100-year anniversary of Class 1 streetcar service honored by unveiling plans for Balboa Park centennial
By Morgan M. Hurley | SDUN Assistant Editor
Through the actions of local historians and dedicated residents, the historic Class 1 streetcars may be once again making their way through the streets of San Diego as early as 2015, one hundred years after the Panama-California Exposition and the initial reason they were built.
On Friday, June 1, on the 100-year anniversary of their first run, historians, local activists and other streetcar supporters met at Trolley Barn Park in University Heights to hear information on the next phase of restoration and reuse efforts of the historic streetcars.
Christian Chaffee, board president of San Diego Historic Streetcars, announced plans for three of the cars, the last remaining from a one-time fleet of 24. Chaffee said his hope is that the streetcars can be brought back, even if temporarily, in time for Balboa Park’s 2015 centennial celebration.
Chaffee, an antique dealer by trade, purchased the three remaining vessels in 1996, salvaging and restoring them himself. A year later, the San Diego Historical Resources board officially designated the cars historic landmarks.
John Spreckles, then president of the San Diego Electric Railway Company, funded and built the first Class 1 streetcar in 1910. The original fleet of 24 streetcars serviced Downtown, North Park, South Park, Golden Hill, Kensington, Normal Heights and University Heights, extending through Bankers Hill, Hillcrest and Mission Hills to La Jolla, Ocean Beach, Chula Vista and the Mexican border.
The fleet was in use through 1939, when most of the cars were demolished. Original Class 1 streetcar #138 is now fully restored and was on display at the anniversary event, available for those in attendance to board and enjoy. Cars #126 and #128 have undergone minimal restoration and were not available for the June 1 event.
“The wear patterns inside these cars came from our ancestors and the people who built Balboa Park,” Chaffee said from a podium at Trolley Barn Park. “The Class 1 brought prosperity [to San Diego] and they can do this again. … I can think of no other historic resource that residents enjoyed 100 years ago that could be brought back today. We will work hard to make this a reality.”
Chaffe then unveiled a large map of Balboa Park with the markings of a proposed rail route for the streetcars, saying the tracks to support such a route could be laid and removed quickly and easily. This would facilitate a temporary use period to garner further support for a future, more permanent phase of the project after the Balboa Park centennial.
The June 1 event took on an even more historic feel, with several members of Lady Mari’s Costume Walkabout group mingling in extravagant costumes from the year 1912, and the music of Heliotrope Ragtime Orchestra, which reproduces tunes from the height of the ragtime era.
Helen Helmay of the Congress of History of San Diego told the crowd of a time when she and her husband, now residents of Lemon Grove, lived on Park Boulevard and took long walks through University Heights. She said the couple came to love the area and are big supporters of the project.
District Three Councilmember Todd Gloria also spoke at the event, throwing his full support behind the effort and identifying his hopes of seeing the streetcars back in permanent service “in all of our respective lifetimes,” he said.
Gloria described how grassroots support of the streetcars is currently being driven, starting with the vintage trolley Silver Line. Restored by the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), these historic cars are currently in operation Downtown.
Gloria said by bringing back the Silver Line, MTS Chairman Harry Mathis “has created something to give people a taste” of what the Class 1 streetcar project is all about.
“People stop dead in their tracks and stare at the streetcar as it goes by, because it just has that kind of magical effect on people,” Gloria said, adding that he hopes to leverage all existing support for the Silver Line and roll that over to benefit the Class 1 streetcar project.
“If you like it in Downtown,” he said, “why not take it up to Balboa Park? Why not have it service the Uptown communities?”
He then thanked those in support of the project and identified the Adams Avenue Business Association, North Park Main Street and the Hillcrest Business Association as groups in his district willing to help fund and maintain the project.
“They understand that this is economic development at its best. It will attract tourists, it will create jobs and it will support business in their neighborhood,” he said.
Gloria then encouraged everyone interested to get involved by writing letters, sending emails or making appearances at MTS and San Diego Association of Government (SANDAG) board meetings to tell them our community needs this service.
Along with lemonade, apple pie and ice cream served for attendees, there were also approximately a dozen vendors at the event, offering information about various other historic restoration projects around San Diego County, including representative from Save Our Heritage Organisation, Mission Hills Heritage and the Old House Fair.
San Diego Historic Streetcar is a nonprofit formed to restore the streetcars and return them to public service. For more information, visit sandiegohistoricstreetcars.org or call 619-752-0151.