure that looked very much like a house. However, with years of experience in art and antiques, Christian could see beyond their façade; he realized he was looking at the three old streetcars. At the time, he believed the streetcars were special and deserved to be saved, but it would be some time before he would find out just how special they were to San Diego.

Cars 126, 128, and 138 as a home

After learning that the elderly woman who owned the home was going to have to pay $30,000 to have the streetcars demolished and removed, Christian purchased them from her. He carefully removed the elements that had been added in order to make the house habitable and with the help of a great team and a large crane, moved all three off of the lot. Once again, the streetcars were saved and ready to be preserved.

The streetcar being lowered into University Heights


Christian knew the streetcars were special, but he wasn’t entirely sure what he had until one day a man named Allen Copeland knocked on his door. Allen explained that they were Class 1 streetcars – the very streetcars that were built for the 1915 Exposition. He put Christian in touch with Alexander Bevil, a local historian who wrote an in-depth report on the historical significance of the Class 1s. This report was instrumental in the effort to obtain official Historic Landmark status for the streetcars. In 1997, with the support of many local organizations and individuals, the three Class 1 Streetcars were officially designated as San Diego Historic Landmark #339.

Gaining local landmark status was a vital first step, but we don’t plan on stopping there. As mentioned on our History page, the Class 1 streetcars represented a new design and system that influenced other cities. They were made for San Diego, but are part of America’s larger transportation history. The Class 1s will be eligible for State and National Historic Landmark designation once they are running on any part of their original line. If they were to gain this status, the streetcars would have an even stronger draw for those visiting the city and could lead to more funding options on a national level.  


In 1997, a number of experts, including Fred Bennett, who worked with the San Francisco Vintage Trolley, and a group of enthusiasts from the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California, came to San Diego to inspect the newly recovered Class 1s. After several hours of thoroughly inspecting the streetcars, the group determined that all of the important structural elements were intact and in good condition.  Bennett concluded that the Class 1 streetcars were excellent candidates for restoration, and that with certain modifications for safety and ADA accessibility, they could be put back in operation.

Official letter from Fred Bennett (click to read)

Many people were enthusiastic about seeing the Class 1 streetcars restored to their original, enchanting condition and put back in operation on the streets of San Diego. However, at the time, there were several obstacles standing in the way. Things like traffic flow patterns and redevelopment of certain areas had to be concluded before full restoration would be viable. Christian realized this would take several years and decided to hold on to the streetcars until the time was right for San Diego. And we at San Diego Historic Streetcars, Inc., are happy to say that time is now.


Today, there are more reasons than ever to bring back our Historic Class 1 streetcars.  Our citizens - especially those living in inner-city neighborhoods such as North Park, South Park, University Heights, Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Golden Hill, and more - are hungry for a transit system that will both serve their communities and bring people into these ever-growing areas.  The fact that we have a historic option adds an exciting layer that surprises and enchants people constantly as word spreads. And why shouldn’t it? We know of other cities that have similar systems and we want it too!

Streetcars in San Franciso and New Orleans

San Francisco is one example of an iconic system that effectively serves locals and acts as a tourist attraction that brings revenue to the city and people to the businesses in the areas through which it runs. The Cable Cars of San Francisco bring a historic charm to the city that a bus or a modern streetcar cannot. The same can be said for New Orleans, where they have never been without their streetcars and where the system is continuously expanding.  As one New Orleans business owner stated: "The streetcar is awesome. It brings foot traffic. I want to see a downtown where people don't drive, they walk." Can you imagine such a thing in San Diego? We can.

Tampa's historic Ybor City district

Other cities have been jumping on board the historic streetcar idea for years. One example that is particularly interesting to us is Tampa, Florida. Tampa, much like San Diego, has a strong tourist economy. The TECO Line Streetcar System runs through their cruise ship terminal, convention center, and historic Ybor City district (an area similar to the Gaslamp Quarter). In its first year, the line’s ridership was 20% over original predictions and the system is now undergoing expansion. Since the inception of the streetcar line, the areas through which it runs have seen over $800 million in private investments.  

