History of Oakland's Electric Streetcars
by Alexander Fisher
Oakland’s trolley system has a relatively short but very eventful and interesting history. There was the origin of the street cars in Oakland and the founding of Key System. Another interesting part of Oakland’s street car history was the jitney craze which led to the advent of buses. But of course the most interesting event by far in the history of street cars was the General Motors street car scandal. This essay will give a detailed overview of the history of the trollies from the early 20th century till the modern day in Oakland the important events that surrounded them. In this essay I will do my best to convey a complete yet concise and interesting summery of the history of the electric rail car or trolley in the bay area with my main focus on Oakland. This essay will start with a description of how the first trolleys came to California
The first trolleys in the bay area were the steam powered trams of San Francisco which were first built in 1873 (Fickewirth 1992). It was not until Southern Pacific Railroads expanded its streetcar business that the trolley came to Oakland. Southern Pacific built its first trolleys in San Francisco but soon expanded to Oakland. Their first streetcars in Oakland were built in 1884 (Fickewirth 1992) and were meant mostly to service passengers going to and from the ferry docks on the bay. These lines were eventually expanded to various other East Bay cities such as Alameda, Piedmont, Richmond and Emeryville (punctuation). However Southern Pacific railroads interests were mostly in the Transcontinental Railroad and the profits to be made by hauling cargo. For Southern Pacific trolleys were merely a side show to the main event that was heavy railways. What little attention they did pay to their trolley business was usual reserved for their San Francisco branch. Eventually, other companies who were more dedicated to trolley, staked their claim in Oakland, and there specialization gave them an edge. Eventually Southern Pacific sold its trolleys in the East Bay when competition became more severe.
While there were other street car companies in the Bay Area before the key system, most of these were steam powered (Miller 1960). Therefore, the real history of the trolley in Oakland starts in 1903 when Francis Marion Smith co-founded key systems (Walter Rice 2007). Francis smith’s was a mining expert who specialized in Borax mining and his company developed a new method of borax extraction that helped make him very wealthy and earned him the nickname the “borax king.” Francis got into the railroad business to support his mining interests with his own transportation companies for shipping. In addition to the cost saving he accomplished by shipping his own products Francis developed a passion for developing the railroads and was constantly trying to expand into the railway business. Francis eventually founded two railroads the Trona Railway in 1913 and the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad in 1905 which connected his lucrative borax Business directly to union pacific station in Searle’s California. His interest in the rails eventually led him to co-found the San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose railway with Frank C. Havens in 1903 (Walter Rice 2007). Frank Colton Havens was a lawyer and real estate developer in the Bay Area and in addition to co-founding Key systems he and Francis also constructed by the Claremont Hotel club and spa. Eventfully Francis and Frank had an additional line built on the Key system that led right to the doors of the Claremont Hotel (Walter Rice 2007). Francis and Frank also built the Key Route Inn and constructed Idora park. All these properties were connected by electric streetcars built by key systems in an effort to boost their profitability. In fact Key System was originally a subsidiary of the Realty Syndicate which was the business co-founded by Francis to buy the property for this project. When originally planned Key systems was never expected to become profitable on its own, but rather, it was built to enhance to value of Realty Syndicate’s other properties. But eventually it became apparent to both Francis Smith and Frank Havens that Key systems had the potential to make them a lot of money on its own and thus it was greatly expanded. The SFOSJR began service by transporting people by trolley from Berkeley to the fairy and stops along the way. As the Business expanded to new areas the general manager had the idea to display the trolleys route on a stylized map shaped like an old fashion key connecting Piedmont, Berkeley and Oakland. As a result of this idea and the popularity it brought when SFOSJR went bankrupt in 1923 it was reformed under the name Key System Transit Company. This was a stroke of marketing genius as thanks to the maps the term Key System was already a buzz word for people in the Bay Area. After this point the company remained in power until the end of the trolley system.
