Southern Californians are so accustomed to going everywhere in their cars that most people can’t remember a time when there were no freeways and few people owned automobiles. However, in the early 20th century an innovative network of electric-powered trolleys was the region’s dominant form of transportation.

The Pacific Electric Railway (PE), with its Big Red Cars, was the world’s largest electric-powered interurban trolley system. The Red Cars operated for almost 60 years, taking passengers to cities throughout Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. In its heyday during the 1920s and 1930s, PE ran more than 2,100 trains a day across 1,100 miles of track. The Pasadena lines ranked second only to Los Angeles in terms of passenger importance, with a record 3.1 million passengers riding these lines in 1924, according to the Electric Railway Historical Association of Southern California (ERHA).

The Red Car was the brainchild of Henry E. Huntington, vice president of the Southern Pacific Railway (SP), and Isaias W. Hellman, a Southern California banker. Henry’s uncle, Collis P. Huntington, was the top executive of SP, and Henry hoped to run the railroad after his uncle’s death. But after he lost the battle for SP’s control, Henry began building an electric railway to connect Los Angeles with surrounding cities.

Huntington, whose San Marino home is now the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens, constructed the PE with the same mixture of greed and ambition that his uncle and other 19th-century magnates used to build their railroads. He adamantly refused to raise his employees’ wages or decrease their hours, and he successfully dodged attempts to organize a union. His purchase of land along PE routes generated huge profits from real estate development, including the city of Huntington Beach. In fact, selling and developing real estate and providing electric service to new communities along the route would prove more lucrative to PE’s investors than the railway itself.

In his book “Trolley Days in Pasadena,” author Charles Seims recalls that Huntington seemed “almost hurt” that some property owners wanted reimbursement for their land. “It’s enough to give these people the [PE] service without being called upon to pay for the right-of way,” he said during an interview in 1903. “We don’t propose to pay for rights-of-way if we can help it.”

In 1901, Huntington and Hellman incorporated the Pacific Electric Railway of California, which initially owned and operated their trolley system. The following year, PE’s first railway line began offering transportation between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach.  

While PE’s service was a novel form of transportation in most cities, it was not the first electric interurban system in Pasadena. The Pasadena & Los Angeles Railway — the first electric interurban trolley system in Southern California — began operating between the two cities in 1895. In 1902, PE purchased these and other Pasadena lines, and by 1906 PE ran three new lines connecting the city with downtown Los Angeles: the Pasadena Short Line, Pasadena Oak Knoll Line and the Sierra Madre Line.

The Pasadena Short Line began its trip at the PE station at Sixth and Main streets in downtown Los Angeles and eventually traveled along Fair Oaks Boulevard in South Pasadena, completing its run at the car barns on North Fair Oaks near Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, according to ERHA. The Oak Knoll Line originally was built to reach the Wentworth Hotel (now the Langham Huntington) on Oak Knoll Avenue, rode north on Lake Avenue to Colorado Boulevard and traveled west on Colorado to Fair Oaks.

The Sierra Madre Line ran from the Sixth and Main Station in Los Angeles to the city of Sierra Madre, with a portion of its route running along the four tracks that were installed in the center of Huntington Drive. In addition, PE ran more than a dozen local lines that made stops throughout Pasadena.       

In 1903, Realtor L. C. Brand, who developed the city of Glendale, received a franchise from the Los Angeles City Council to build an electric railway line connecting Glendale and downtown Los Angeles. The proposed line was to enter the city via the newly built thoroughfare of Brand Boulevard, creating a new artery west of Glendale Avenue, the city’s central business district. In 1904, however, Brand sold his line to the Los Angeles Interurban Railway Company, an affiliate of PE. The PE’s Glendale Line began operation in 1904, passing Echo Park and Silver Lake in Los Angeles before entering Glendale. In the coming years, the line was extended through Glendale and began operating in Burbank in 1911.  

PE also ran several excursion trains that were popular among tourists as well as area residents. A brochure advertising the 1912 excursions describes the “World Famous Trolley Trip to Mt. Lowe,” which cost $2.50, and the “Old Mission Trolley Trip,” beginning at the San Gabriel Mission and proceeding to Alhambra, Pasadena, Glendora and Monrovia before ending at Cawston’s Ostrich Farm in South Pasadena. This trip cost $1, as did two other tours: the Balloon Route Trolley Trip, taking passengers from Hollywood to the Westside of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Redondo Beach and Venice; and the Triangle Trolley Trip with stops at Santa Ana, Huntington Beach, Long Beach and San Pedro, among other locations.

There are many urban legends about PE’s demise, including stories about the carmakers, bus companies and other businesses that conspired to shut down the system in order to earn greater profits from the automobiles customers needed to drive the newly constructed freeways.   

“The fable is that PE was done in by Standard Oil, Firestone tires and General Motors’ buses,” says Steve Crise, co-founder of the Mt. Lowe Preservation Society. “While that may be true for some systems in the country, it’s certainly not true for the Pacific Electric.”

In reality, he explains, efforts to reduce trolley service began long before the advent of freeways in the 1940s. Southern Pacific acquired the PE system in 1911 and in the 1920s began replacing its electric trolleys with buses. In Pasadena, all but four local lines had been converted to buses by 1923.

“The PE simply didn’t keep up with technology,” adds Crise. “The last new vehicles were delivered in 1940.” The Glendale-Burbank Line was one of the trolleys that received these more modern, streamlined cars, which Crise describes as “the pinnacle of PE’s technology.”

“The Glendale-Burbank Line, he adds, “was probably the perfect place for these cars to exist because there was a great need for people traveling between Glendale and Los Angeles.”

By the 1950s, SP wanted out of the passenger train business because it realized the PE trolleys could not compete with cars and airplanes. The Oak Knoll and Sierra Madre lines were abandoned in 1950, followed by the Pasadena Short Line in 1951 and the Glendale-Burbank Line in 1955. The line between Los Angeles and Long Beach was the final line to close and was shut down in 1961.    

Crise and Michael Patris, a co-founder of the Mt. Lowe Preservation Society, have organized an exhibit about train travel, “The Art of Getting There: Railroad Inspired Artistry,” which will be on display through Aug. 13 at the Pasadena History Museum. The two also manage the website (peryhs.org) for the Pacific Electric Railway Historical Society, for which they have digitized more than 4,000 images of PE, and are the authors of “Pacific Electric Railway: Then and Now.”  

One of the images in the exhibit is a painting by Crise’s wife, Yoko Mazza, of a Big Red Car driving in San Pedro. To those familiar with PE, the picture recalls a time when tens of thousands of Southern Californians could easily hop aboard a trolley to get where they wanted to go.