Those cities and many others have worked with companies like Gomaco Trolley Company to restore and replicate their historic streetcars. Click here to view the timeline and cost breakdown of bringing back the Class 1s.



Like the Class 1s, John D. Spreckels had the Santa Fe Depot train station built for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915. It was the first stopping point for tourists coming to the Exposition and was built to match the Spanish Colonial style of Balboa Park. Our ideal route would connect all of these historic landmarks once again. The Class 1s would take passengers from the waterfront area at Santa Fe Depot, through downtown, and up to Balboa Park, just as they did 100 years ago.   

The historic significance of the first Class 1 line is key. Once the streetcars are running on any part of their original line, they will become eligible for state and national historic designation. This could open the door to federal funding and create a must-see heritage destination for tourists and locals.   

Perhaps the most obvious choice is the historic Broadway line that passengers rode back in 1915. This route would meet the criteria for state and national historic designation, provide high ridership access, and spur business growth in an underdeveloped area. As with any route, there are challenges that go along with laying rail down Broadway, and while it is an excellent option, it is certainly not the only option.

Looking to our friends in Tampa, we’ve seen the benefits that have come from connecting major tourist areas and local hotspots. If we were to mirror that route, we would seek to provide streetcar service from Santa Fe Depot to Seaport Village, the convention center, the Gaslamp, and Balboa Park.

To view maps and read more about some of the proposed options visit our Routes page.

Click image to see high resolution map

In addition to the historic significance of the route, another key element is to create access. Placing the route in areas where ridership is high (i.e. where the people are), can lay the groundwork for a larger system that will eventually expand into more neighborhoods. The success of the Tampa streetcar line has been evident to the surrounding communities, several of which are now working toward expanding the system into their neighborhoods. Additionally, running a streetcar through high traffic areas can have many other benefits. When you take people out of their cars you decrease traffic jams and parking issues and increase foot traffic (which is good for business).

Fifteen years ago, many community leaders were supportive of returning the Class 1s to the rails, including Former State Senator Jim Mills, and North Park Main Street members, Jay Turner and Richard Kurylo. They shared the dream of seeing the historic streetcars back in operation on the streets of San Diego and saw their potential to serve as a revitalization engine in areas throughout the city, including North Park. Jay and Richard's efforts culminated in the approved plans for a viable streetcar route and were also included in the North Park Traffic Calming Study as a way to reduce congestion in the area. (The historic streetcar feasibility study for this project can be seen here.) Additionally, they planned to use a large parking garage to allow people to come into North Park, leave their cars parked, and explore the town by streetcar. The multi-layered garage on 30th St. and University Ave. was intended for just this purpose and may be a good model for other areas to consider.

Parking garage in North Park

The idea of leaving the car parked is attractive for many San Diegans and visitors to the city. Just imagine hopping on a historic streetcar at the waterfront, leisurely riding down Broadway, where you might stop to enjoy dinner, a show, or shopping, then hopping back on to go up to Balboa Park. The tourists get to feel the history of San Diego as it is integrated into the present, and the locals get to enjoy their city as opposed to barreling through it. Yes, it's about the economy, but it's also about the community.


Once again the word is spreading and support is growing. Over the past year, Car No. 138 has undergone major cosmetic reconstruction and we’ve been thrilled to bring it out to several events throughout the city to give the public the opportunity to learn about (and actually climb aboard the streetcar. While at these events we've heard and felt the excitement from San Diegans who can’t wait to ride these historic treasures. The time is now and we are ready.


If you can’t wait either, scroll down to see how you can help in the effort to
bring back the Class 1s!




Historic Landmark Status

Time & Cost Estimates from Gomaco Trolley Corp

North Park Traffic Calming Study