San Diego Electric Railway

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San Diego Electric Railway
San Diego Electric Railway 1925.svg
San Diego Electric Railways network (interactive version)
Class 1 Streetcar 5th and Broadway-San Diego-1915.JPG
A San Diego Class 1 Streetcar at 5th and Broadway, circa 1915
Reporting markSDER
Dates of operation1892–1949
Track gauge4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Previous gauge3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm)
(until about 1898)
Electrification600 V DC Overhead line
HeadquartersSan Diego, California

The San Diego Electric Railway (SDERy) was a mass transit system in Southern California, United States, using 600 volt DC streetcars[1] and (in later years) buses.

The SDERy was established by "sugar heir," developer, and entrepreneur John D. Spreckels in 1892. The railroad's original network consisted of five routes: the Fifth Street and Logan Heights Lines; the First and "D" Streets Lines; the Depot Line; the Ferry Line; and the "K" Street Shuttle. The company would establish additional operating divisions as traffic demands led to the formation of new lines. The company also engaged in limited freight handling primarily as an interchange with Spreckels' San Diego and Arizona Railway (SD&A) from 1923 to 1929.

At its peak, the SDERy's routes would operate throughout the greater San Diego area over some 165 miles (266 km) of track. Steadily declining ridership, due in large part to the phenomenal rise in popularity of the automobile, ultimately led the company to discontinue all streetcar service in favor of bus routes in 1949. Some see this as related to the National City Lines's General Motors streetcar conspiracy controversy, as the SCERy's president had been with NCL previously.

The few surviving pieces of rolling stock are on display at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in Campo, the San Diego Electric Railway Association in National City, and the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California.


Early years - Predecessors[edit]

"Rapid Transit in San Diego": An original 1886 horse-drawn trolley and its driver participate in a parade celebrating the groundbreaking of the Panama-California Exposition Center in 1911.

On July 3, 1886 the first horse-drawn open-air streetcar of the San Diego Street Car Company (SDSCC) (founded by H.(Hampton) L. Story and E. S. Babcock) makes its run up 5th Street.[2] The fare is five cents. The following year on November 9, the first electric-powered streetcar made a test run on new tracks up Broadway to Kettner Boulevard and on to "Old Town". Electric streetcar service is inaugurated on November 19 on the San Diego and Old Town Street Railway, making it the first electric railway on the west coast and the second in the country to use the "ground return" for electric current. In 1888, the Electric Rapid Transit Company (ERTC) puts an electric streetcar into regular operation in San Diego. When ERTC fails, the San Diego Cable Railway (SDCR) is incorporated in July 1889 to replace it. The opening day of the SDCR is held on June 7, 1890 and it soon opens "Mission Cliffs Gardens", a small recreation park (one of San Diego's first public recreation areas) overlooking Mission Valley, as an end-of-the-line attraction for cable car patrons.

Opening Day on the San Diego Cable Railway
June 7, 1890

San Diego Electric Railway Company[edit]

SDERy double-decker Car No. 1 pauses at the intersection of 5th Street & Market Street during its inaugural run on September 21, 1892.

By November 30, 1891 John D. Spreckels incorporated the San Diego Electric Railway Company (SDERy). On January 30, the SDERy purchased the SDSCC and the majority of its assets for $115,000; over the next few years the company will also acquire the competing Park Belt Line and the Ocean Beach Railroad. Plans are made to convert all existing lines to traction, and ten single-truck, single-trolley, open platform wooden cars are subsequently purchased from the J. G. Brill and Company. Double-decker Car No. 1, the first such electrically operated car in the United States, makes the inaugural run on September 21, 1892 with many of the City's notables aboard. A few weeks later, the SCCR completes its last run, the company having declared bankruptcy earlier in the year. At the end of 1892, the line has grown to 16.70 miles (26.88 km) of aggregated system track (12.21 miles or 19.65 kilometres of single electrified track with 4.49 miles or 7.23 kilometres for horse-drawn cars). Many new electrified lines will be constructed during the coming years.

