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The Streetcars, Gone But Not Forgotten
By: George Gilbert Lynch

Topics: local history, transportation, bakersfield, railway, trolley, buses
Posted by citizenjournalist Tue Mar 11, 2008 16:31:01 PDT
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In 1874, the city of Bakersfield and the Southern Pacific Railroad had a dispute over how much land the city would be required to donate to the Railroad Company in order to have it's tracks run through town. Bakersfield would not give them the wide right of way they demanded which resulted in the railroad being built to the North of town and the depot being constructed two miles west of Bakersfield at a station the railroad named "Sumner". The two mile road between town and Sumner was muddy in winter and in summer it was a foot deep in choking alkali dust.

The following year horse and buggy shuttle service and a telegraph line was operating between the two towns. Twelve years later, in 1888, a horse drawn streetcar line was constructed by H. R. Blodgett and E.E. Beal. Called the "Bakersfield And Sumner Railroad", it operated between the Kern County Courthouse and the SP depot at Sumner, (East Bakersfield). The weather beaten, lightweight 12 passenger cars operated on a schedule dictated by the drivers whim. The tracks were 16 pound per yard, iron rail, designed for mining operations . In wet weather they often sunk into the mud and the drivers were regularly beaten, robbed or derailed by hoodlums but it was the only commercial transportation to the SP depot at that time. The 25 cent, one way fare was a high price in those days, equal to about $2.50 in today's dollars.

In April 1897 a commercial quantity of electricity arrived in Bakersfield from the new powerhouse at the mouth of Kern River Canyon. April 11, 1900, Blodgett and Beal began building an electric streetcar railroad. First they replaced their lightweight rails with a heavier 36 pound girder type which had been previously used in Australia. The new line was to accommodate four 24 passenger electric streetcars. The cars were built by C.A. Hammond of San Francisco having a single truck with one 25 HP gear driven traction motor. These were designated as car numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4. The operating power required by these trolleys was 550 volts direct current.

In early 1900, the Company built their car barn at 19Th Street and Union Avenue. The corrugated iron, wood frame building served as a shed and repair shop until a new shop was constructed in 1910 at Oak and 19Th streets adjacent to the 3500 seat "Recreation Park". The Oak Street car barn and shops were used until a fire in 1920 burned down the 3500 seat grandstands and 10 foot fencing at adjoining Recreation Park, destroyed two trolleys, their paint shop and two company buildings. The following year they completely rebuilt the original car barn and shops at 19Th and Union Avenue and moved all rolling stock and equipment back to that location.

Early in 1902 the company bought 3 double truck, 2 motor, semi convertible cars from C.A. Hammond. These cars could seat 40 passengers and at rush hour about 175 passengers could be carried due to the extra step boards installed on both sides. Over time these and other semi convertible trolleys were completely enclosed for passenger comfort. These cars were numbers 5, 6, and 7.

The new electric line was named "Bakersfield And Kern Electric Railway Company" It ran, as single track, from the Santa Fe depot, East on 19Th Street to Baker, then North to the SP depot in East Bakersfield. This system still had trouble with thugs and robbers until the motormen and conductors were deputized and carried billy clubs. Thereafter trouble with the thugs stopped. Lack of proper rock ballast under the tracks and shoddy track maintenance led to constant derailments and delays. In 1909, the 36 pound rails between the two railroad depots was replaced with heavier 60 pound steel and were installed with proper ballast rock which eliminated the constant delay of trolley traffic due to spreading and breaking of rails.

Cars number 8 and 9 were purchased in early 1910 to aid the overcrowding of trolleys as the town population increased. These cars were double truck, 2 motor, GK 800 models. At this time more current was needed to run the expanded streetcar fleet. A 300 KW induction motor-generator was installed at the Power Transit and Light Co. substation, located at 20Th and H St's. The previously used 250 KW rotary converter was saved to use in emergency's.