For most of its history the Key system was the most successful public transport company in the Bay Area. It would eventual serve all of Oakland as well as San Francisco San Jose, Alameda Emeryville San Leandro Albany Richmond and Piedmont. While they were involved with other forms of public transportation Key system was most famous for its electric streetcars or trolleys. While Francis had originally only built rail companies to support his mining operations his creation of key system turned out to be by far his most profitable Public transport venture despite it not being connected to his mines. Originally the Key System made most of its money by transporting people to the Key Route peer on the Oakland Long Warf which was a massive train depot and ferry stop. People came there to use the ferries to take them to the San Francisco ferry building. Key systems kept operating in this way until a new dual track opened on the bay bridge in 1939 giving them access to the trans-bay terminal.
During world war II Key Systems built and operated the shipyard railway which ran from a transfer station in Emeryville to the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond (Walter Rice 2007). This project was funded by the United States maritime commission but the actual construction and operation of the line was left to the experts at Key system. This railway helped ship workers do their jobs building and repairing warships for the United States Navy. Due to the lack of raw material especially steel due to the war effort the rail had to be built using only recycled or scrap metal. The key system also reused rails from tracks they had dismantled after shutting down certain routes due to lack of ridership. Even the actual streetcars that ran on this line were all salvaged from scrap heaps or were out of date streetcars that were brought out of retirement. After the war ended the navy offered to let key systems keep ownership of shipyard railway but since the steel workers was no longer a needed for the war effort ridership was expected to decline so they refused the offer. After this shipyard rails were quickly dismantled and its cars retired however some of its trolleys still exist today. Car 561 (Fickewirth 1992) was restored and is now giving rides at the western railway museum were it is believed to be the oldest electric streetcar still operating in the United States. Its sister car 563 is also at this museum but is still being restored.
The Key system only had one major rival to its business in the bay area and that was The East Bay Electric Lines (Walter Rice 2007). This company was a part of the greater Southern Pacific Railroad and predated the arrival in the Bay Area of both Key system and SFOSJR. Originally East Bay Electric Lines operated steam powered passenger and cargo trains and they had a small feet of steam powered fairies as well. After the arrival of the Key system in the Bay Area East Bay Electric Lines Decided to upgrade to an electrified rail system. For a long time they remained the Key systems only major rival. But due to the Key systems growing popularity they were slowly forced out of business and the ceased operations in 1941. Most of the company’s cars and rails were abandoned while some were sold to key systems. While this company did have potential it simple failed to upgrade to the electric rail system in time to compete with the key system. This lack of vision cost it money it could not afford to spare and thus it did not have the reserves or customer loyalty the Key System had gained over the years. The result was that they had no means to last through the great depression.
While the Key system operated many forms of public transportation its electric rails cars were operated by a special division of the company. The name of Key systems trolley division was originally called the Oakland Traction Company (Walter Rice 2007) but was renamed twice first to Easy Bay Street Railways LTD and then finally to the East Bay Transit Co. The renaming of this division reflected the increased use of busses as time moved on. The division had many trolleys in operation during its height and when not in use they stored most of them in their central car house on 3rd avenue on the shores of Lake Merrit. Key systems other forms of public transportation included a trans-bay train that took people across the bay to San Francisco. Key System also operated multiple fairy’s but despite this its electric streetcars were its biggest source of income for most of its history. Eventual during the 1940’s busses took the place of electric streetcars as key systems biggest source of income. It was not a Coincidence that this was when its streetcar division was renamed for the final time to East Bay Transit Co. eventually that division’s buses were sold to ac transit.
