Not everyone knows that Los Angeles used to have a very effective mass transit system up until 1963. The Los Angeles Railway System left a big impression on Anthony Caldwell as a young boy. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.
By Anthony Caldwell
I grew up in Los Angeles with its trolley car system. It was known as the Los Angeles Railway System. Little railroad-type, electric-powered rail cars went all over Los Angeles.
The trolley cars took you to wherever you wished by transfers that had to be punched, and by a set of numbers or alphabetical letters – A through Z. Ours was the Number 9 car.
We lived on Hoover Avenue and 47th Street, so our family took the Number 9 and it would take us north to greater Los Angeles and Wilshire Blvd, or west to Baldwin Park on Crenshaw Avenue.
People had to climb up about five feet to the main platform where the conductor stood. For a young kid, it was fun. People would help elderly people up the stairs and the folding step that came down at the bottom to help you climb. For other people, it was just part of the process.
The contraption had a coin counter-separator that sounded like a coffee grinder as it sorted out change. An electric compressor chugged as it compressed air for the brake system.
It was the height of efficiency, as the hard, slatted seats would let air circulate and were reversible depending on the direction. The air-conditioning was adjusted by passengers opening or closing the windows manually.
Vents in the wood roof let hot air escape, and as speed increased, the side windows supplied circulation. To me as a child, it was like the equivalent of taking the space shuttle to Mars!
The thing jerked and ground to a halt at street intersections. People stepped off the sidewalk and into a white rectangle painted on the street next to the tracks. It was the designated loading zone.
People in the cars obeyed the rules and waited for people to exit or enter the trolley and return to the sidewalk.
Somehow turns were negotiated at intersections accompanied by shrieks of metal wheels grinding on steel rails and wood groaning from the oak-timbered body.
We could look down into automobiles and wave to the occupants, who usually smiled and waved back.
Now Los Angeles came into view, with its famous Richfield Building of black marble and gold-leaf décor. There was also the completely modern Bullock’s Wilshire with its outside entrance ceiling decorated in modern scenes of tri-motor airplanes and Queen Mary-type ships.
Then we saw the huge eight-story high department stores, J.W. Robinson Co., Desmond’s, and May Co. We also had access, if we wanted, to the public library and Grand Central Market with the million-dollar theater above the huge, subterranean labyrinth of tunnels for the Pacific Electric Inter-Urban Railway System. (This latter building is still there and being reused again.)
When our trip ended, we left the “Big Town” and caught Number 9 back to South Central Los Angeles.