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Red Car Atlantis

September 15, 1996|Mary Melton

Marine biologist Dennis Bedford wasn't looking for mass transit when he combed the ocean floor off Santa Monica a year ago. Bedford coordinates the state Department of Fish and Game's artificial reef program and was taking inventory of its underwater handiwork. "Our original intention was to find the concrete shelters," Bedford says, "but we saw the blacksmith, a common reef fish, and chased them. They'll usually return to some shelter. They brought us to the remains of the streetcar."

The watery ghost Bedford laid eyes on was none other than a Red Car. In a story told so often that it now straddles history and myth, by the early '60s the city had destroyed the "world's greatest electric railway system" to make way for buses and freeways. The Red Cars, L.A.'s most beloved trolleys, "rolled to their doom on their own wheels down Harbor Belt Line tracks," The Times reported in 1956. They were stockpiled four high in a yard on Terminal Island.

Most were sold for scrap; others were shipped to Buenos Aires or Tokyo or West Berlin to be absorbed into their transit systems; a lucky handful chugged into museums. Fish and Game had a more novel recycling plan.

Nine of the 6-ton trolleys were loaded onto a barge and hauled two miles offshore. A derrick dumped them into 60-foot-deep waters off Hermosa Beach, Santa Monica and Malibu. As the September 1959 Popular Mechanics eulogized, "Biologists on the West Coast have found that junked streetcars make attractive homes for fish in waters where they failed to gather before."

The Red Cars' burial-at-sea marked the birth of the department's artificial reef program, with chunks of concrete, totaled autos and 330 tons of quarry rock dumped along with the streetcars. "The original purpose was to increase sport fishing," says Bedford. "They wanted to examine what material would work best. Concrete works just fine as long as it's configured correctly. Ship hulls, which last a long time, aren't good because they don't provide enough hiding spaces." The best reef materials, Bedford says, have holes and crevices, are clean and durable and at least twice the specific gravity of seawater so they won't wash up onshore.

The Red Cars met all the criteria except one: Saltwater, unfortunately, has been no kinder to the trolleys than the corporate and political interests responsible for ripping up the rails. "What we found is some of the undercarriage, vertical structures and solid steel parts of the framework," Bedford says. "Most of the stuff is covered with corynactis anemones. The sand bass are numerous, with kelp bass and some sheepshead." The Red Car's ability to still attract bass buoys Bedford. "Our objective has changed from fishing opportunities," he says, "to producing the best habitat for study and better our knowledge of how to increase the local fish population."

Fish and Game continues to build artificial reefs, relying mostly on broken-up concrete; they have rejected donations of everything from battered boats to M-1 tanks. Perhaps the only blemish in the reef-building program occurred during the mid-'70s, when the department dumped bald Goodyears and Uniroyals off Huntington Beach and Hermosa. No living things would take to the rubber. "A lot of organisms," Bedford says, "don't seem to like the tires."

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