As I’m finding new, great roads to explore, I’ll look at current and old railroad maps. Why? Railroads followed old trails and the highways followed the railroads and old trails.

That’s true even in an urban area of San Diego.

The Metropolitan Transit System of San Diego has a great Flickr album with wonderful photos of probably the last decade of the original San Diego trolleys… ones that actually used a trolley.

While the region is known now as a pioneer in the revival of light-rail transit with the San Diego Trolley, the city was one of the first of America’s larger cities to lose its original street railway system. The tracks went cold in 1949.

These photos show a great time when the system was up and running and, according to my 89-year-old mom, was very popular. She hated the “stinky buses” that replaced the streetcars; MTS also has a another Flickr album of the early years of those stinky buses, as well as several other albums of buses through the decades.

SDER Streetcars - Downtown

In a windshield view, streetcars pass on Broadway, with the still-standing Pickwick Hotel (now Sofia) visible on the left.

It’s also a way to look at some pretty cool cars that were on the streets when these photos were taken.

The photos are from the San Diego Electric Railway era. Streetcar fans will notice the boxy Birney cars from the 1920s and the streamlined PCC cars from 1936.

So here’s where we get into one of those history debates. San Diego’s then-privately owned transit system was one of those gobbled up by one of the companies connected with the notorious National City Lines, which was partially owned by General Motors, Standard Oil of California and others in the auto or auto-supply business.

Looking in the photos, with evidence backed up by some of the stuff I’ve read through the years about the decline of urban trolley systems, brings me to a few conclusions.

These San Diego cars were in lousy shape; look for the rust and faded paint in the pictures. The rails were in bad shape and the private company didn’t want to spend the money to extend the system out to the new suburbs popping up after World War II. Some routes had been converted to buses two decades before the pro-auto conspirators came calling.

There’s a fine KPBS documentary from a few years ago on the San Diego and Arizona Railroad, the “impossible railroad” that dipped into Mexico and across our rugged mountains to the east to provide a link from our natural harbor to the railroads heading to Eastern markets. Well, it mentions that by 1919, when the railroad opened, San Diegans had already gone bonkers over the new automobile.

SDER Streetcar - Downtown

Headed east on Broadway at 12th Avenue, passing the onetime Pearson Ford dealership.

With a population of around 75,000 in 1920, there were already 30,000 cars.

Pubic opinion and the economics had pushed out the streetcars; GM executives and their pals just hammered the nails in the coffin.

If you’re looking for evidence of the old streetcars today on your San Diego day trip, here’s a couple of spots to visit.

  • Fifth Avenue, north from Harbor Drive to Fifth and University avenues in Hillcrest. Notice the relatively gentle elevations of the street, especially compared to some of the cross streets. Fifth was a main drag in the city through the 50s and was leveled out as much as possible because streetcars can’t do serious grades. Hillcrest was one of San Diego’s first “streetcar suburbs” and the block between Fifth and Sixth avenues on University was a major transfer center. That’s why it’s so wide, to make room for multiple tracks.
  • University Avenue, west from Fifth, all the way to Euclid Avenue. The arch bridge just west of Park Boulevard and the viaduct for University were built to accommodate the trolley. At Euclid Avenue, the Tower Bar was once a waiting room for streetcar passengers.
  • Broadway, west from the Santa Fe Depot to 30th Street. Here’s another main drag back in the day that crossed some serious hills. I’m told the fully loaded streetcars would really strain to keep moving.
  • La Jolla Methodist Church looks like it was built by Father Serra, but it was originally a streetcar station.

Oh, and if you want to ride an actual 1940s streetcar, take the Silver Line around downtown San Diego. Cars in service (two have been beautifully restored at this writing) are like the ones in that were used in San Diego, but were a later model that saw service in San Francisco.

And for real San Diego streetcars, visit the Orange Empire Railway Museum, about 90 minutes up the road in Perris. They have two, one which was close to being fully restored when I last visited in 2014, and another that was parked at the Del Mar Fair for years. ⚙


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