In August 1895, the Citizens Traction Company (CTC) is formed and purchases the remains of the SDCR for $17,600, adapting the line to electric operation in order to compete with the SDERy. On July 28, 1896 the first converted trolley car runs the entire length of the 4.49-mile (7.23 km) long CTC line. However, by February 1897 financial difficulties force the CTC to go into receivership. Elisa Babcock, as agent for the SDERy, buys the properties and franchises of the CTC in March 1898 for $19,000 plus "fees and costs." The track gauge is subsequently widened from 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge to 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in).

In 1905 Spreckels builds a new power generating plant to accommodate the additional loads imposed by the expanding streetcar network. He announces the following year the formation of San Diego and Arizona Railway (SD&A) and will build a 148-mile (238 km) line between San Diego and El Centro. The Third Avenue Streetcar Line begins operation. The SDERy logs 798,152 car miles. By 1907 the Third Avenue Streetcar Line is extended to the future community of Mission Hills, and is briefly renamed the Mission Hills Line. Spreckels forced a ballot initiative in 1910 to amend his charter with the City of San Diego to give him more than 25 years on his leases to operate streetcar service. With this greater security he is able to acquire major loans for service expansion and infrastructure. The next year, the Imperial Avenue operating division is established in downtown. Spreckels builds a second power generating plant at Kettner Boulevard and "E" Street when the plant built in 1905 can no longer provide sufficient capacity.

Ordered by Spreckles, with guidance by William Clayton, and design by Homer MacNutt and Abel A. Butterworth, 24 Arts & Crafts style streetcars (to be known as the 'Class 1' streetcar) are delivered to San Diego in 1912. The following year, construction of a new brick car barn located at Adams Avenue and Florida Street is completed. By the end of 1914 the SDERy owns 38.9 miles (62.6 km) of single track and 22.4 miles (36.0 km) of double track, for a total of 83.7 miles (134.7 km) of "equivalent single track".

The 1915 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park spurs the next phase of transportation growth. A new electric car line is constructed up 12th Street to the park's entrance with 101 new cars from the St. Louis Car Company and the Adams Avenue operating division is established in Normal Heights. San Diego's original Victorian style train depot is demolished and replaced with a new Mission Revival Style Santa Fe depot building. The SDERy logs 3,521,571 car miles. The "Great Flood" in 1916 causes significant damage, washing out several rail lines. World War I increases the cost of railway construction materials by 50 to 150 percent. There is a significant increase in the private ownership of automobiles and the SDERy begins to lose revenue to private "Jitney Buses". On November 15, 1919 the "golden spike" is driven and construction of the SD&A is ceremonially completed at a cost of $18 million (three times the original estimate). Spreckels announces plans in 1920 to discontinue service on several rail lines to offset expenses, leading to approval of "zone fares". The SDERy purchases new streetcars that requires only one driver/conductor instead of two;[2] older cars are retrofitted to reduce labor costs. Spreckels sells his power generating plants to the Consolidated Gas and Electric Company.

The first motor buses[edit]

In 1921 the first motor bus goes into service operating between National City and Chula Vista. "Number One" has hard rubber tires, two-wheel mechanical brakes, a four-cylinder engine, and a plywood body. On March 17, 1923 the SDERy begins its last major rail line expansion to Mission Beach ("Belmont Park"), Pacific Beach, and La Jolla. $2.5 million is spent on rails, Mission Revival Style terminals and substations, and Egyptian Revival Style stations, and $800,000 is spent on the acquisition of 50 new cars.[3] Construction is completed in 1925. Car No. 400, an all-steel model with a closed body and the first on the SDERy to feature a pantograph-type current collector, is delivered in December 1923. All 50 pantograph-equipped cars would eventually have trolley poles installed at each end due to the pantographs' poor performance.[2]