As automobiles became cheaper and more widespread it became apparent that there would be some kind of competition between cars and trolleys. The taxi did not affect the trolley business because it could not compete with electric street cars for price or number of passengers carried but instead had to pick up people whose travel did not take them down the Bay Area’s public transit routes (Goddard 1996). Further taxis were considered by many to be unsafe compared to trolleys. The first type automobile to truly threaten the trolley system was the Jitney bus. These were close vans or military jeeps then the busses of today and did not carry as many passengers as a trolley. However the owners of these jitneys could operate much more cheaply than a jitney as they did not have to pay for rails to be built or maintain (Goddard 1996). This prompted the common saying a nickel for a jitney and to make matter worse jitneys would often fallow the same routes and stops as trolleys thus steeling their passengers but undercutting their prices. The first jitneys ran in los Angeles in 1914 and Soon jitneys had spread across the united states This period is often called the jitney craze. During its peak in 1915 62000 jitneys were operating in the United States. In addition to being cheaper jitneys were faster and thus the impact on the trolley was harsh some trolleys lost as much as 50 percent of their ridership to the jitney’s. In short order the trolley companies across the United States including the Key system were up in arms over the issue of the jitney and sought to severely regulate the jitney (Goddard 1996). Streetcar companies demanded that jitneys be regulated off the road because they often only ran during rush hour and were not bonded. The government stepped in and put many harsh regulations on jitneys including that they pay for liability bonds that amounted from 25-50 percent of their income, jitneys operate along a designated route and charge triple to deviate from that route, carry all city employees free of charge, require a 10mph speed limit for jitneys, ban jitneys from high ridership areas and many other harsh limitations. This effectively ended the jitney and by 1917 only 6000 jitneys remained. But despite this victory the trolley system was not safe because they had failed to realize why the jitney craze had happened and because of this would not be prepared for their next challenge.
Similar to how car companies would later circumvent new laws that regulated fuel efficiency by creating the sport utility vehicle the bus replaced the jitney bus and due to its size was shapes was not technically a jitney (Goddard 1996). Since busses were not technically jitneys they were not regulated by the same laws. However due to their size busses could not typically be owned and operated by a single person like jitneys could and thus took a little longer to spread. However by the early 1920’s buses were steadily spreading across the United States and were in almost every major city. When compared to electric trolleys buses like there jitney cousins were once again cheaper, faster and did not require new rails and electric cables when they wanted to start new routes. To make matters worse the great depression made the cheaper busses that much more appealing to the average American. Once again trolley companies across the United States got together to try and regulate busses out of business and once again the government put regulations in place. This time however the government was not as eager to help the trolley companies because even they could see the advantages of busses (Sloan 2003). Because of this the government regulations of busses were strict but fair and rather the seeking to destroy the bus system they only sought to make the competition between busses and trolleys fair. This effectively spelled the end of the trolley system by itself as the trolley was vastly inferior to the bus and would thus most likely lose to the bus companies. The bus companies also instituted a pooled fair system by which every bus route in a company would pool the money they made and divide it evenly to ensure equal pay and this appealed to the workers of bus companies as well as helped the company pay for its expenses and add to its stability.
Many cities in the United States began to adopt plans to phase out interurban railways and trolleys in favor of buses (Goddard 1996). As busses become more and more prominent even companies that had once been hardline supporters of trolleys such as East Bay Transit Co. and even the Key system began to phase out trolleys in favor of busses (John 2006) but by the time they did it was too little too late. Due to a failure to trade in trolleys for busses soon enough and the decline in their other public transport operations due to similar failures Key systems went out of business in 1963 (Walter Rice 2007). But while Key system remained in business its trolleys were all replaced by busses by 1948. Later there Trans-Bay Commuter trains to San Francisco went out of business in 1958 due to declining ridership (Goddard 1996). Key systems remaining assets were later purchases and replaced by Ac transit and its famed Trans-Bay Commuter train system was replaced by Bay Area Rapid Transit better known as BART. Like its rival East Bay Electric Lines which failed to adopt the electric streetcar the Key System simply failed to realize that the trolley was obsolete until it was too late and was thus replaced by something more modern.
This brings us to Bradford Snell who was the first person to put forth the theory that there was a grand conspiracy that brought down the electric streetcar. Snell’s theory was that general motors had been behind a conspiracy to rid the United States of trolleys in order to force people to buy more of their automobiles (Sloan 2003). This theory led to the so called general motors street car scandal which ended up getting enough fame that to this day this conspiracy theory is still conserved by many to be true (John 2006). But unfortunately while this conspiracy to wipe out public seems like something GM would do it is completely false and this means Snell was the originator of a case of mass disinformation. While Snell truly believed in this theory let me be clear that Snell was wrong and was himself very prone to jumping to conclusions. For instance Snell also proclaimed that General Motors and Ford Motors were intentionally committing treason during world war two by manufacturing tanks for Nazi Germany (Sloan 2003).