Power to operate the first streetcars came from this 250 KW electric rotary converter, a motor-generator device to convert alternating current into direct current of 550 volts. The 550 volt electricity produced by this converter was fed into miles of copper wire located directly over the trolley tracks and supported by wooden utility poles . A "trolley pole" on the roof of the streetcar used spring tension to hold a small grooved wheel against the live wire. This trolley pole conducted the electricity to the motorman's speed control stand. The control stand had 7 speed positions, any lower speed positions slowed the drive motors by detouring the excess current through iron, serpentine grid resistors in the motorman's control stand. When running at low speed positions the iron grids glowed red hot as they absorbed the excess current. The trolley used the same amount of electricity at slow or fast speed positions so most times the method of driving the car was to go to full throttle then coast to the next stop. Most of the routes were run by accelerating and coasting rather than constant speed. Many cars were equipped with a "watt hour meter", a "tattletale" which measured the amount of current used on that run. Streetcar companies often penalized drivers who used excess electricity above the predetermined amount needed for that route. Most cars could reach top speeds of 40 to 50 MPH if their route permitted such speeds.

Each trolley had an air compressor driven by a 5 horsepower, 550 volt, Westinghouse electric motor. This furnished 80 pounds of air pressure which was required to operate the air brakes and any other pneumatic appliances with which the car might be equipped such as door actuators, horns etc. The frequently rang trolley bell was manually operated. Heating was by 550 volt grids under the passenger seats. All head and tail lighting as well as interior illumination was by 550 volts.

In 1910 the line was purchased by the "San Joaquin Light And Power Company" and the following were installed in management; J.F. Turner, manager and V.N. Mickelberry as mechanical foreman. In 1912 construction began on massive improvements; Double tracks from Bakersfield to East Bakersfield, new 116 pound per yard steel rails, redwood cross ties, eight inches of gravel ballast topped by 4 inches of concrete on top and the sides of the rails were protected by turned bisalt bricks. A gravel plant was built below the Bluffs to furnish the thousands of tons of heavy gravel required to properly bed the new tails.

Six, 40 passenger, pay as you enter, cars which were built by "The American Car Company" of St. Louis were purchased in 1911. These cars required only a motorman, saving the expense of a conductor. The cars were numbered 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15. Car number 10 is stored at The Kern County Museum awaiting possible reconstruction. It is one of the only two trolleys of this type in existence.The costly improvements made by San Joaquin Light and Power Company during this period elevated the line into a first class electric railroad equal to any in America.

The car barn, located on 19Th Street at Union Avenue, and for 10 years at Oak and 19Th Streets, was where all maintenance was performed. They rebuilt many of the older cars to make them more comfortable for the passengers such as totally enclosing all the early "open air" models , adding better interior illumination, adding more convenient step boards and installing heaters under the seats. The company mechanics constantly updated the trolleys and buses mechanically as well as installing any new safety improvements.

Safety became a big issue in this era which led to the introduction of the "Birney Safety Car". Manufactured, beginning in 1916, by "The American Car Co."of St. Louis and "The Brill Car Co." of Philadelphia. It soon began to replace the majority of streetcars nationwide. By the mid 20's sixty five percent of the trolleys purchased in America were Birneys. They were a lightweight trolley using only 2 sets of wheels, 2 axle motors and featured interlocking safety doors that prevented the car from moving if a door wasn't closed. The cost to purchase and operate these streetcars was half that of larger heavy cars. They were more nimble at stopping and starting in traffic and maintenance was cheap. Seven Birney trolleys were purchased by the Company from the cities of Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, the Company eventually retired the heavier 40 passenger cars after finding the lightweight Birney cars quite suitable for the transportation needs of Bakersfield passengers.

Another safety feature appearing on streetcars nationwide was the "Lifeguard", invented in 1891 by Fred Root owner of "The Root Snowplow Co.". Steam locomotives called them "cow catchers", the scoop on the front of the engine designed to scoop the livestock away to avoid running over them with the wheels. The "Lifeguard" was a big basket like grill installed on the front of the trolleys designed to scoop up pedestrians who happened to get in the way of the moving streetcar. Some of Bakersfield's trolleys used them and others simply used a small bumper. Scooping up a pedestrian and possibly causing only a few broken bones was preferred to impacting them with the nose of the trolley or running over them. The larger streetcars weighed 17 tons and required quite a distance to stop. The concern of striking pedestrians or autos was the main reason for the constant ringing of the trolley bell.