By 1930 buses begin to replace street cars from Ocean Beach to La Jolla, and 222 new buses are added to the fleet. Ridership and revenue decreased but SDERy is able to weather the economic downturn. The 1935 California Pacific International Exposition opens in Balboa Park without the need for expanded transit service. In 1936 SDERy ordered 25 single-end Presidents Conference Committee (P.C.C.) cars from the St. Louis Car Company, and is among the first streetcar systems in the United States to use streamlined units.[4] The cars are designated as Class 6. An order for three additional units is placed the following year.[5]

World War II turns San Diego into a "boom town" again. Defense related industries revitalize the city, as does an influx of military personnel. Ridership on public transit increases 600 percent during the war years. Used transit vehicles are purchased from around the nation, and more electrical power is needed and substations are built (one in the basement of the Spreckels Theatre Building on Broadway). The $2.5 million rail line built in the 1920s to the beaches is ripped out along with the elaborate stations and terminals and replaced with a bus line. By 1942 the combined streetcar and bus lines carry 94 million people. Additional streetcars are brought in on loan from New York City, Salt Lake City, Utah and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to help keep up with demand.[6] Combined ridership in 1944 lead to more than 146 million trips. An American Red Cross blood donation campaign results in the painting of Cars No. 502 and No. 503 red and blue (in lieu of the standard golden yellow). In 1946 SDERy begins to phase out streetcar lines and replace them with bus routes. By the following year, only three street car lines will remain in operation.

New owners and systematic conversion to buses[edit]

On July 26, 1948 the Western Transit Company (WTC), owned by Jesse Haugh, bought SDERy for $5.5 million.[2][7] Haugh was also president of Key System and an executive of Pacific Electric Railway. The following month 13 new 45-passenger buses are placed into service. In September 1948 the WTC announces that the SDERy will henceforth be known as the San Diego Transit System (SDTS). A new emblem (consisting of a pair of wings with a shield in the center) and slogan, "Safety, Courtesy, Service," are adopted. In January 1949 the SDTS borrows $720,000 for the purchase of additional new buses, and makes an application to the State Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to discontinue streetcar service. The PUC grants authority in March 1949 for SDTS to abandon its remaining streetcar lines. Sponsored by the Pacific Railroad Society of Los Angeles, a "farewell to the streetcars" excursion is held, operated over the remaining trackage.

The following month 45 new GM buses (each costing $20,000)[citation needed] parade down Broadway to mark the retirement of the street cars; free rides are offered during the procession. Rail service on the SDERy comes to an end as Car No. 446 pulls into the Adams Avenue car barn, making San Diego the first major Southwestern United States city to eliminate streetcars and convert to an all-bus transit system. In May 1949 work crews begin removing the overhead trolley lines and tracks on the loop at downtown's Union Station. In 1950 17 of the P.C.C. model cars are sold to the El Paso City Lines (EPCL) for service on the international loop between El Paso, Texas,[2] and the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. A few years later, three more P.C.C.'s are sold to EPCL. All remaining Class 5 cars and the three "service" cars are purchased by the Allied Salvage Company for scrap. The eight remaining P.C.C.'s are purchased in August 1957 by the San Diego Mill Supply Company. Car No. 508 is acquired by the Orange Empire Traction Company for display at its museum in Perris, California, and Car No. 528 is obtained by the San Diego Railway Historical Society for preservation and exhibition.

Revival: San Diego Trolley system[edit]

After years of planning and development, the "San Diego Trolley" (a new interurban light rail mass transit system) makes its inaugural run on July 19, 1981 on the 15.9-mile (25.6 km) long "South Line" between the U.S. International Border and Centre City San Diego.[8] The following week San Diego Trolley begins revenue service; San Diego will become known in transit circles as "The city that started the 'light rail craze' in the United States".

In August 1996, three "Class 1" streetcars are saved for San Diego. These cars, numbered 126, 128, and 138, were ordered by John Spreckles specifically for San Diego and in anticipation of the 1915 Panama California Exposition. The logo of the SDERy is still visible. The San Diego Historic Site Board recognized the three native "Class 1" streetcars with the official designation of San Diego Landmark #339. In February 2005, the San Diego Electric Railway Association salvaged the body shell of Car No. 357 (formerly of the Bellingham, Washington streetcar system) from a Centre City San Diego restaurant site where it had been used as a "dining room" since 1972.

