Remember Old Number Sixteen? Recollections of the La Jolla Street Car Line
Really?... You don't remember it, you say? That trolley line still ran as late as the `Thirties, and that's not too long ago!... But you weren't born until 1942, you say ?... Oh!... Yes, I know, old street car lines are your hobby, and that's why you ask me... Yes, I remember the line to La Jolla very well. No. 16 it was, and I rode it every weekday between 1934 and 1939... Where did it run? Of course I can tell you. But I can't show you on a modern map; the face of the land has changed too much...
You're right; I've seen a lot of changes. Makes me an old timer, I guess. But only old timers can describe old times, right? You're a case in point; you're too young to remember.
First of all, you need to know that the La Jolla line came into being earlier than the 1930's, when I was riding it. It was a brainchild of John D. Spreckels, who developed Mission Beach and its Amusement Center some ten years earlier.1 In addition to building the roller coaster—yes, it's still there, the same one—and a carousel and other honkie-tonk attractions, John D. Spreckels cut Mission Beach up into a great many half-pint sized lots and put them up for sale to summer vacationers. 2 In some sections the owners were expected to pitch their tents on their own lots, but that idea never went over. 3 Even so, Mission Beach in the early days was only a summer community, with people building small beach cottages, vacant in winter.
The street car line was supposed to tie everything together—Ocean Beach, Mission Beach and its Amusement Center, and La Jolla. Actually, though, the car line was opened almost a year earlier than the Amusement Center. John D's son Claus was in charge of the building.4 It was completed as far a Ocean Beach in May, 1924. 5 The rest of the line through Mission Beach to La Jolla was finished within the next two months and service to I a Jolla began on July 1, 1924. 6 This was the beginning of the No. 16 line.
But would you believe it? Not everybody in La Jolla was happy about the new car line. True, some had petitioned for it, but others looked down their noses? Who wanted to, live within forty-five minutes of downtown San Diego? Who wanted to be linked so closely with the hoi polloi of Mission Beach and Ocean Beach? If they'd had their druthers, many people in La Jolla would have kept their privacy and isolation. There must have been quite a few delicate, well-bred eyebrows lifted in La Jolla when the first street car made its run; I was told years afterward that residents of Fay Avenue shuttered their windows and went into seclusion on that opening day.
But the route: you asked about that. Yes, it began at the Plaza in downtown San Diego, but only after the incoming car had turned a loop. Inbound, No. 16 went east on Broadway to Fourth, south on Fourth to F Street, west one block to Third, and north two blocks to Broadway again. There, at Third and Broadway, on the northwest corner of the Plaza, the car took on its outbound passengers, made a left turn onto Broadway, and began its trip to La Jolla.
(I should say right here, though, that my trip began in East San Diego on a No. 7 street car. If my No. 7 happened to be late, and if the La Jolla car turned westbound onto the track at Broadway and Third ahead of the "7," the only way to catch up with it was to hail a taxi! That fifty cents was sinful extravagance on Depression wages, justifiable only because it got me to work on time!)
It wasn't hard to see No. 16 downtown and recognize it, because it traveled there with No. 14, Ocean Beach, coupled to it, "deadheading.". . . You say, where was No. 15? I never saw much of "15;" it was a number reserved for holiday use to Mission Beach Amusement Park... The 16-14 cars traveled tandem as far as Ocean Beach Junction.8 They ran twice an hour, leaving the Plaza at "fifteen after" and "fifteen till" the hour. The No. 16 car arrived in La Jolla forty-five minutes later, on the hour and the half hour. The car which I regularly rode left the Plaza at 7:45 a.m., and arrived in La Jolla at 8:30. At night when I reversed direction, I took the 5:30 p.m. car out of La Jolla. Altogether, counting both No. 16 and No. 7, I spent about three hours a day on street cars.
When the 16-14 cars turned left onto Broadway and started outbound from the Plaza, they rolled west to Kettner, where they turned north. Farther on, the track eased over onto Hancock. Once on Kettner and Hancock, the cars picked up speed and made few stops. Some distance north on Kettner or Hancock, in the Five Points area, there came the beginning of a long, high, single-track overpass. 9 It's hard to say, now, where it began, but it was south of Witherby. The whole face of the land there has been changed by the building of Interstate 5 Freeway. It's hard to locate the old landmarks.
