The Great Red Car Conspiracy

Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars and this is Eric Molinsky.

Eric: Hi. I’m Eric.

Roman: Eric is an independent producer in New York City.

Eric: Brooklyn, of course like most public radio producers here.

Roman: But before Brooklyn, Eric spent 10 years in Los Angeles.

Eric: Yeah. When I was in L.A, I used to hear this story pretty often and the story it’s almost like a fable. L.A. had this amazing transportation system called The Red Car and it was this trolley that covered the entire city. And then after World War Two either Ford or GM bought The Red Car, had it dismantled, and then build this horrible freeway system that created the sprawl and gridlock up today.

Man 1: What the hell is a freeway?

Man 2: Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena. Smooth, safe, fast. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past.

Eric: And first I heard the story, I thought well that sounds familiar, it must be true. I feel like I’ve definitely heard the story before.

Roman: That’s because it’s the plot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Roger Rabbit: Come on Eddy where is your sense of humor?

Roman: Or at least it’s the full scheme that Christopher Lloyd reveals at the end of the movie.

Man 1: Come on! Nobody’s going to drive this lousy freeway when they can take the Red Car for a nickel.

Man 2: Oh, they’ll drive. They’ll have to. You see, I bought the Red Car so I could dismantle it!

Man 3: What uh…. [scream]

Roman: This isn’t totally ridiculous. Remember the plot of Chinatown where a Los Angeles mogul was stealing water from Northern California? That actually happened.

Man 4: Forget it’s Jake, it’s Chinatown.

Eric: As I learned more about the history of L.A., I learned that the Red Car was actually not the victim of a massive conspiracy. The Red Car actually was the conspiracy. The Red Car helped to create the sprawl and the gridlock.

Roman: To understand how this all came about, we have to go way back to the mid 19th century. A boy named Henry Huntington was born into a middle-class family in Upstate New York but he has a very wealthy uncle named Collis Huntington.

Eric: Collis has no kids, and he latches on to his nephew. And I assume you must see something in Henry. He thinks this kid can be molded into a businessman and he’s right. And so Collis takes little Henry under his wing, he teaches them everything about the family business which is railroads.

Roman: Jump to 1900, Collis dies and Henry thinks he’s going to inherit the company, Southern Pacific.

Eric: But the board doesn’t want another Huntington in-charge. So, Henry’s out and he gets a consolation prize which is $15 million which back then was about maybe like $400 million today. And he takes his cash and he goes south to Los Angeles. The city of Los Angeles really shouldn’t exist because the L.A. River was a mess and it was so prone to flooding it would actually change its location on the map.

Roman: The only decent harbor is Long Beach but San Diego has a bigger center of commerce.

Eric: And downtown L.A. is like, way far to the east.

Roman: Disconnected flatland but where many people saw the desert, robber barons of the late 19th century saw something else….. a blank slate.

Eric: So, the modern city of Los Angeles as we know it, was created as a counterweight to San Francisco which was liberal even back then, had very strong unions. And L.A. was an open shop. A businessman like Henry Huntington had free reign and he starts by purchasing the biggest transportation system in the city, which was the Los Angeles Railway, otherwise known as Larry. And he incorporates it into a new company called Pacific Electric. I talked to a bunch of historians about this including a Bill Friedrichs who grew up in Los Angeles.

Bill: I have this vague recollection of a streetcar running up and down the main drag which was Brand Boulevard and I think I can remember the bell ringing in the streetcar

Eric: Really. What it sounds like?

Bill: Ding ding [laugh] I don’t know!

Eric: Friedrichs actually wrote a book about Henry Huntington.

Bill: The key to Henry Huntington’s operation was that this was before a lot of regulation in the area. So, Henry pretty much decided where development would occur by building a streetcar line out to the area. Just ahead of development and most frequently, he was building the streetcar lines out to where he owned the land.

Eric: So, to put this in modern terms, the Red Car was kinda like the Kindle. Amazon loses money on the Kindle because they want you to use this E-reader as a portal to buy lots of bigger stuff on their website. And so the Red Car was a portal to get you to buy other bigger stuff from Henry Huntington.

Roman: Like your entire life.

Bill: He never really made money with the Pacific Electric but it took people out to his subdivisions or he sold them land, frequently sold them water. He controlled some water companies. He also established an electric operation called the Pacific Light and Power company. It was essentially set up to provide electricity to his trolley cars but he ended up selling electricity to the city of Los Angeles.

Eric: Now, even back then, this was not business as usual.

Bill: There are lots of other streetcar developers but they’re much smaller and they frequently went bankrupt. Other developers own land and they build a trolley out to some land, but not the immense amount of land that Huntington controlled. So, he’s sort of a complete package coming down.

