November 28th, 2019

carole lombard 04
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Giving thanks for virtual rail tours back in time

A very happy Thanksgiving, but to celebrate today, we're going back to a time long before Carole Lombard met Clark Gable...

...more than a century. The girl then known as Jane Alice Peters wouldn't be at the ocean with her brothers today; the second leg of the season's first winter storm is hitting Los Angeles hard, with rain pelting the lower basin and snowfall levels now as low as 2500 feet. Glad to be indoors, sipping on some tea.

Thankfully, we can go sightseeing in our mind, unencumbered by time or weather. So let's do precisely that, and take a day trip Elizabeth Peters may have taken her three children on not long after they arrived in southern California in 1915. (OK, to be technical, the brochure we're going to peruse is from 1912, and for fast-growing Los Angeles, a difference of three years is considerable. Nevertheless, it will provide a sense of the region in those days.)

This is from the splendid site, a storehouse of information on LA's original mass transit system, the Red and Yellow streetcars and trolleys that served the area in one form or another into the early 1960s. Then as now, SoCal sights had so much to offer, but the 1910s version appears truly exotic to our it must've been to a mother and three children from Fort Wayne, Ind.

The PE had not one, not two, but three tours of the region available, and that doesn't include its prized excursion to Mount Lowe, seen on the back of the brochure:

First, what was called the Balloon Route trolley trip:

For one dollar, you got a "reserved seat; parlor car service;" and a "competent, courteous guide." (Huw understated -- and this applied for all three tours.) And look at what you could see -- 10 beaches, eight cities and all sorts of sights, including the aquarium at Venice, the Palisades and Beverly Hills, as well as Sherman (the then-unincorporated area now known as the city of West Hollywood).

And speaking of Hollywood proper, see what's missing from its 1912 description ("The garden spot of Cahuenga Valley and the prettiest suburb near Los Angeles")? Any reference to the motion picture industry! If a 1915 version of the brochure was issued, wonder whether it was revised?

That was the first sightseeing option. The second was the Triangle trolley trip, focusing on the South Coast, including a prolonged stop in Long Beach:

Its points of interest were hit-or-miss -- a hit in describing San Pedro as "Destined to be one of the world's greatest harbors," but way off the mark in predicting Naples would follow in the footsteps of its nearby Italian-influenced namesake Venice. Aviation Field in Dominguez Hills was home to several international air meets.

Finally, a journey themed to California's already legendary past (the massive sales of Helen Hunt Jackson's novel "Ramona" are proof), the Old Mission trolley trip:

It's the scenic San Gabriel Valley, much of which parallels the northern leg of the current Metro light-rail Gold Line. There's free admission to the 1771 San Gabriel Mission, a two-hour stop in Pasadena ("The city of multi-millionaires and their castles"), and a visit to the Cawston Ostrich Farm in South Pasadena. What?

Back in the day, ostrich farms were a major Los Angeles tourist attraction. The flightless birds, not native to the region, were imported in 1883 for women's fashion plumage, but their peculiar appearance and exotic nature made them popular with visitors, By 1910, there were 10 ostrich farms in the area, many charging admission. The photo above of a girl taken for an ostrich ride is from the early 1920s. One wonders whether little Jane Alice tried this out a few years before.

The Cawston farm closed in 1934; the area's last ostrich farm shuttered in 1953. For more on this local phenomenon, visit

Newcomers to the region who think of freeway-dominated Los Angeles have little grasp of how vast the streetcar system was at its peak. Take a look at this 1912 map of the PE included in the brochure:

By the end of World War II, the system had already diminished, though some routes served Glendale and other areas for another decade (see below), and downtown trolleys ran until March 1963:

What doomed the streetcars? Some claim a conspiracy (a school of thought popularized in the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"), and while General Motors and other firms led to the demise of interurban rail, changing housing patterns were just as crucial, if not more so. Suburban communities and streetcar right-of-way did not mix, leading to the growth of freeways beginning in 1940.

Not until housing costs escalated to the point where commutes were simply too long did Los Angeles seriously pursue a mass transit revival. The current Metro system is spotty, but extensions and new lines under construction should be ready to greet the influx of global visitors for the 2028 Summer Olympics -- another example of LA's maturation into a true world-class city.

Once again, a happy Thanksgiving from soggy Los Angeles.
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