by Jim Walker, Arcadia Publishing
Reviewed by Craig MacDonald
If you've been lucky enough to visit the incredible Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California, you may have been able to take an exhilarating ride on a Big Red Car that made Southern California's transportation system world-famous for over 50 years.
More than 30 years ago, my son and I took that exciting ride in a Red Car, driven by an actual retired driver of the Pacific Electric Railway! (What a lifetime memory.)
Jim Walker, who helped found this unbelievable museum, wrote "Pacific Electric Red Cars." The author of over 40 railways books has thankfully preserved the history and excitement of the Red Cars through hundreds of photos, which capture the spirit of the cars, those who rode them and the people responsible for their success.
Walker wrote that at its peak in the 1920s, Pacific Electric (P.E.) had 1,164 miles of track; 950 passenger cars and 2,700 trains that ran every day! It became known as a safe, inexpensive, fun way to travel.
My mother and her friends loved to ride the Big Red Cars from South Pasadena to Huntington Beach, where the happy teenagers dove through the waves and swam in the ocean. The P.E. stopped right near the front of HB Pier.
Businessman Henry E. Huntington (the City of Huntington Beach's namesake), had Hawaiian Surfing Sensation George Freeth take the Big Red Car to HB
in 1914 and put on the first
surfing exhibition in what became "Surf
City." The clever entrepreneur "set up companies to purchase cheap land
along the railways route," Walker explains.
The first line was Los Angeles to Long Beach in 1902. His main competitor was Southern Pacific (S.P.), who bought the California Pacific Railway (known for its Los Angeles to San Pedro line) in 1903. P.E. & S.P. wisely became partners. In 1910, Huntington was bought out by S.P. A year later, S.P. consolidated all its lines.
From 1921-30, autos became increasingly popular and many folks abandoned the Red Cars for their own; then came the Great Depression and the 1st Super Highway. The P.E. had made some changes and added buses.
But it was World War II that temporarily gave a boost to the Red Cars. With wartime gas rationing and the need to transport defense-related materials through SoCal (on freight cars), the P.E. actually made money from 1942-46.
But in the late 1940s and 1950s, the freeway system started taking hold, and by 1953, the P.E. decided to get rid of remaining passenger services. The last to go was the Long Beach Route (today's Metro Blue Line) on April 9, 1961.
Some of the old passenger cars were sold to other countries, like Buenos Aires, where they got new life. Many of the old cars ended up in scrapyards. The entire P.E. operations ceased to exist on Aug. 13, 1965. Ironically, S.P. merged with Union Pacific in 1996.
When you look at the fascinating photos in Walker's book, you'll go back in time to experience the life, love, spirit, culture, challenges, romance and memories of what was known as "The World's Greatest Electric Railway System" and "The World's Great Interurban."
You may wince when you see the scrapyard photos, showing hundreds of red cars piled up to be torn apart. You'll feel the pride of the conductors & other employees. You'll see the thrill on the faces of passengers and the serious expressions of military men in their uniforms as they use the railway as part of their journey to fight in World War II. You'll learn about the variety of stations and cars, including the owl-faced blimp cars.
Thanks to Walker for his railway dedication; to the Dorothy P. Gray Transportation Library and others, who helped provide photos, and to Arcadia Publishing for preserving this important part of history for future generations.
Be sure and visit the Red Car at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris and at The Red Car Museum in Seal Beach. It's inside an authentic P.E. Tower Car that was a roving machine shop in the 1920s.