When acquired in 1910 by the San Joaquin Light And Power Company, many miles of extended trackage had previously been constructed by "The Bakersfield And Kern Electric Railway Company"and the new owners began major improvements to those extensions. As the new rails were being laid south on Chester Avenue, the Beale Clock Tower was in the center of the street at 17Th and Chester. On January 22, 1912, The Bakersfield City Council voted to have the Clock Tower removed for construction of the two way trolley tracks but after consulting Truxtun Beale about removing his gift to Bakersfield, which had been constructed only 8 years prior, the idea was discarded and the tracks were routed around the structure. Traffic was congested around the Clock Tower with the trolleys and autos squeezed together but the citizen's sentimental attachment to the Beale Tower was strong and nobody seemed to complain of the fender benders which resulted over the years. Tracks were also extended along Eighth Street East to P Street; Along P Street North to 11Th Street; Along Eleventh Street West to Chester Ave.; Along West 19Th Street to Oak Street and from Chester Ave. East on 24Th Street to Hopper Machine Works. As the streetcar business declined over the years these lines were removed one at a time. When the end of the trolleys came only the 19Th Street and Baker Street tracks remained. Over the years the last pieces of track that were buried under the asphalt on city streets has been removed, the last being removed in the 80's along Chester Avenue but a retired County Engineer remarked that he believes a short section of the old rail still exists beneath the pavement near the intersection of Oak and 19Th Streets.

By 1915 privately owned jitney taxis were taking half the trolley's passenger business. A jitney was a Model T Ford converted into a sort of station wagon. These unlicensed taxis began running into outlying areas as the town expanded. A city law was passed restricting these freelance jitneys to routes other than those served by the streetcar system. The new laws also required the taxis to furnish public liability insurance and the drivers were required to pay a city license fee. At this time the trolley company acquired their own small buses to ferry passengers from the terminals to outlying areas. By the mid-twenties their buses began dominating public transportation and in 1933 the San Joaquin Power And Light Co. wanted out of the failing trolley business. A group of Company employees jointly bought the Company and installed V. N. Mickelberry as president.

Under the leadership of Mickelberry the new company updated their trolley cars, lowered fares and ran more bus routes that connected with their streetcar terminals. The bus routes extended to all the outlying areas but even these changes didn't help the declining streetcar business and the company was eventually converted to total bus service. Bakersfield had expanded much too far for electric streetcars to serve the public transportation needs and personal automobiles were becoming affordable for the average family's transportation.

As a boy I fondly remember riding the streetcars and how I loved watching the sparks from the overhead power cables as the trolley rattled along clanging the bell. The windows could be opened wide so I could stick my head out in the breeze as we sped along. Every-one's eyes were on the motorman as he repositioned the "trolley pole" on the overhead wire when we arrived at the end of the line to prepare to run in the opposite direction. I remember the fares getting lower and lower until near the end they were practically free. I recall awaiting the trolley, setting with my family on the bench, in the shade, under the Beale Clock tower (when it was at 17Th and Chester) and then boarding the trolley for the long ride across town. We picked up speed after crossing Union Avenue and I could hear the clack-clack clack-clack of the wheels increase in tempo as we glided along eastward on 19Th Street, then turned North on Baker Street until we finally arrived at the SP depot which was the end of the line. We then walked from there to our home on Kentucky Street. We couldn't understand why they discontinued the streetcars at the beginning of WW2 when rubber and fuel was essential and streetcars didn't use either. I guess they had become the dinosaurs of that era but anyone who ever rode them still feels nostalgia for the big, noisy trolleys.

The combination of streetcars and buses served Bakersfield until February 28, 1942 when the last trolley car, "Birney Car number 17", was retired and run into the big "car barn", at 19Th Street and Union Avenue. The tracks were all removed and the miles of overhead wiring and utility poles were taken down. The trolleys were all sold for scrap except Birney cars number 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 23 which were sold to Halifax, N.S., Canada in 1942 and operated there during WW2. They were all sold for scrap shortly after the end of the war. Thereafter buses assumed the entire transportation needs of Bakersfield.

(C) by George Gilbert Lynch, Feb, 2005
 

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