Remembering the Red Cars

For the last month or so, I’ve been knee deep in Red Car history. For those unfamiliar, Red Cars were the trolleys that clicked-and-clacked along Southern California’s Pacific Electric system, once the largest public transit system in the country.

Last fall, host of KCET’s Lost LA Nathan Masters invited me and a few of our friends to join him as he filmed a several scenes for the Lost LA episode on the Red Cars. We had so much fun talking Red Car history while exploring the old dark dank Belmont Tunnel and shuffling through all the hay on Irving Gill’s El Prado Bridge in Torrance. We then cheers’d to our long day of filming with a dinner at The Depot in Torrance, which used to be an old PE depot designed by Irving Gill.

I grew up hearing stories about the Red Car from my family. Mom’s mom always liked to remember how she and her family used to take the Watts local into downtown and even documented those memories in a letter. Mom had sent grandma a Sunset Magazine article written by famed conservationist and Sunset editor Martin Litton. Born in Los Angeles, Litton reminisced in a 1962 issue of Sunset about riding the Red Cars to see the Christmas window displays in downtown Los Angeles. This struck a deep chord with grandma who wrote back with a detailed account about the different Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railway lines she rode growing up. Here’s an excerpt:

“My, what recollections I have of riding the ‘Red cars’ – Pacific Electric – local Watts cars and the [Los Angeles Railway’s] ‘J’, ‘P’ and ‘S’ lines. But we rode the P.E. most of the time. It was a little closer & also they started operations earlier in the century. My folks were riding that ‘Watts local’ in 1906 or 1907.”

Having heard so many Red Car stories in my family, I was honored to write a KCET article about where to find remnants of those trolleys in Southern California. Considering that the last Red Car retired in 1961, it’s impressive that so much of that infrastructure — and traces of that infrastructure — can still be found throughout Southern California. I wonder, is that true for other cities who abandoned their old transit systems?

I wrote about a number of larger structures (old depots, a substation, a bridge and an actual Red Car), all of which engendered in me a deep appreciation for all those who worked to preserve and restore these Pacific Electric remains. One highlight (of many) in researching/writing this article was Red Car #913 at the Formosa Café. The 1933 Group and the LA Conservancy worked together to secure a $150,000 grant from the American Express Partners in Preservation program to meticulously restore one of the oldest Red Cars in the city. For a detailed account of this restoration, see Lynell George’s beautiful article on this historic watering hole in Preservation Magazine.

When I finished photographing the outside of the Formosa, I came in for a quick bite. Since it was still early, I had the whole car to myself. This made it easier to imagine how it might have felt to bounce along in a Red Car — just as my great-grandparents did in 1907.

Red Car #913 at the Formosa Café

Also, a big thank you to the Pacific Railroad Museum in San Dimas!! I spent some time in the museum’s library pouring over their numerous books and photos on the topic. The photo at the top comes from the museum and features a Red Car on the La Rambla Line in San Pedro. In addition to a research library, railway enthusiasts will enjoy the display cases full of artifacts from our railroad past.

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