A Page from History: Rapid transit comes to the beach
The first of May 1924 was a “red letter day” in the history of Ocean Beach.
The first of May 1924 was a “red letter day” in the history of Ocean Beach. How do we know this? It said so across the top of The Beach News — and in red ink no less.
The occasion had been declared “Rapid Transit Day” for the “beach districts” of Point Loma, Ocean Beach and Mission Beach. “High-speed rail service” had come to the beach. A gala four-day communitywide celebration followed, featuring band concerts, dancing, rides, attractions and fireworks. Big-time hoopla. After all, this was being hailed as the opening of “the finest suburban electric railway in the world.”
The year 1924 was a big one all the way around for John D. Spreckels’ San Diego Electric Railway. J.D.’s son Claus had taken over as vice president and general manager of both SDER and the San Diego and Coronado Ferry Co. The transit system was expanding rapidly. As the high-speed Beach Line was being installed, so was another new line all the way to Kensington via 30th Street through Normal Heights.
Later in the year, the Beach Line would be extended from Mission Beach to Pacific Beach and La Jolla. The new routes were accompanied by the acquisition of 50 new steel “400 Series” cars originally featuring pantograph power collectors. Price tag: $800,000 — a $12 million investment in today’s dollars. An additional $30,000 was invested in rebuilding the Mission Bay Bridge, colloquially known as the “Fishing Bridge,” to accommodate the new, heavier street cars and two lanes of automobile traffic.
Sounds great, right? Not everybody thought so. Although SDER had continually offered assurances that the big changes would improve commuter service, rumors had swirled through Ocean Beach and Point Loma that the streetcar service they relied on and had become accustomed to, the old Point Loma Railroad, would be abandoned.
But The Beach News declared that “despite the plaint of pessimists and busybodies who have nothing else to do but bother busy people who are really accomplishing something, it is well to assure beach folks that the new electric line will afford them better and faster service.” In fact, it stated, “the car line on Rosecrans Street will be retained and there will be through service from La Playa into San Diego, all local city traffic to Point Loma being served by the bay shore system.” This would be the new No. 13 Route.
“The Bacon Street railway line is being rebuilt with heavy rails, and new poles are being erected for carrying the wires of the modern safety trolley systems. The line will extend to the junction of Santa Cruz Avenue and De Foe Street” (Sunset Cliffs Boulevard). This would be the new No. 14 Route.
As part of the transition, the remainder of the Point Loma Railroad’s Ocean Beach Loop was soon abandoned. The tracks along Voltaire Street in OB and down through Wabaska Canyon (present-day Nimitz Boulevard) to Roseville Junction at Rosecrans and Macaulay streets were taken up. To accommodate commuters along that corridor, one of SDER’s early bus routes was established. In the bargain, Voltaire Street was soon paved.
The “rapid” and “high speed” descriptions of the new Beach Line proved to be more than just hyperbole. The No. 14 train effectively cut the commute time from Ocean Beach to downtown San Diego (Broadway and Kettner) in half, from 45 minutes to 20 minutes. The price was right as well — there would be no increase. The fare: 20 cents one way, or a round trip for a quarter.
In addition to expeditious service, the No. 14 train brought a rather wonderful bit of architecture to Ocean Beach. Perhaps the most unusual structure ever seen in OB was the San Diego Electric Railway’s Egyptian Revival substation at West Point Loma Boulevard and Bacon Street.
Designed by San Diego architect E.M. Hoffman, the edifice was described by the San Diego Union as “a splendid example of the builder’s art. It is a solid, substantial building of unique architectural design and is an important asset in the beautification of the site on which it is built at Ocean Beach. Its exterior is ornamented with Egyptian characters, adding much to the structure’s beauty, and its interior equipment is the last word in modern electric power machinery.”
The discovery of the fabulous tomb of Tutankhamun two years earlier had rekindled the fires of Egyptomania in the public fancy, and the Egyptian Revival style was experiencing its own brief revival. The OB substation was one of three similar ones built by SDER in those years.
Michael Reading, president of the San Diego Electric Railway Association, reports that what made the 1924 Beach Line possible was the elaborate triple overpass at Witherby Street, in the vicinity of Atlantic Avenue and Tide Street (Pacific Highway and Barnett Avenue).
“The old Point Loma Railroad crossed the Santa Fe tracks at grade, and it was no real problem,” Reading told us recently. “But by the 1920s, automobile traffic had become a real issue and the new 400 Series cars were bigger and faster than the old wooden streetcars.”
The solution was to run the “highway” under the Santa Fe tracks and the SDER tracks up and over. Reading described the resulting viaduct as “2,000 feet long, 160 feet of steel bridge and over 1,800 feet of wooden trestle. The viaduct was 20 to 30 feet in the air at its high point.” If you have ever wondered about flooding in the low spots and underpasses along Pacific Highway near the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, now you have a clue.
West of the triple overpass, the new line proceeded directly toward what became Ocean Beach Junction, now part of Robb Field. The terrain was mostly flat — mud flats in fact — establishing what is now Sports Arena Boulevard and paralleling what is now West Point Loma Boulevard. There was still plenty of water along the southern shore of Mission Bay in the ‘20s. Where the terrain wasn’t sandy it was boggy, and a system of berms and trestles was constructed to keep the new tracks literally high and dry. What is left of one of those trestles is still easily visible on the north side of Famosa Slough.
Half a mile west of that trestle, near what was known as Loma Alta Station, a lonely stretch of track became the scene of the worst accident in the long history of the San Diego Electric Railway. On a foggy Monday morning in November 1937, two trains traveling in opposite directions collided in what is known in railroad parlance as a “cornfield meet.” Two SDER motormen and 40 commuters were involved in the head-on collision of an outbound No. 14 train to Ocean Beach and an inbound No. 16 train from La Jolla. Twenty-two people were injured and nine hospitalized, but amazingly there were no fatalities. Credit for that piece of good news was given to the sturdy steel construction of the 400 Series cars.
The No. 13 train, known as the La Playa Local, clattered happily through Loma Portal and Roseville to Fort Rosecrans until it was replaced by a bus line in February 1937. The Ocean Beach line remained in operation for almost two more years, being replaced by what became the “O” bus line in December 1938.
The No. 16 train from La Jolla made its last run in September 1940, and that, streetcar fans, brought the era of the Beach Line to a close. By 1949, all the 400 Series cars had been retired and sold for scrap.
But wait — Reading says the San Diego Electric Railway Association has a portion of one of the old 400 Series cars in its museum at the National City Depot (sdera.org). The partial car is being modified into a photo booth. So check your local listings, and when the depot reopens for weekend visitors, don’t be shy. Cruise on down and have your picture taken.
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society (obhistory.org). OBHS board member Kitty McDaniel contributed to this article.