Eric: So, from 1904 to 1913, Huntington opens 500 new subdivisions every year. He controls more than 900 red cars on more than 1,100 miles of track.

Roman: That’s about 25% more track mileage than New York City has today 100 years Later.

Eric: Now, I mean historically American cities grow organically in rings, out of downtown. And Huntington really forces Los Angeles to expand outward at twice the rate, and I think that really weakened downtown L.A. because he was creating these little downtowns along his trolley routes. So, you think he’s creating this empire. He’s got the trains, he’s got the electricity. He’s got the land. He’s got the water.

Roman: All he needed now, were people.

Eric: Back then, there are a lot of reasons not to like cities. I mean, they were dirty, they were crowded, they were dangerous. And Los Angeles was going to be this very different kind of city. That was the dream. And Huntington, and Harry Chandler, and all these other L.A. power brokers went on this media blitz and during the winter they would blanket the Midwest with advertisements. You know that Los Angeles is a paradise full of orange trees, the climate will cure your asthma… You can go surfing! Surfing was actually a relatively unknown sport until Henry Huntington hired a Hawaiian surfer named George Freet to surf along Huntington Beach, and it worked. I mean for a while Long Beach was known as, “Iowa By The Sea” because so many Iowans live there.

Roman: But eventually, the dream went bust.

Eric: So, now remember, Pacific Electric is designed to lose money. It’s a portal to Huntington’s real estate and other companies. And so the board of Pacific Electric is not happy about this. In the meantime, the Red Car is becoming a threat to Southern Pacific Railroad, which was the company that Huntington’s and thought he was going to inherit from his uncle. So, Southern Pacific wants to buy Pacific Electric. Huntington says “No.” His own board overrules him. He’s forced to make a deal, and once again his power and his ambitions are cut short.

Roman: But Henry Huntington gets the last laugh in a pretty weird way.

Eric: Because his uncle’s fortune was split between him and his aunt Arabella. So, Huntington marries his aunt and consolidates the family fortune. Now it’s actually not quite as icky as it sounds because they were not related by blood. She was his uncle’s second wife.

Roman: But still!

[laughter]

Eric: Yeah. So, Huntington actually lives happily ever after with his wealth and his aunt, his aunt/wife, and he brings a lot of beauty to Los Angeles. He creates Huntington Gardens, The Huntington Library. He dies in 1927 and I don’t know if he knew yet but it was clear already to historians looking back that the Red Car was doomed.

Roman: Even though the overall track mileage rivaled New York, the Red Car wasn’t comprehensive enough to go everywhere you needed to go by Red Car alone.

Eric: And they started to become poorly maintained. I mean, people started calling them “slums on wheels.”

Roman: The big turning point comes in 1926, a year before Huntington dies. Southern Pacific which now owns Huntington’s Pacific Electric, offers this massive plan to build subways and elevated trains all around downtown L.A.

Eric: And this would be paid for by the taxpayer. So it’s put up for a public referendum and there’s a lot of money spent. A lot of advertising spend on both sides just like referendums today and the voters reject the plan.

Roman: People just didn’t like Southern Pacific. They had meddled in California politics for so long that they called it “The Octopus.”

Eric: Okay. So, now remember the original sort of conspiracy theory that the car companies bought up the Red Car and tore them down and built up the freeways? So, there was a subsidiary of General Motors called National City Lines and they did by trolley cars and they converted them into bus routes. And there were people at the time that thought it was a conspiracy. This wasn’t this conspiracy that suddenly people discovered 50 years later but the fact that Pacific Electric was doing the same thing to their own trolley cars.

Roman: As freeways became the norm and the Red Car became a thing of the past, you can see how a conspiracy theory could become cemented into the public imagination.

Eric: So, when I first saw a map of the Red Car lines, I actually thought it was an early map of the freeways. Which makes sense, these are the routes that people were using to get around. In some cases like the Coanda Pass, trains were actually dismantled to make way for the Hollywood freeway. Santa Monica Boulevard is paved over a trolley route and sometimes when I was heading to the 405, I’d actually drive over these Phantom tracks.

Roman: L.A.’s first freeway, The Arroyo Seco Parkway, which connects downtown to Pasadena opened in 1940. A few years later, city planners proposed another plan for elevated railroads that was rejected by the City Council. The last Red Car ran in 1961 and you have to think it was in a way of a victim of its own success. Henry Huntington’s goal was to connect his far-flung properties and create a decentralized city that you’d need a mass transit solution to get around. The problem was, he couldn’t provide it. Over time L.A. was so spread out, it had overtaxed what the Red Car was capable of servicing.

