Going Public


Next spring, Sacramento’s light rail system will celebrate its 20th anniversary, although public transportation in this town has been around since the ’50s.

The 1850s, that is.

Horsepower&emdash;the literal variety&emdash;was used to pull public carriages starting in 1858. Tracks for the horse-drawn carriages began appearing in 1861, the first year of the Civil War. By century’s end, wires had been strung over the trolley lines and the Folsom hydroelectric station powered Sacramento streetcars via what reportedly was the world’s longest transmission line.

The story of our trolley system, which in its glory days carried 15 million passengers a year on 15 lines, is compellingly told in Sacramento’s Streetcars, a city History and Science Division booklet that longtime local journalist Richard Rodda wrote when Regional Transit was poised to launch light rail in 1987.

I used to live in the Curtis Park area, the retired Sacramento Bee political editor recalled. At night, while in bed, I could hear that outbound 21st Street car rattle and roar all the way from the time it crossed 21st and Broadway. Being a rail fan, I never complained. It was music to my ears.

Starting in 1906, most of the trolley lines were operated by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. The streetcars were made of wood and seated 44 people. Each car had a motorman, who (until air brakes were installed in the 1920s) expended a lot of muscle power; and a conductor, who collected fares and used a bell to order a stop (one ring) or a go (two rings). In 1916, the arrival of smaller Birney cars signaled the phasing out of conductors, which alarmed some riders. All sorts of accidents were predicted, according to Rodda.

Sacramento’s trolley system peaked in the 1920s, encompassing more than 25 miles and some 83 streetcars. The longest line was the No. 5, which followed P Street out of downtown and ended at the old state fairgrounds on Stockton Boulevard, 4.84 miles away. Other lines included the No. 1, which clanked along in a U shape from McKinley Park to downtown and then out T Street to 28th Street.

Trolleys were serviced in a barn at 28th and N streets, where RT buses are housed today. Fares went from a nickel to 7 cents in 1930, though four tokens could be purchased for a quarter. Transfers were free.
Ridership declined markedly during the 1930s and World War II, when automobiles and buses began to assert themselves. In 1944, PG&E sold the entire system to a bus-development company for $450,000. On Jan. 4, 1947, the surviving two streetcars, with one ring, came to a final stop.

There was no special fanfare that day, Rodda reported. The cars just rode into oblivion with a few rail fans on hand for the last ride. Tracks were removed and most of the streetcars were scrapped.

From dust to rust, the once horse-powered trolley system was history. What we have today, RT’s 119 bus routes and a slowly expanding light rail system, brings hope that the heyday of Sacramento’s public transportation, Part 2, is coming down the tracks.