There are train tracks outside the Los Angeles Maritime Museum. It’s not unusual in the harbor to see tracks. Rail is one of the chief ways they move thousands of tons of cargo. What is unusual is the small passenger platform alongside those tracks.
When I walked over to inspect the platform, I learned that it was a Red Car stop.
The Pacific Electric Red Car dominated southern California transportation for nearly half a century. It did much to make a set of disparate communities in the sun into a single region.
Truth be told, I have only the faintest memory of the Red Car. I can remember, probably in 1957 or 1958, going with my dad in the car to pick up my mom at the Red Car station in Lynwood, not far from where we lived. She’d been shopping in downtown Los Angeles. I also remember in about 1960 a huge dump of PE Red Cars where the 710 Freeway ended in Long Beach. The Long Beach line was the first of PE’s lines, starting service in 1903. And it was the last. The last streetcar rolled in 1961.
But here, between South Harbor Boulevard and the water in San Pedro, came a Red Car, an electrified trolley coming right to the platform, a vision of my very distant youth clanging its way toward me. This Red Car is a replica, built from the ground up to be exactly likes the ones that rumbled over a thousand miles of track as part of the largest interurban railroad in the world. It now travels back and forth from San Pedro’s World Cruise Center to the 22nd Street terminal, a route of 1.5 miles.
The Port of Los Angeles built two replica Red Cars and renovated a third one. It launched the Waterfront Red Car Line in 2003 as part of a port-revitalization project. The idea seemed to be that providing easy, inexpensive transportation from the cruise terminal past Ports O’ Call would give those boarding and disembarking from cruise ships something else to do (and a way to spend some money) during their time in San Pedro.
It doesn’t appear to have worked out that way. The Port seems to have discovered that a transportation hub is a necessary evil of travel, a place to get in and out of as quickly as possible and not part of most people’s sight-seeing agenda.
Still, the Red Car has a few passengers—parents showing their young children how things used to be, old-timers reliving a few minutes of their past, and train buffs. The 20-minute ride from end to end of the Waterfront Red Car Line costs $1. Actually, the $1 fare covers an entire day of riding the Red Car (which, judging from old-time tickets I’ve seen displayed and taking inflation into account, may be a fraction of what an all-day pass cost in the Red Car’s heyday).
I was struck on my rides how pleasant the passage was. The Red Car moves at maybe 10 miles an hour, which is about five times faster than I walk. The wood seats are comfortable, and the backs can be flipped so riders can face forward whichever way the car happens to be traveling, or they can face their traveling companions. And the bell can be hypnotic.
At one stop, the engineer decided the car was a little too warm, so she walked over to one of the windows, flipped up the sill, lowered the window into a wall pocket, and flipped the sill back into its horizontal position. Air conditioning that takes no space at all! It’s the kind of innovation you see in Craftsman-era homes. It was remarkably utilitarian in its day—and it still is.
It would be nice to say that the mobility and connectedness the Pacific Electric Red Car brought to southern California was the point. But in truth, being free to move around the region was a by-product. The point was a commercial venture. Henry E. Huntington, nephew of the Southern Pacific Railroad founder of Collis P. Huntington and once his employee, saw an opportunity at the dawn of the 20th Century to build an urban railroad in southern California by consolidating and connecting smaller streetcar lines.
He wasn’t the first to buy up real estate before the rails were laid, which is what put him in a perfect position to benefit from the increased values the streetcars brought to that land. He had developed a hotel in Redondo Beach, and hired George Freeth, the Hawaiian surfer and swimmer, to make that a destination people would want to travel to on his streetcar. He developed Huntington Park, south of downtown Los Angeles, and the seaside community of Huntington Beach in Orange County, and then connected them to the rest of southern California with his railroad.
Henry Huntington was, for the most part, out of the interurban rail business a decade after he got into it. Southern Pacific, the railroad founded by his uncle which Henry had tried to take over, bought out the Red Cars in 1911.
The tracks-to-land business model worked well for another decade. But after that, there was less southern California land to develop and more competition from automobiles. Ultimately, by 1950, companies with other interests—automobile manufacturing, tires, and gasoline—held a substantial amount of stock of a hundred urban and interurban electric rail lines in the United States. Cars were a more convenient form of transportation. It was a new age.
Just as the United States began to explore a new frontier, Pacific Electric’s southern California tracks went silent. They had forged a region that now favored concrete and asphalt roads.
But riding on the San Pedro Waterfront Line, it’s easy to put all of that out of mind for a few minutes, and imagine how it was getting from Point A to Point B a century ago.