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Did Auto, Oil Conspiracy Put the Brakes on Trolleys?

March 23, 2003|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

It has been 40 years since the last clang-clang-clang of a trolley in Los Angeles. The Yellow Car -- the city's local electric-car line -- made its final run March 31, 1963, a farewell tour on the "V" Line from Los Angeles City College on Vermont Avenue to Pico Boulevard.

Two years earlier, the interurban Red Cars that once ran from Redlands to Santa Monica for a penny a mile had made their last runs. Once both were gone, so was the golden age of mass transit in Los Angeles.

In the decades since, Angelenos have repeatedly asked the question: Who was responsible for dismantling the electric trolley cars?

The automobile became Angelenos' preferred mode of transportation so quickly and completely that, for decades, conspiracy theorists have believed that the auto, oil and tire companies secretly did in the smokeless trolleys to promote the need for -- and sales of -- their products. The theory was part of a 1988 big-screen comedy about an animated actor named Roger who is charged with a murder he didn't commit. As he and a detective work to clear his name, they uncover a conspiracy to wreck Southern California's public transit system.

"Who Framed Roger Rabbit" became to traffic planning what "Chinatown" was to Los Angeles water politics -- but with more laughs.

The giant corporations with a stake in cars and buses were prosecuted half a century ago by the federal government for conspiring to deep-six the region's streetcars. The consortium of General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire & Rubber, Phillips Petroleum and Mack Truck Manufacturing Co., in turn, blamed the Red and Yellow cars' demise on Angelenos' love of their automobiles, arguing that residents had grown increasingly irate over the streetcars' overcrowding, high fares, aging equipment, accidents and inadequate routes into the new suburban reaches of Los Angeles.

Although it's tempting to believe that evil forces must have been to blame, most historians agree that GM and the other mega-companies only helped to speed the end of the railway, which already was deep into red ink. There were mixed court verdicts, with fines levied that were considered a drop in the bucket.

Nowadays, in the age of choked freeways, the nostalgic mystique of the old Red and Yellow trolleys remains and the old myths die hard, if at all.

It's hard to believe in car-mad Southern California, but even before the beginning of the last century, and for a half-century thereafter, the streetcar was the model and the marvel of the nation's urban mass transit. For the price of a nickel, a dime or two bits, the trolley whizzed over more than 1,100 miles of tracks connecting the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach to the San Fernando Valley, and from San Bernardino to Redondo Beach. Tourists rode from downtown to the heights of Mt. Lowe in the San Gabriel Mountains.

The electric-car system was the combined brainchild of railway and real estate magnates Henry E. Huntington and Moses Hazeltine Sherman.

Sherman was 19 and a New York schoolteacher when he headed west in 1873, seeking a warmer climate. He stopped in Arizona, where he spent 17 years building a fortune in real estate, banking, ranching and railroads, a fortune he would both spend and increase in Los Angeles.

By 1896, he was established in Los Angeles, where he and his brother-in-law, Eli P. Clark, built the first electric-interurban railway that linked Los Angeles to Pasadena. Their first rail cars were green; the line was called the Pasadena & Los Angeles Railway.

That line eventually was bought up by Huntington's Pacific Electric Railway, which Huntington began building in 1901 -- primarily so people could reach his new suburbs and buy the homes he was building across the vast valley of Los Angeles and beyond.

In 1910, he sold his interest in the rail system to Southern Pacific Railroad. By then, the system linked more than 50 Southern California communities and four counties, making it the world's largest electric-transit system. Huntington kept ownership of the Los Angeles Railway's Yellow Cars, which operated locally.

In the 1920s, as Los Angeles grew and residents and businesses began moving to the suburbs, people began to rely more and more on the automobile for transportation rather than the aging trolley system.

With 160,000 cars cramming onto Los Angeles streets in the 1920s, mass transit riders complained of massive traffic jams and hourlong delays. The hard wooden seats and the open-window "air-conditioning system" in the summers were no picnic either.

The conflict between the trolley and the automobile was often played out at intersections, where they collided repeatedly, resulting in many injuries and deaths. Newspaper editorials raised the alarm about the accidents and crusaded against the streetcars.

The Red and Yellow cars became transit villains. Buses began competing with them as early as 1924, when a serious drought caused a power shortage, forcing cutbacks in trolley service for several years.

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