Despite the obvious lack of truth to Snells claims his version of the street car scandal is still very popular. This is an unfortunate case of public history run wild where a large number of people readily accept something as historical fact despite its falsehood. This is perpetuated by people who refuse to accept any history they don’t like as well as those who accept what they’re told without doing research. Therefore while there is abundant and readily available information that conclusively disproves Snells theory many people continue to believe in the rumor that General Motor want to bring down public transportation. The reason this constant retelling of the General Motors conspiracy theory is so hard to prevent may simply be because the rumor is so much more interesting then the truth. This is the same reason stories about aliens at area 51 persist despite the fact that what really was going on at area 51 has already been declassified by the United States Army. But despite the rumors falsehood the rumor took on a life of its own and is now an integral part of the history of the streetcar just as aliens will always be part of the area 51 story.
While his conspiracy theory regarding the street car scandal was false it like most rumors legends and conspiracies is based in a kernel of truth. In this case the truth is that there was an attempt led by General Motors and their allies Firestone Tires and Philips Petroleum (now part of Conoco Philips) to buy up the electric streetcar companies in the United States (Sloan 2003). However the reasoning behind this was completely different from Snells theory. In fact not only did general motors not want to put public transit out of business they in fact wanted to improve public transit. The CEO and president of GM was Alfred P. Sloan and he put together a special committee in his company to buy up stock in trolley companies in order to convert them over to busses. His goal was not to end public transit but to take advantage of a preexisting trend of busses pushing trolleys out of business. He wanted to have control of the trolleys so he could convert them to busses which his company produced parts for (Sloan 2003). In addition Firestone could sell more tires once electric streetcars which did not have tires were replaced by busses that did. Philips petroleum stood to gain as well because while trolleys ran on electricity busses ran on petroleum gas.
General Motors bought most of their electric streetcar stock through three different holding companies called National City Lines, Pacific City Lines and American City Lines (John 2006). The owners of which were GM firestone and Philips Petroleum. By 1946 National City Lines owned sixty four percent of Key System as well as stock in many other trolley companies. The same year retired naval commander Edwin J. Quinby published an expose revealing the true owners of these holding companies. Edwin was the founder of a political lobby to support trolleys and thus was highly motivated to end this plan. In April 1947 9 companies were indicted in the federal district court of Southern California on counts of conspiring to gain control of several transit companies forming a transportation monopoly. In 1949 General Motors, Firestone and Philips Petroleum were found guilty of trying to monopolize the sale of busses and bus parts but were found innocent of attempting to monopolize electric streetcar companies (Sloan 2003). This is where Snell’s theory gets its kernel of truth from which he somehow came to the conclusion that not only was general motors guilty despite the verdict but that they were conspiring to end public transportation. This was in spite of the fact that General Motors was found guilty of trying to monopolize the sale of busses which runs completely counter to trying to get rid of public transportation. General Motors and its partners were fined 1 million dollars each and were forced to break up their monopoly a sentence that’s harsher than it sounds considered that this was 1 million dollars in 1949. Still while general motors was not trying to end public transport they were still guilty and should not be sympathized with.