In December 2005, the San Diego Vintage Trolley Co. purchased three former San Francisco Municipal Railway PCC cars (one numbered 529).[9] Car No. 529 was later fully restored for public rail service. Three other PCC cars, two from SEPTA and one from New Jersey (531-533), were subsequently purchased.[9] In March 2014, MTS took possession of a second 1946 Presidents Conference Committee (PCC) streetcar, destined to join public service as Car #530.[10] It was estimated that the mostly cosmetic restoration work required to restore Car #530 to service would take six to eight months.[10]

The PCC cars were planned to run on a loop route around Centre City using existing San Diego Trolley tracks. San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, in a partnership with the San Diego historic streetcar society, began select weekday, weekend and holiday mid-day service in August 2011 on this new heritage streetcar Silver Line, which operates around Downtown San Diego using the renovated PCC streetcar #529.

By March 2011 San Diego Metropolitan Transit System began work on a study to evaluate the feasibility of reconnecting Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, and Downtown San Diego through a fixed-guideway, electrified streetcar line[11] that might operate as an extension of the Silver Line and might be operated with other restored heritage streetcars.


Routes in 1925 - roughly the system's largest extent - were as follows:[12]

  • 1 - 5th Ave. to Hillcrest, then via University - Park Blvd. - Adams to 30th St. (just west of Normal Heights)
  • 2 - east on Broadway South Park - via 30th St. to North Park
  • 3 - via Washington and Fort Stockton Ave. to Mission Hills
  • 4 - Imperial Ave. to 33rd and Commercial, Stockton
  • 5 - north from downtown on 1st Ave.; east form downtown on Market, south on 25th St., east on Ocean View Blvd. to 39th St. in Mountain View
  • 7 - via Park Blvd. through Balboa Park to Hillcrest, then east along University Ave. through North Park to City Heights, then known as East San Diego
  • 9 - serving marina at end of Market St.
  • 11 - via 5th Ave. to Hillcrest, then via University, and 30th to Adams Ave.; along the length of Adams to Normal Heights and Kensington
  • 12 - Logan Heights, National City to Chula Vista
  • 13 - Kettner/Hancock to Rosecrans to La Playa, Point Loma
  • 14 - Ocean Beach[13]
  • 15 - reserved for holiday use to Mission Beach Amusement Park[13]
  • 16 - Ocean Beach - Mission Beach - La Jolla[13]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Demoro, Harre W. (1986). California's Electric Railways. Glendale, California: Interurban Press. p. 15. ISBN 0-916374-74-2.
  2. ^ a b c d e Copeland (2002), p. 4.
  3. ^ Copeland (2002), p. 7.
  4. ^ Copeland (2002), p. 16.
  5. ^ Copeland (2002), p. 20.
  6. ^ Copeland (2002), p. 22-23.
  7. ^ "Transit in San Diego: ASCE Anniversary Project". Archived from the original on October 4, 2012. Jesse Haugh's Western Transit Company bought SDERy for $5.5 million, July 26, 1948.
  8. ^ Copeland (2002), p. 27.
  9. ^ a b "Discovering Old PCCs". San Diego Vintage Trolley, Inc. Archived from the original on March 28, 2012. Retrieved August 18, 2011.
  10. ^ a b "MTS Takes Delivery of Historic Vintage Trolley PCC #530". San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. Retrieved March 13, 2014.
  11. ^ "MTS City/Park Streetcar Feasibility Study". Retrieved July 6, 2011.
  12. ^ Line numbers taken from "Evolution of the San Diego Cityscape" by W.J. Hermiston[citation needed]; detailed description of routes taken by each line from San Diego Electric Railway 1925 map
  13. ^ a b c Zelma Bays Locker (Fall 1977). "Remember old number 16? Recollections of the La Jolla Street Car Line". Journal of San Diego History. 23 (4).


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

A view of the SDERy streetcar barn located at "Mission Cliffs Gardens" on Adams Avenue, circa 1915