Believe me, that was a scary overpass. Its purpose was to cross the Santa Fe Railway tracks, which themselves crossed, via an overpass, the main street, Witherby, leading to Point Loma and the beaches. So there were really three levels of traffic there, and the street car was on the highest. When the car began to climb the steep grade of that overpass, it seemed like a spider spinning its own thread and climbing it as it spun! We passengers could look out the windows and see nothing but space around us, with tiny buildings below! Then began the descent, likewise scary. That bridge may have been an engineering marvel, but to us passengers, it was always eerie. We felt like crossing ourselves and saying three Hail Mary's. When we finally landed on firm ground we were near the Marine Corps Base. There was a passenger stop on Barnett Avenue near old Gate 3 of the Base, which was then the main gate. 10 Many Marines got on and off there.
From the Marine Corps Base, the tracks zoomed northwest across open meadows on their own right-of-way. They did not follow a street then, but the route was opened afterward as Frontier Street, later named Sports Arena Boulevard. The country on either side of the tracks was salt marsh, sometimes spongy but rarely flooded. In the spring these meadows blazed with wild flowers—purple owls' clover and yellow tidytips, and my little son and I would ride the street car on Sunday, get off at the one stop where a dirt road crossed the tracks, and walk among the wild flowers.
Oh, yes, that dirt road! It came from Point Loma, and led up Mission Valley, dirt all the way. You know it today as Rosecrans Street, and the valley road is today's Interstate 8. Our "wild flower stop" was about where Rosecrans cuts through the Sports Arena Boulevard-Kurtz Street complex today. Of course, much of this land was lower then than now. Before building took place there, fill dirt was brought in to raise the level. Only the local streets now flood sometimes during heavy rains.
Nos. 16 and 14 from the Marine Base had been running north of Midway Drive, roughly parallel to, but angling toward Midway. When the track reached Midway, it crossed Midway to its south side and continued west on its own right-of-way across the tide marshes of Mission Bay toward Ocean Beach Junction. Forty years ago, that section looked nothing like today. But before I tell you about it, let me tell you a funny story about the bluff above the intersection of Midway and West Point Loma. Maybe it's funny, maybe it's sad; I never knew the whole story, only that part of it which I saw.
The butt end of Point Loma used to extend farther north than it does today. It dropped away in a steep cliff right next to West Point Loma Boulevard. The land on top of the cliff, within sight of the road, was used only for grazing. An old man who apparently owned the northerly tip of the cliff kept a herd of goats there. In the late 'Thirties, when everyone knew that war was coming, the U.S. government wanted this piece of land and other properties adjoining it for war workers' housing. The old man wouldn't sell. The earth-moving machinery moved in all around his property, bringing everything else down to street level. But the old man's goat-field remained like a little island in the sky surrounded by flatlands thirty or forty feet below. Finally I saw the earth-moving equipment chewing away at the old man's hill. He had been driven out. Maybe it was because the goats could no longer reach their pasture; maybe the government used its power of eminent domain; I never knew. But Frontier Housing occupied this and a lot more land nearby, during and after World War 11.
But back to the car line. As I said, it crossed Midway Drive at West Point Loma Boulevard, and from that intersection, ran south of Midway in a westerly direction across the tide marshes of Mission Bay. These marshes, unlike those nearer the Marine Base, were more than spongy; they were wet. At high tide they were sheets of shallow water. The car line's roadbed, single track at this point, was built up on a grade some ten feet above water. There were several wooden bridges which allowed the tidewater to move in and out. You can see the old pilings of one of these bridges yet from West Point Loma Boulevard at the foot of Farnosa Boulevard. There was only one passenger stop in this marshland stretch, connected to the "mainland" of Ocean Beach by a spidery wooden footbridge. This stop was called "Loma Alta," for some strange reason; certainly it was not a "tall hill."
