While exploring the town of Monrovia recently I found myself drawn to a sculpture anchoring the courtyard of a residential building. I was surprised to discover the artwork was created to commemorate the former location of the Pacific Electric Railway’s Monrovia Station. As a mass transit user, I was curious about this regional train line, enthused to learn that this former rail line was once the largest provider of inter-urban electric railway passenger service in the world.
The privately owned Pacific Electric Railway was begun in 1901 by railway executive Henry E. Huntington and banker Isaias W. Hellman. The railway would ultimately provide transit via buses, streetcars, and light-rail inter-urban cars. While freight lines were abundant, light rail electric and trolley lines for passengers – which Huntington had run in San Francisco – were less prevalent in Southern California, particularly outside city areas. In the pre-automobile era of the early 1900s, when most roads were unpaved and transportation was typically via horse, these light rail passenger lines were the most economical ways to connect outlying areas to city centers. In conjunction with Hellman, Southern California’s leading banker at the time, Huntington believed the time had come to begin building systems of light rail lines to connect outlying areas to Downtown Los Angeles.
Huntington and Hellman’s motives were far from altruistic. With ample financial and political clout, a strong driver behind Hellman and Huntington’s desire to develop light rail lines was to offer (and provide) electricity and transportation to developing areas. In addition, these rail line owners also purchased land – either outright or with partners – surrounding property acquired for the right of way for rail lines.
Ultimately, Huntington and his partners came to own a significant amount of land holdings north, east and south of the city.
With the Pacific and Electric’s main terminal located at 6th and Main in Downtown Los Angeles, light rail lines were developed to extend service in all directions outside the city, ultimately forming four districts: the Eastern District (serving towns in Riverside and San Bernardino counties), Southern District (serving the Long Beach area and northern parts of Orange County), Western District (Hollywood, Santa Monica and the San Fernando Valley area) and the Northern District, covering the San Gabriel Valley area. By the 1920s, this Southern California network of more than 2,100 daily trains utilized over 1,000 miles of tracks and was the largest electric railway system in the world.
Completed in 1907, the Pacific Electric’s Monrovia-Glendora route serviced the San Gabriel Valley, with much of the rail line running along present day Huntington Drive. With 39 stops – including San Marino, Arcadia, Monrovia, and Glendora – the railway provided a vital link between cities and the growing countryside. Typical weekday service was a car every half-hour to Monrovia. The addition of two and three trains every ten or fifteen minutes was often provided to accommodate rush hours.
The arrival of the mass-produced car and then government funding of public road systems for the car ultimately doomed these inter-urban rail lines. While the Pacific Electric owned extensive private systems of rail beds, many of the rail lines where laid within city streets. As these urban streets and the suburban areas the rail lines helped develop, development began accommodating more and more space for cars, with conflicts rapidly developing. Fueled by the novelty of cars and the slowing of train running times due to at-grade crossings and heightened congestion as trains competed for roadway space with cars ridership flagged. The 1930s saw the rise of express roads and early freeway systems. While planners intended to include interurban tracks in the center of these highways in the Los Angeles area, the plan was never implemented. Most electric rail lines were gone by the 1930s, with only a few surviving into the 1950s.
On my daily commute today onboard the Metro Gold, Red, and Purple lines into DTLA, I’m thrilled to experience the rapidly growing ridership and appreciation of our mass transit systems. I’ve enjoyed overhearing fellow passengers marvel at the beauty of the surrounding San Gabriel mountains, or discuss the pleasure of stopping off mid-week in Old Town Pasadena, or to shop at the farmer’s market.
Yes, we grumble about over-packed commuter cars and delays in service. But more often, we share an appreciation of not having to be chained to our cars as we glide by a congested 210 Freeway. Ultimately, I believe commuting with my mostly unknown fellow mass-transit passengers provides a sense of community that sitting individually in a car never could, or can, provide.