San Diego’s Historic Street Car System
Did you know San Diego was once home to its very own street car system? At the turn of the century, San Diego leaders started planning an exposition to coincide with the opening of the Panama Canal, expected to bring tremendous growth to the US West Coast. As part of the Exposition, a special streetcar was designed to carry patrons to and from the grand event. Exclusive to San Diego, this streetcar was open-air and capitalized on San Diego’s mild climate.
San Diego’s “Class 1” Streetcar
The new “Class 1 Streetcar” was state-of-the-art at the time, with a large, all-wood body and a high-arched “turtle-back” roof that gave passengers plenty of headroom. The cars had a steel and wood underframe and could carry heavy loads. These cutting-edge cars were quite beautiful and decorated in the Arts & Crafts style, with bright yellow exteriors featuring red pinstripes. Interiors featured hand-polished cherry wood and solid bronze hardware. The ceilings featured gold-leafed oak leaves, and every detail was considered, down to the mother-of-pearl, nickel-plated call buttons. 24 of these cars were made, and delivered to San Diego in 1912.
The cars served San Diego well into the twentieth century, but during the Great Depression, city leaders opted to adopt a new low-cost, mass-produced streetcar and retired the old Class 1s. Public sales were held to sell off the old streetcars for $50 apiece; those that didn’t sell were burned. Of those that did sell, many were turned into permanent homes, although most were gone by the 1960s.
The “Class 1s” Today
In 1939, one newlywed couple purchased three Class 1 streetcars and turned them into a home. These three streetcars – cars 126, 128, and 138 – are the only ones remaining from the entire class.
In 1996, the streetcars were purchased, and in 1997 they were officially designated as San Diego Historic Landmarks. Car No. 138 has been restored to its original beauty by its owner, while the other two are awaiting restoration.
Bringing Back the Historic Class 1 Streetcars
2015 marks the Centennial of the Panama-California Exposition for which the cars were created, and efforts are being made to return these three cars to the rails in Balboa Park for the event. These historic streetcars can serve as a wonderful historic attraction within the park and remind residents and visitors of the many wonderful benefits of a public transit system.
Many community leaders are supportive of returning the Class 1s to service to help revitalize areas throughout the city including North Park. There are plans to construct a large parking garage in North Park so that riders can leave their cars parked and explore the town by streetcar. Just imagine hopping on a streetcar on the waterfront, riding down Broadway, catching a show and a bite to eat and then hopping back on up to Balboa Park. What a great way to see the city!
More information about the history and restoration efforts of the Historic Class 1 Streetcars can be found on their website.