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Who Killed Oakland’s Electric Streetcars?

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Progress isn’t always progress. When you sit in traffic tomorrow morning wondering how much it’ll cost to get your bashed-in rear window fixed, or how you’ll find a spot near work, just remember— it wasn’t always like this.

Key Route Plaza, off Piedmont Ave. in Oakland.

The East Bay used to be home to streetcars, trains, and ferries that could take you around town and across the East Bay and across the water to San Francisco.

Key Route Plaza now

For over half a century, independent commuter railroads ran in the East Bay. The most famous of these is the The Key System, otherwise known as the Key Route, which carried citizens across Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Emeryville, and Piedmont until 1958.

In its heyday, the Key System could take you from downtown Oakland to the Key Route Pier, stretching into the waters of the Bay, where you could hop a ferry to San Francisco (long before the construction of the Bay Bridge).

With over 60 miles of track, you could be whisked from Alameda to downtown Oakland, then up into the Berkeley hills. No parking, no gas, no traffic.

Claremont Hotel now.

But as automobiles became the new way to get around, the Key System began to suffer. The streetcars needed repairs and fewer people were riding. In 1946, National City Lines, once a small bus fleet, joined forces with General Motors, Phillips Petroleum (now part of ConocoPhillips), Mack Trucks, Standard Oil of California, and Firestone Tires, to acquire a majority of stock in the Key System Transit Co. They vowed to “modernize” and “motorize” the system by destroying trains and streetcars and replacing them with buses.

The wide median of Key Route Blvd. in Albany marks where an extension to the Westbrae Line would have run. It was never built.

Streetcars were converted to buses beginning in 1948. A year later, in 1949, General Motors and other members of National City Lines were convicted of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products to their subsidiary companies throughout the U.S. The conviction changed nothing.

Bit by bit, streetcar systems across the country were picked apart. People paid to ride the new buses, and their fares paid for the destruction of the streetcar lines. The last run of a Key Route streetcar was April 20, 1958.

National City Lines sublimated the streetcar systems in 25 American cities, among them Los Angeles, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Minneapolis.

The Northbrae Tunnel operated from 1942 to 1958.

The Northbrae Tunnel now.

The bones of this goliath are strewn all around us. The first Key Route Train left Key Route Plaza in June 1904. When the remnants of the Plaza at Piedmont Ave. and 41st St. were renovated in 2014, a mural painted by Rocky Rische-Baird in 2008 remembering the Key System was silently and swiftly destroyed without public input. What action could have been more emblematic of the way we have erased and rewritten our nation’s transportation history?

A mural titled “La Vida Electrica Se Mantiene Junta” (The Electric Life Is Safe Together) by Rocky Baird celebrating the Key Route streetcar system is seen at 41st Street and Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009.

The case of the Key Route system is one of historical amnesia. America was not always a land driven by driving. For every streetcar destroyed, there are now fifty cars. For every mile of train track, there are a hundred miles of highway. Where there could be parks, there are parking lots.

The Northbrae Tunnel was operated by Southern Pacific Railroad until 1958.

Archive photos courtesy of John Stashik and John Harder.

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James Gage

James Gage

Will write 4 food.