But even thought we should not sympathize with general motors this does not mean that the streetcar companies were saints. Street car companies had a bad reputation of worker exploitation and poor handling of worker relations (Molloy 1996). There were many electric streetcar workers striking in Oakland and the Bay Area throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The first major strike of street car operators in the bay area was the strike of 1907. This strike started in San Francisco but spread to Oakland as well. The 1907 strike is still consider the bloodiest streetcar strike in the United States and possibly also the bloodiest of its kind in the world. The workers at the period were striking for three reasons the first was to gain recognition for its union. The second reason for the strike was to gain a pay raise from 2.5$ a day to 3$. The third and final reason for the strike was to reduce the work day from 10 to 8 hours. Initially the company and the labor leaders negotiated but the company refused to recognize the union or to reduce the work day. Therefore the workers staged a walk out and refused to go into work until their demands were met by the company. Unfortunately the company decided to hire scabs to replace strikers on short notice. In order to ensure its success they hired the man name nicknamed the king of strikebreakers James a. Farley in order to lead and defend the scab workers. He led several trolleys with his men all armed with pistols or rifles. However when the streetcars left there depots there were attacked with bricks and rocks by striking workers who had surrounded the place. James Farley attempted to defend himself and the scabs he had brought in by firing into the crowd. This tactic worked for a while but the worker continues through bricks and the first car to start its work day was forced back when Farley’s men ran out of ammo and were forced to retreat. The next two cars did not even make as far as the first and the last two were outright commandeered by the striking workers and driven back to the depot. Police brutality was at an all-time high in the area during the strike. Part of this was because the police were even ordered to shoot to kill if they felt their lives were in danger. This was allowed because it had only been one year since the San Francisco earthquake which had cause widespread fires and panic which in many led people to lives of crime most of which were looters. During the strike the police had to step in to protect one of the streetcars that had been surrounded. Eventually higher ups in the companies closed down temporarily and set out on a policy of strikebreaking using various forms of violence to intimidate the strikers until they gave up. Over the course of the strike 25 people were killed and 2000 were injured (Molloy 1996) most of these were workers and trolley passenger. The results of this strike would set the stage for another strike by streetcar worker s in 1917 in which workers would once again fight for a 8 hour work day and higher wages.
The next strike of streetcar workers occurred in 1917 and once again the workers were striking for an 8 hour work day and union recognition (John 2006). The only difference was that this time they were striking for a pay raise from 3$ to 4$. This time however the strike was much more peaceful as agitators planed the strike well in advanced and it caught the company off guard as nearly all their workers walked out at once. Since they were caught off guard the streetcar companies did not have time to hire scabs ahead of time and as a result were under more severe pressure to settle on the workers terms. In fact the companies were forced to shut down most of their lines. Despite this however most of the companies still held out and eventually after three months of hiring strikebreakers and scab labor they finally outlasted the strikers.
There were many contributing factors to the near extinction of the trolley as a means of public transportation in California. In the 19th century electric street cars were considered great money makers and people praised their creators. Now people could live in one part of a city and work in another without owning a horse or car. This sentiment continued through much of the early 20th century But eventually by the end of World War II trolleys car businesses were starting to rapidly go out of business and by the early 1960’s trolleys had ceased to exist across most of California. Nowadays electric streetcars can only be ridden in parks or in places like San Francisco that keep certain trolleys working not because they are a profitable transportation business but because they are profitable as historical exhibits and amusement rides. So what factors contributed to the trolleys rapid decline?
The first factor in the downfall of streetcars as a profitable business in California was the increasing use of buses (Goddard 1996). General Motors and its partners failed to completely buy up Key Systems and thus there plan to convert its trolleys to busses failed as well. But despite this failure by GM Key Systems ironically decided to start switching over to busses in the 1940’s without GM’s influence. This was due to the increasing popularity of busses that could no longer be ignored by Key systems and they started employing bus’s to meet popular demand. At first they only used buses as a means to bring people from other parts of the Bay Area to the trolley stop nearest them after which they were expected to transfer to a streetcar. Soon however it became apparent that this tactic was not working as people ignored Key systems new bus routes in favor of other bus providers. Eventually Key systems began to slowly relent to the clear trend of the market towards busses and they began to slowly phase out their trolleys. However the process was two slow and they were overtaken by other bus companies. Still key systems did manage to profit from its busses and in 1948 they proposed a plan to replace all their electric streetcars with buses. This would mean paying for dismantling their street rails as well as buying new buses. In order to fund this endeavor they raised there Trans-Bay Fairs as well as other prices. This sudden rise in fairs wound up casting them business and was a contributing factor in their going out of business. But despite their efforts many of their busses met with failure due to their companies lack experience (CHAOS MARKS FIRST WEEK OF NEW BUS SERVICE TO EAST OAKLAND CONNECTION AT OAKMORE 1946).