So many changes have taken place in the land in this area that here, too, it's hard to picture it as it used to be. Even West Point Loma Boulevard was not cut through when the No. 16 line was built in the 1920's. Street traffic moved to Ocean Beach by way of Chatsworth and Voltaire Streets, and only the electric line ran straight across the salt flats. Before the building of West Point Loma, the marshlands extended deeper into Ocean Beach-Point Loma in many small "finger-canyons." After West Point Loma was built, many of the marshes on its south side were filled in and houses built there. Finally the land north of West Point Loma was also filled in with spoil dredged from the Mission Bay project.11 Apartments and businesses stand on much of this land today. The Famosa Street slough is only a reminder of what the whole area once looked like.
The double-header 16-14 cars ran across this stretch of single track between West Point Loma and Ocean Beach Junction at top speed; there were almost never passengers at Loma Alta Station, and the motormen made the most of their time. Block signals controlled the direction of traffic here, as they did on other single-track portions of the line. 12 But in the early morning of Monday, Nov. 22, 1937, there was a shattering head-on crash on this stretch of track. 13 The inbound car was heavily loaded. A pea-soup fog had come in during the night of Sunday-Monday, Nov. 21-22. Were the block signals working? The public was never sure. The two cars catapulted toward each other in the fog, crashed and telescoped. There were many serious injuries, with one motorman at the point of death for days, but he recovered. There were many lawsuits. Some persons claimed at the time that the block signals had gone out the night before, and that the street car company had delayed until morning in having them repaired rather than pay for Sunday overtime. Even Sam Mason, general manager of the San Diego Electric Railway attributed the crash to "fog and probable failure of block signals." 14 The lawsuits dragged on and many were settled out of court. 15 The signal charge was never proved, but neither was it ever disproved.
Relatives of trolley riders were frantic that morning. 16 What happened in my family may have been typical. Although the outbound car which crashed had left the Plaza a half-hour ahead of "my" car, we, too, were held up on the track behind the crash. News of the accident spread fast in San Diego, then a small town, and my two sisters were frantic with worry. One of them phoned La Jolla. "No, she isn't here yet." Panicking, they began to check hospitals. Finally a nun at Mercy urged them to call La Jolla again. Yes, I had arrived at work hours late. We passengers on the later car had finally been taken off and put on a bus to La Jolla. My sisters relaxed. 17
The marshland stretch of the road ended at Ocean Beach Junction, near the old channel bridge. There was a switch at the Junction, and the Ocean Beach car was cut off to go south. (On their return trip to the Plaza, the two cars were recoupled at this point.) No. 16 turned north and crossed the old wooden bridge across the channel. This channel was the natural entrance to Mission Bay before the three jetties were built and the channel redirected. The car line was single track across the bridge, running on the extreme west side of the bridge. The bridge itself was built low above the water, and one reason it was removed was because boaters wanted to bring in higher-masted boats. The old bridge was not entirely demolished until 1951, although the first Ventura Boulevard bridge was opened in September, 1949. 18
The old bridge touched Mission Beach at its most southerly point, not in mid-peninsula as does the present Ventura Bridge (recently renamed West Mission Bay Drive Bridge). Upon reaching Mission Beach the cars traveled north on double tracks through the length of that beach. The tracks and their roadbed were much higher than the surrounding grade of Mission Boulevard, and it was an agile person who could swing aboard. 19 At the north end of Mission Beach, the line became single track again, and continued north on Mission Boulevard to Loring Street.
Here the tracks left Mission Boulevard and swerved off to the left on their own right-of-way once more. They crossed an area of eroded cliffs and gullies, of which Tourmaline Canyon and another small nearby canyon remain today. 20 The remaining "badlands" have been filled and bulldozed and developed into housing areas.
The tracks crossed Turquoise Street on an overpass. In the 1930's there was open country, truck garden land, between Turquoise and Colima Streets, commonly called "the Jap strawberry fields." Japanese-Americans owned and worked these fields. The evacuation and interment of the Nisei in 1942 ended the strawberry business, as well as the fortunes of most of the hard-working, bewildered, hapless Nisei.
