A big part of the nostalgic mythology of L.A.’s past is the wistful-sigh-inducing fact that we once had a gigantic, far-ranging system of electric street cars, a transit network that at one point extended over 1,100 miles of track spread all across the Southland (while, as you know, the still-living cousins of these extinct dinosaurs are the cable cars that clang up and down the hilly streets of San Francisco today).

You’ve probably seen books on L.A. history featuring old photos of these ornate-looking streetcars heading up Spring Street or Broadway, looking like a cross between a shoebox and a wedding cake, the open-side seats occupied by men with walrus mustaches, dressed in those funereal old clothes …

And if you have an old hippie uncle, he could probably fill you in on the once-popular conspiracy theory that this great, noble old L.A. thing was done in much later by, nay, conspired against by, the tire manufacturers. But most non-high historians will tell you that the real history is complicated and it developed over several decades. Angelenos, in fact, were already getting more and more addicted to driving their own cars as far back as the (already-crowded) 1920s, while freeways were getting built here as early as the ‘40s. So even then the handwriting was on the wall: by the depressing 1950s the dwindling number of streetcars had become, by and large, aging hulks in different stages of disrepair, the left-behind, doddering old ladies of the road.

Wikipedia has a very long article on this, titled “General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy.” I quote, non-liberally, therefrom:

By 1916, street railroads nationwide were wearing out their equipment faster than they were replacing it …

By 1930 most streetcar systems were aging and losing money. Service to the public was suffering; the Great Depression compounded this …

The Depression then left many streetcar operators short of funds for maintenance and capital improvements.

Streetcar [companies] were occasionally required to pay for the reinstatement of their lines following the construction of the freeways.

Suburbanization and urban sprawl … created low density land-use patterns which are not easily served by streetcars, or indeed by any public transport, to this day.

Clearly, changing tastes and market forces combined to gradually, not suddenly, spell the doom of electric rail systems in Southern Cal and all across the country (so, like, stop Bogarting that joint, dude).

I drove out one night recently to see a slideshow presentation, inside a public park auditorium in Venice, showing pre-WWII photos of old L.A. electric cars; the photos were all taken on the Westside, and it was obvious from the reactions of the older locals there that a lot of them remembered these Venice “cars” from back in the day.

Seeing this presentation gave me the final proverbial kick in the pants to take a drive out to a long-rumored “streetcar museum” I’d always heard about, somewhere out in the desert (was it near Riverside?), a place where you could actually see, touch, climb into (maybe ride in?), one of those original L.A. streetcars: yellow cars, red cars, whatever-they-were-called cars. But what was the place called, The Conspiracy Theorist Museum for Victimized, Lonely Yet Noble and Martyred Streetcars, perhaps? The slideshow guys filled me in: it’s the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California. So a week later, I boldly got in my car and drove east for an hour on the 10.

Boldly obeying my GPS, I turned south at a freeway offramp in Perris, just south of Riverside, and headed down a rather old and remote stretch of road until I spotted the signs for the museum.

Credit: Tony Mostrom

Credit: Tony Mostrom

It’s interesting terrain out here, about 15 miles south of the city of Riverside; the sparsely populated town (there’s not much actual city that I can see) stretches out between these strange, very distinctive-looking chocolate-drop-shaped hills (some of them topped by cross-sectioned ribbons of boulders, looking like those ice cream cones topped with peanuts). The soil out here is reddish. It’s half-tamed desert country, basically; as good a place as any I suppose for the streetcars to, uh, retire …

On a bright Sunday, cool breezes blew eastward, through a cloudless blue sky. The silence here is stunning; only the isolated, strangely nostalgic sound of a few private planes flying overhead (which instantly made me think of my childhood in Van Nuys back in the prehistoric, less-populated Valley of the 1960s). It’s a very off-the-beaten-track feeling out here in Perris (yes, the desert is different).

And there they are. Through the fence of the museum grounds I can already see a few of them in the flesh, the Disneyland-ish, ornament-heavy and colorful paint jobs on those boxy and toy-like objects: real-life vintage L.A. streetcars, put out to pasture. And they seem to be in great shape! Some obsessive geniuses had taken the time and effort and money to save these jewels from the slagheap and the wrecking yard. It is uncanny to finally see them in person.

The day I drove out was Labor Day, and the attendance was pretty sparse, but inside the Museum’s front office and gift shop, it was bustling. Tons of small-press books on early-20th-century electric railways line the walls (tempting, pricey).

I was guided ‘round the grounds of the OERM by Ken Schwartz, a good-humored gentleman in his 60s decked out in his train conductor’s uniform and cap. He is one of the volunteer streetcar conductors. Schwartz told me the really amazing fact that it was a group of L.A. teenagers who had put their heads together around 1956 to save these cars (with the help of investors), and to set up this wacky playground for them. Incred. The museum was off and (ahem) running two years later.