Another factor in the downfall of the trolley in California was changing demographics. Before World War Two the model T was the first widely affordable personal car. But even the model T failed to deliver a car into every American home and after the great depression began the owning of a private car became a luxury many could not afford. However after World War Two most families in the United States were expected to own two cars and most could at least afford one (Goddard 1996). Because of this public transportation to a large hit across the board and trolleys were hit especially hard. This is because trolleys were already beginning to suffer following the advent of buses so while all types of public transit were effected this the trolley was affected more. In addition the rise of private car ownership caused an increased demand on paved roads witch often had to be shared by both cars and trolleys and since trolleys ran on rails people with cars often complained about having to wait while trolleys cars passed and about how slow they had to got when driving behind a trolley. This led to harsher regulations on electric streetcars that contributed to their downfall.
The final factor in the downfall of the trolley in California was the strike of the electric streetcar workers union. As electric streetcars became less and less popular and people switched to busses most trolley companies were forced to cut hours in order to pay for maintenance and upkeep. To make matters most workers had not been received a pay raise in a while not even a price of living pay raise. This was because trolleys could not afford to raise fares any higher or the risked losing more ridership with would put most trolleys out of business thus the electric streetcar union struck for higher wages. Theirs goal was a minimum of thirty percent pay increase but unfortunately most trolley companies by this time could not afford even that much of pay increase. Therefore the union kept striking and the trolleys kept refusing to increase wages not out of any malevolent hatred of the unions but simply because they could not meet the workers’ demands without going out business. Eventually the strike itself put many of the trolley companies out of business. These anti trolley strikes that occurred in Oakland happened in 1953 (STRIKE IS SETTLED AMID SIGHS OF RELIEF 1953) simultaneously with one going on in San Francisco and while key system manages to survive the strike most of its few remaining competitors did not. This major strike was considered part of the general strike that raged across Oakland at this time. The 1946 was sparked by growing unemployment and unrest immediately following World War Two.
In conclusion the history of the trolley in Oakland and the bay area was short but very eventful by historical standards. Its history is really only in the 1870’s and ended in the 1960’s only ninety years. It’s entirely possible that someone lived who saw the first streetcar in the bay area start its maiden trip then live to see the last streetcars final trip. Today most of the Bay Areas working streetcars are not part of any company but instead are part of the streetcar heritage parks which are basically trolley rides for fun. The only public transit company that operates for profit is the MUNI system which is owned by the city of San Francisco and even they operate 54 bus’s compared to only 17 trolleys. The only reason the MUNI has not gotten rid of its trolleys is because they are better suited then bus’s to the steep hills in certain parts of San Francisco. Truly the bay area especially suited to keeping the trolley alive the MUNI trolleys travel at an average of 13MPH making them the slowest form of public in the United States but despite they stay in business simple because they can climb steep hills better then there faster bus counterparts I guess the key here is that sustainability is about efficiency. And while the bus not needing rails and being faster makes it more economically sustainable in most places the trolley is more sustainable on steep hills.
Fickewirth, Alvin A. California's Electric Railways: An Illustrated Review. San Marino: Golden West Books, 1992.
Goddard, Stephen B. Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
John, Diers. "Did a conspiracy really kill the streetcar?" Trains volume 66, 2006: 56-63.
Miller, John A. (John Anderson). Fares, Please!: A Popular History of Trolleys, Horse-cars, Street-cars, Buses, Elevateds, and Subways. New York: Dover Publications, 1960.
Molloy, Scott. Trolley Wars: Streetcar Workers on the Line. Lebanon New Hampshire: university press of new england, 1996.
MONTCLARION. "CHAOS MARKS FIRST WEEK OF NEW BUS SERVICE TO EAST OAKLAND CONNECTION AT OAKMORE." 11 21, 1946: 3.
Sloan, Alfred P. "Critical Evaluations in Business and Management." In Critical Evaluations in Business and Management, by Alfred P. Sloan, 377-439. London: routledge, 2003.
The Montclarion. "STRIKE IS SETTLED AMID SIGHS OF RELIEF." october 15, 1953: 1.
Walter Rice, Emiliano Echeverria. The Key System: San Francisco and the Eastshore Empire. Chicago IL: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.