Beyond the strawberry fields, the tracks followed Electric Avenue and went through La Jolla Hermosa, which was fairly built up even then. (The southern end of Electric Avenue was later renamed La Jolla Hermosa Avenue. 21) There was an ornate passenger station in Hermosa on Electric Avenue between La Canada and Miramonte Plaza. It was seldom used; cars hardly ever stopped there. The Methodist Church bought this property in 1951 to become the nucleus of the La Jolla United Methodist Church. 22
North of the Hermosa Station the cars ran in a wide, sweeping upgrade curve around the base of a protruding hill, on their own single-track right-of-way. This area was sparsely settled. The curve ended and came out on Fay Avenue on the east side of old La Jolla High School. After the No. 16 line was abandoned, the school district acquired the right-of-way adjacent to the school and expanded. Today, from La Jolla Methodist Church to a point near Bon Air Place, south of the High School, the old right-of-way is clearly visible, and has been converted into an asphalt-surfaced bicycle path. 23
On Fay, from near Rushville, the line ran straight north on double track to Prospect Street, where it ended. At Prospect and Fay there was an elaborate, doughnut-shaped building, "The terminal," with tracks which ran around the building for turn-around. Inside the Terminal there were spaces for a number of small, boutique-type shops, usually vacant. The Terminal did furnish shelter on rainy days, but it always seemed a dank, cold, gloomy place. Cars left only twice an hour, and no one waited at the Terminal longer than could be helped. It was too deserted and spooky. In the last years of No. 16, cars no longer turned around the circle; motormen reversed the trolley instead. Parts of the circular track were removed even before the line was abandoned in 1940. 24 A large gas station covers the site today.
Why did they discontinue service, you ask? Of course, I wasn't a stockholder, only a passenger. But fewer people were riding in those last years and everyone made fun of street cars... Why?... Because people said they were noisy, cumbersome and inflexible -which they were. Anyway, busses were the "in" thing... Yes, I know that busses give off stinking fumes; they pass my house right now. But people had to learn that would happen. Street cars didn't pollute the air, but people didn't think very much about pollution then.
Also, by the end of the Depression, more people were buying their own cars. Driving was faster, but more expensive. Besides, you didn't have the sociability, driving alone, that we had on old No. 16. We were a tightly knit group, almost a big family. Our early morning car was like the Toonerville Trolley; we knew all about each other. Maxine was a dental assistant for a La Jolla dentist. Tom was a printer working for the local newsweekly. Rose was a very pretty girl who worked for the telephone company; and I worked for the library. Carlos was a quiet man who didn't talk a lot, but judging by where he got off, we believed that he was a maintenance man at The Bishop's School.
We knew personal things about each other, too: that Eve's husband stepped out on her, and that she probably repaid him in kind. We knew how many children each of us had, what kind of house each lived in, and how big the mortgage was. Maxine, who had originally made the entire trip from East San Diego with me on the "7," had given up and moved to Mission Beach. In fact, it was through her that in December, 1939, I myself moved to the beach.
"There's the nicest little house near me, now up for rent," Maxine told me one morning as she came aboard at San Juan Place. "The landlady is a Methodist minister's widow. Why don't you quit this rat race and move closer to work?" I did, after deciding that I could afford to rent my place in town to tenants, and pay twenty dollars a month for a furnished house at the beach.
We knew where every one of us was supposed to get on the street car, and if that person didn't show, we worried. "I wonder where Rose is today. Is she sick, or did she miss the car?" -"No, no; don't you remember? Rose's vacation begins today.
"Where's Tom?" someone asked one morning. "He wasn't here yesterday, either."
There was silence until Carlos spoke shyly. "Tom won't be here any more. He bought a used car last Saturday."
"A CAR!" we shrieked in unison, then subsided into silent awe. Tom must be really LOADED if he could afford a car! Why, even his collision insurance would cost $16.00 a year!
