Blue Line At 20: Looking Back At Early Service Between Los Angeles And Long Beach (1902-1961)

Pacific Electric Railway On First Day Of Operation to Long Beach, July 4, 1902 (via Metro Library Flickr)

Next week, Los Angeles’ first contemporary rail project turns 20 years old. The Metro Blue Line running between Los Angeles and Long Beach opened on July 14, 1990, but rail service linking the two cities stretches back more than 100 years.

We wanted to take a look back at the first complete interurban link built by Henry Huntington, one of the most successful in the entire system, and the last to be abandoned and replaced with bus service.

The line connecting downtown to Long Beach was first proposed at a Los Angeles City Council meeting on June 24, 1901. Henry Huntington had planned to build a resort hotel in Long Beach, and settlers there wanted more connection to Los Angeles than the existing six to eight steam trains per day provided by Southern Pacific, which had replaced horse-drawn cars in 1888.

Long Beach was a burgeoning community at the turn of the last century. In 1890, Long Beach had only 484 residents. The population grew to over 2,000 people in 1900. By 1910, Long Beach’s population had grown to 17,000 – making it the fastest growing city in the United States during that decade. This rapid growth was attributed to the convenience of trolley travel to Los Angeles, and by 1920, the population had expanded to over 55,000.

Early photo of Pacific Electric service to Long Beach pier (via Metro Library Flickr)

The City of Long Beach noted the success of interurban lines built to Santa Monica and Pasadena, and the City Fathers agreed to offer a franchise for rail service. The proposal called for tracks to enter the city along American Avenue (later renamed Long Beach Boulevard). This was appealing in that streetcars would be routed just three blocks from the town’s small business district. However, strong opposition came from those who did not want more tracks along their seaside property, as plans called for tracks to run along Ocean Park Avenue (later renamed Ocean Boulevard), a street lined with upscale residences.

A representative for Henry Huntington successfully bid $9,600 the franchise. The citizens of Long Beach were generally pleased despite not knowing the final track routing, as the large sum of money would help balance the municipal budget.

The area between Los Angeles and Long Beach was generally flat and uninhabited farm and ranchland, allowing the tracks to be laid quickly. The largest settlement between the two cities was Compton, population 452. Trackwork was indeed completed ahead of schedule and interurban cars borrowed from the Pasadena and Alhambra lines were put into service until new cars could be received for the Los Angeles – Long Beach line.

July 4, 1902: On the first day of service, Long Beach’s 2,000 residents saw 30,000 visitors by afternoon. Most came by rail (with new arrivals every 15 minutes), but many joined the holiday festivities by buggy and carriage. Some visitors who arrived by steam train were so enamored of the new Pacific Electric line that they sacrificed their return tickets so they could ride the festive Red Cars back to Los Angeles.

By the 1920s, the Automobile Era was well underway in Southern California. Expanded development, car ownership and new roads translated into more grade crossings and hazards for streetcars, increasing their travel time. Buses held appeal for transit operators as a cheaper transportation mode: employee overhead was lower and the high expense of railcar maintenance plants could be avoided.

With the arrival of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, the nation’s first “super highway,” in 1939, the writing was on the wall for cars and buses to challenge streetcars as the preferred method of travel.

Pacific Electric Cars on Ocean Boulevard, Long Beach, March 1936 (via Metro Library Flickr)

By the 1940s, Los Angeles had grown greatly in both size and population. The suburbs were expanding farther from downtown, and a comprehensive network of freeways, as we’ve discussed here, was being planned for the entire County. As automobile ownership soared, public transportation ridership slumped.

In the early 1950s, Pacific Electric was undergoing big changes. Several rail lines were slowly being converted to bus service. According to Jim Walker’s Pacific Electric Red Cars, “resistance from the California Department of Highways to include rail transit in freeway medians helped seal the early doom of passenger rail travel.” Ironically, rapid growth had fueled both the birth of streetcar lines as well as their demise.

By 1953, Pacific Electric decided to forego any remaining passenger rail service, and by the end of the year, operations were turned over to Metropolitan Coach Lines.

The Long Beach route was the very last one to be put out of service, on April 9, 1961.

Just two decades later, planning was already underway for reconstituting rail service between Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Main Street Station on the last day of Long Beach Line service, April 9, 1961 (via Metro Library Flickr)

Metro Transportation Library’s Flickr Collections Of Interest:

Metro Blue Line
Pacific Electric Railway (1899-1953)
Downtown Los Angeles And Freeways
Long Beach
Metropolitan Coach Lines (1953-1958)