Exploring the original Pacific Electric Red Carsby Karl Buiter, staff writer
Visitors to Disney California Adventure park can find scaled reproductions of Red Car trolleys running between the park entrance on Buena Vista Street and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in Hollywood Land. These trolleys represent the primary transportation system of 1920s Los Angeles, a time when young Walt Disney moved out to California from the Midwest to pursue animation.
The two Disney-built trolleys are identified as #623 and #717, which reference the original "Red Cars" that ran on the Pacific Electric lines during the 1920s.
Streetcars first ran in Los Angeles in 1887, with an electric interurban line connecting the city to nearby Pasadena completed by 1895. In 1898, Southern Pacific Railroad Vice President Henry Huntington, fresh from his success in consolidating streetcar systems in San Francisco, turned his attention to Southern California, consolidating several urban lines into the Los Angeles Railway, which was known for its "Yellow Cars."
After losing control of Southern Pacific on the death of his uncle Collis Huntington, Henry focused his full attention on Southern California, and with Nevada Bank President Isais Hellman, formed the Pacific Electric Railroad. The first train of this new interurban line reached Long Beach in 1902. The system quickly grew into a network of lines connecting the growing metro with regional towns throughout the basin. Land was often exchanged for rail service and electrical power by these communities, and over the years, Huntington acquired considerable real estate holdings—Huntington Beach is one such development created by Huntington's companies.
From 1903 to 1905, Hellman sold his interest to Union Pacific Railroad's E.H. Harriman, partly in exchange for the banking interests of Wells Fargo. By 1911, Huntington sold his shares to Harriman, leaving the then Harriman-acquired Southern Pacific Railroad in control of Pacific Electric.
The Pacific Electric Red Car system peaked in the 1920s, and over time, expanded into a network that included San Fernando, Van Nuys, Glendale, San Pedro, Fullerton, Hollywood, and San Bernardino. The line even went out to the agricultural towns of Garden Grove and Anaheim, not far from the eventual site of Disneyland. Streetcars eventually faded away in the 1950s as the automobile became the primary way around Los Angeles. But if you look, you can find Red Cars operating in portions of Southern California today.
Just an hour's drive east of Disneyland is a collection of original Red Car trolleys operating at the Orange Empire Railway Museum. Located in Perris, California, and formed in 1956, this all-volunteer museum contains over 200 vintage pieces of railway equipment. The museum, open everyday (except some holidays), has several large car barns full of vintage trollies, steam locomotives, and vintage diesels. On most weekends and major holidays, visitors can ride trolleys on a loop of track that passes the museum's Pinacate Station reception area and store.
Gary Starre, a longtime volunteer and trainer at the Orange Empire Railway Museum, has been coming to the museum for 45 years, working on and operating the Red Cars. If you catch Gary at the museum, he can tell you stories of nearly every trolley on the property. During his tenure, he assisted Disney Imagineers on their numerous visits to the museum for research for the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit, as well as for the Red Car Trolleys for Disney California Adventure's Buena Vista Street.
Over 35 pieces of vintage Red Car equipment found their way to the museum. The wide collection contains many of the iconic "Hollywood" cars as well as pieces from earlier days. The stories of how they found their way to the Orange Empire vary, from scrapyard queens to movie stars. Several of the cars are in rough, non-operating condition, and some are useful only for the spare parts they contain. It takes years to restore railway equipment from the years of rust, rotted wood, and long-neglected interiors.
Red Car #655 is one of the excellent restorations painted in the 1940s streamline "Butterfly" scheme. Rescued from the top of a scrap pile by a boatyard owner and later donated to the museum, both the body and interior of Red Car #655 have been fully restored. The museum plans to eventually return the trolley to operating condition.
Gary Starre of Orange Empire Railway Museum provides a history and tour of Pacific Electric Red Car #655. Video by Karl Buiter.
Not all of the Red Cars remain in the Pacific Electric paint. Here, we find Tucson Street Railway #10. But under its paint is Red Car #332. This car was loaned to the Old Pueblo Trolley in Tucson, Arizona, in 1985 for a 10-year lease. In exchange for the loan, the new museum conducted a full restoration. Upon its return to the Orange Empire, the museum left this trolley in the restored Tucson colors; they do eventually plan to return it to its original Red Car #332 colors.
Its sister Red Car #331 is stored just behind #332, and together, they share a movie history. Both cars, along with a third—Red Car #337—were purchased by MGM Studios for the making of Comrade X starring Clark Gable and Hedy Lamarr and later seen in Singin' in the Rain.
Gary Starre of the Orange Empire Railway Museum provides a tour of Pacific Electric Red Car #332 painted in the colors of Tucson Street Railway #10. Video by Karl Buiter.
Red Car #717 is the other scaled reproduction at Disney California Adventure. The real Red Car #717 was built in 1925 for the City of Hollywood.
One of 160 "Hollywood" cars built for the Pacific Electric, Red Car #717 appears at the museum in its original 1925 paint scheme. "The 717 seems to have been the car that just kept running and running," according to Gary Starre. "If you look through our history books, you'll find it in pictures all over the system. It acquired different numbers over the years In 1959 it was retired and purchased by one of our members and brought out the Orange Empire Railway Museum and went back into service almost immediately. He ran it for another 40 years. In the late '90s early 2000s, we finally got ambitious and totally rebuilt it from the ground up back to the condition you see it."
Watch Pacific Electric Red Car #717 roll out of the barn. Gary continues the story on Red Car #717. [Note: Loud noise in video.] Video by Karl Buiter.
The work of the Orange Empire Railway also covers the L.A. Railway Yellow Cars and many other non-trolley projects, including the current restoration of a Santa Fe FP45 that used to lead trains between Chicago and Los Angeles in the 1960s. Yellow Car #3100, Yellow Car #1201, and Red Car #717 were running during the museum during the museum's 2012 Thomas the Tank Engine event.
The museum will leave you with a new appreciation of the streetcars that were the backbone of Los Angeles transportation some 100 years ago. In addition to the collection at the Orange Empire Railway Museum, the Port of Los Angeles Waterfront Line in San Pedro hosts a 1.5-mile operating Red Car line. You can learn more about Henry Huntington, founder of the Pacific Electric, at The Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.
You can read a MousePlanet companion article about the Disney California Adventure Red Car Trolleys here.
Special Thanks to Gary Starre, Gordon Taber, John Smatlak, Donna Zanin, Byron Brainard and all the volunteers at the Orange Empire Railway Museum for providing access and information about these Pacific Electric Red Cars. For more information about the trolleys, as well as museum hours and schedules, visit the museum website.