We passengers knew all the motormen, too. It was Nils Holmquist, usually "our" motorman in the morning, whose lot it was to bring in the last street car from La Jolla when the No. 16 line was abandoned on Sept. 16, 1940. He was scheduled to leave the La Jolla Terminal at 1 a.m., "and I'm going to ring my bell all the way to town," he told us. He did, too. From my bedroom in Mission Beach, I could hear him approaching from a distance, hear him pass, and hear him fade into the distance. It was the end of an era, and there was something quite sad about it. But to me, it no longer mattered personally, because—
I had bought a used car.25
Basically this paper came from my own memory and my diaries. However, I have included references to outside sources to verify and expand my recollections. They follow:
1. Formal opening of the Amusement Center took place May 29, 1925. San Diego Union May 28, 1925, p.l, cols.4-5.
2. Dodge, Richard V. Rails of the Silver Gate. Pacific Railroad Publications, 0960. p.81.
3. Mission Beach. (San Diego) Frye & Smith, (ca. 1914) Unpaged advertising brochure in the catalogued collection of San Diego Public Library, California Room.
4. Wooten, William T. Urban transportation in San Diego. A thesis... San Diego State College... Master of Arts in History, June, 1966. p.34. Microfilm. See also: Dodge. op. cit. p.82. San Diego History Center Library and Manuscripts Collection.
5. The first cars ran to Ocean Beach on May 1, 1924. San Diego Union May 2, 1924, p.2, col.6; also, Advertisement, p.9, col.l.
6. San Diego Union, July 4, 1924, p.l, col.5.
7. Dodge. op. cit. p.82.
8. Dodge. op. cit. p.85.
9. Dodge. op. cit. p.81.
10. Information verified by M.Gy.Sgt. Ben Sarté, in charge of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Museum, San Diego, California, August 24, 1976.
11. Definite Project Report on San Diego River and Mission Bay, California, prepared by the Army Corps of Engineers, 1949. Appendix 7, Plate 2. In office of City of San Diego, Engineering and Development Department, Flood Plain and Beach Erosion Section, Mr. Bill Barnes, C.E.
12. Wooten. op. cit. p.38.
13. Thirty-one were injured, two were near death. "The crash was the worst of its kind in the city's history. . . Power was turned off to avoid electrocution. . . " San Diego Union November 23, 1937. p. l, col. 1.
14. San Diego Union, November 24, 1937, p. l, cols. 7-8.
15. San Diego Union, March 6, 1938, Sec. 2, p. l, col.6; June 18, 1938, p.3, col.4.
16. San Diego Union, November 23, 1937, p.4, col.4.
17. "Terrible street car accident on the La Jolla line-head-on collision of two cars. Ethel and Elfie thought I was on it, and even checked hospitals. Many people hurt, La Jolla upset all day." From Locker, Zelma Bays. Diary. November 22, 1937.
18.San Diego Union, September 2, 1949, p.l, cols. 1-3; January 26, 1951, p.17, col.14.
19. San Diego Union, December 6, 1938, See.B, p.8, col.3; December 9, 1938, p.14, col.5.
20. Aerial photo #226-1689, in office of City of San Diego, Engineering and Development Department, Flood Plain and Beach Erosion Section, Mr. Bill Barnes, C.E.
21. At La Jolla Hermosa Avenue and Bird Rock Avenue, the words, "Electric Ave." are still plainly imprinted in the concrete curb. See also: Automobile Club of Southern California. City of San Diego, Street map. Map #1932. Date is coded, but is circa 1951.
22. The old La Jolla Hermosa Station is now the chapel of the church, and a new sanctuary was built fronting on La Jolla Boulevard. Information from Betty Flood, Secretary, La Jolla United Methodist Church, August, 1976.
23. 1 explored this section of the old right-of-way thoroughly, on foot.
24. "A fleet of new diesel-powered busses will be put in service on the beach routes [No. 16 and No.14] Monday [September 16]" San Diego Union, September 13, 1940, p.6, col.2. See also: Dodge. op. cit. p.133.
25. "My half day off. Bought the car from Mrs. Raber, a '36 V-8. Rented a house at 720 Niantic Court, Mission Beach. Listed my apartment in East San Diego with Navy Rental Bureau." From Locker, Zelma Bays. Diary. December 16, 1939.
Zelma Bays Locker is a graduate of Pratt Institute Graduate School of Library Science. From 1933 to 1967 she served as Senior Librarian in charge of the California, Newspaper and Genealogy Room at the San Diego Public Library. She was also a member of the Board of Directors for the San Diego Historical Society from 1968-1974. The article presented here was an award winning paper at the 1976 San Diego History Center Institute of History.