As we stepped out of the shop I saw that folks had a choice of three or four “cars,” of different ages and styles in which to take a ride. Nice day for it. There are some people who know all about these beauties: by year, by style, by company, by weight. I chose to ride in the, uh, bigger one.

It’s an unbelievably unique sensation to sit down inside one of these loudly cranking, chugging cars as they start to rev up, feeling that loud engine rumble, followed by the metallic scraping of those wheels on the track  inside these spiffed-up time capsules (this one with really quite luxurious light-wood-interior and high rounded ceilings, looking virtually like-new). I look up at the two long rows of old color advertisements, knowing that my grandparents must have ridden in these things many times back in L.A. in the mid-1920s.

Your next thought inside this thing is, “so this is how people lived in the early 20th century.” Ken, the conductor, lets loose with a loud string of announcements for the crowd, all about the museum as we surge forward, heading north on a stretch of track installed by the Museum folks themselves years ago. The full-color ads I’m reading are (or were) for Arrow Collars, Heinz vinegars, Wrigley’s Gum, etc. (Yep, my grandparents, who no doubt would be commuting from home on Wilton Place back then, probably saw these very same ads.) For some reason I start thinking about Laurel and Hardy.

Credit: Tony Mostrom

Credit: Tony Mostrom

As for the roots of all this, L.A. streetcar authority and author Jim Walker writes in his book Los Angeles Railway Yellow Cars that “the first rail-borne local public transportation in Los Angeles was the Spring and West 6th Street Railroad, which opened [in] 1874 with one open car powered by a horse. That horsecar line grew larger and … more of these enterprises joined it to provide new residents and new areas with local transportation.” Now this is interesting: “The [companies] also used the rail lines to reach areas where they also happened to own land.” Aha! “The land would become more valuable, as horsecar lines decreased the remoteness of these properties. Needless to say, much of this activity was being conducted by the movers and shakers of the day.” And so the plot thickens. “A big step … was the introduction of cable-powered cars with the October 1885 opening of the Second Street Cable Railway Company … The topography of many … neighborhoods in hilly areas was traversed more easily by cable cars than animal-powered units.” (This is what San Francisco has now.)

“The chartering of the Los Angeles Electric Railway occurred [in] 1886 … One feature … was its use of twin overhead wires with a ‘troller’ riding the wires. A troller was a cord hanging down that brought power to the locomotive.” Double aha! “The last horsecar line went to electric propulsion in 1895,” the last cable line the next year. And so L.A. grew, outward.

Before so many other things had turned into “collectibles,” train enthusiasts were popularly known for their extreme obsessiveness with this, uh, subject, whether the obsessing was over real-life trains and streetcars, or the toy trains that (dad-ish) men would spend lots of money on and build miniature villages to accommodate. They always seemed to be all-or-nothing about it. The guys who work at the OERM, enthusiasts all, do seem to carry around encyclopedias worth of knowledge about this lost world that lives on in their heads and on these grounds. “We’re all volunteers here,” says Schwartz.

Aside from enjoying the rides, a walk around the grounds at OERM will take you a few hours to do it any justice, as there is a lot to see; peeping out of the doors of the two car houses (in the old streetcar days these were known as “car barns”), you’ll see crammed inside like giant toys some beauteous old streetcars: colorful, lacquered and buffed to a shine. Visitors are welcome to go inside to ooh and aah, which I did, while thinking that rare 78s or comic books are much, much easier to store, and Why aren’t any of these babies on display at the county fair?

I recommend being here until they close at 5, when the shadows start to stretch. Only when you read the little pamphlet they hand you in the gift shop do you realize that these grounds pretty much were the town of Perris back in the 1880s, so you’re standing in a small, preserved western town in the desert.

But what’s past is past. I used to wonder if there were any written memoirs or diaries of what it was like riding around in Los Angeles on these great old “interurban” cars, but have found none. Movie-wise, there are some great silent-film comedies from the ‘20s in which you can get a glimpse of what it was like riding the streetcars back then: Charley Chase’s 1926 two-reeler Take Next Car (where the locations seem Silver Lake-ish), and a fantastic Harold Lloyd daredevil sequence involving a Pacific Electric streetcar running driverless, through the streets of what appears to be Hancock Park and Hollywood (Girl Shy from 1924). Here’s that scene:

There has been talk about different forms of electric rail coming back to Los Angeles. As for the heyday of electric rail in L.A., circa 1890 to 1950, the Orange Empire Railway Museum, though it’s a trek, is as close as you’re ever gonna get.

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