Eric: I like to imagine if it’s 1960 and I’m driving along the 10 freeway. I’m sure there was traffic but it must have been pretty smooth! Because I’m in the freeways that exist now, were the same freeways back then but built for a much smaller population. So, they must have seemed like a really impressive solution at the time.

Roman: And today, Angelenos can appreciate the great solution of their highway system for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours…

99% Invisible was produced this week by Eric Molinsky with help from Sam Greenspan and me Roman Mars. It’s a product of 91.7 Local Public Radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

Comments (15)

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  1. Steve D

    The conspiracy to buy up and dismantle public rail was real, but it was not to sell cars. Rather it was to sell buses. Although I’d far rather use light rail than buses in a strange city, simply because rail lines are more direct, buses are far more flexible and don’t need tracks. In fact they were called “trackless trolleys.”

    Streetcar lines were abysmally unprofitable and lots of lines resorted to building housing developments or amusement parks to boost ridership.

    Los Angeles doesn’t sprawl because it has freeways, it has freeways because it sprawls, and urban sprawl in many cities was first created by streetcars. And before that, in cities built on the water, steamboat suburbs sprang up.

  2. Scott Mcintosh

    Roman, you are attempting to compress a long and complex story into a very small space and in so doing you have lost the story. Streetcars served established urban centres, in LA that service was provided by the companies that ended up forming the LA railway (Yellow Cars). Interurbans were aimed at reaching suburban development areas and reaching urban centres outside the metropolis, and that’s what the Pacific Electric did. Of course they were intended to profit from new divisions, this happened across the world – look at the land development activities of the Underground railways in London or the propert arms of the Japanese private railways. In Switzer4land ‘private’ railways have most of their stock held by local authorities and have been used to support development.
    The resulting streetcar/interurban suburbs were not sprawl; they relied on development within walking distance of the car line. They were much more like modern Transit Oriented Developments. Se the work done by UC Berkley on Streetcar Suburbs.

    Southern Pacific bought PE because it was interested in the freight terminal rights and business, it wasn’t really interested in passenger operation, hence the neglect of the business.
    The Transit Conspiracy did exist, but it probably had more effect in cities other than LA. LA’s problems were idiot politicians, graft and poor management

    1. Dexter Wong

      Actually, prior to the 1920s, Southern Pacific was heavily involved in passenger operations. It had two electric railways in Alameda County and Marin County, CA, plus one in the Willamette Valley in OR. When those shut down, their cars ended up at Pacific Electric. In fact, it was the CA cars that ended service in 1961 (not Pacific Electric’s own cars because the outsiders held more passengers).

  3. Dexter Wong

    I would like to point out that Henry Huntington and Southern Pacific fought for control of Pacific Electric for many years. In 1908, Huntington sold Pacific Electric (known as “Old PE” because it was different from the 1911 co. of the same name) to Southern Pacific and started a rival company, Los Angeles Interurban Ry. Southern Pacific then bought him out in 1911 and merged Old PE and Los Angeles Interurban into a new company, also called Pacific Electric (or “New PE”). New PE made a profit for Southern Pacific for its first 11 years before red ink caught up with it. (This is from “Ride The Big Red Cars” by Spencer Crump.) Southern Pacific continued to operate Pacific Electric passenger services until 1953 when it was sold to Metropolitan Coach Lines. In 1958, Metropolitan Coach Lines sold the remaining lines to Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Aunthority (which had also bought Los Angeles Transit Lines (former L.A. Ry.). And of course, the rest is history, the last PE car ran in 1961 and the last LA Ry car ran in 1963.

    1. Dexter Wong

      I would also like to point out that Los Angeles Railways and Pacific Electric were two separate companies with different missions. LA Rys. served the city of Los Angeles with streetcars, while PE served the greater Los Angeles area (including, Pasadena, Long Beach, Santa Ana, Santa Monica, Glendale, Burbank, San Bernadino and Riverside) with large railroad-sized interurban cars. The article runs the two companies together, which is quite incorrect. Huntington did not own PE after 1911 when he sold the company to Southern Pacific. Huntington did own LA Rys., which did not change hands until well after his death when the company was sold to National City Lines.

  4. RRBILL

    Trackless trolleys were electric buses that got their power from a pair of trolley poles and overhead wires. The Pacific Electric was standard gauge, not narrow gauge like the streetcars of the Los Angeles Ry.

  5. I was born in 48 and I do remember the red car. But as i remember it was just one car,no train. It was fun to go to Los Angeles. No freeways in those days

  6. Trackless trolleys were electric transports that got their energy from a couple of trolley shafts and overhead wires. The Pacific Electric was standard gage, not limited gage like the streetcars of the Los Angeles Ry.

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