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Transit Tales: Following in History's Tracks

Reminders of the old Beach Cities railway system can be found in Hermosa, Redondo and Manhattan Beach. In Part 1 of a three-part Patch series on local transit, we take a look back at rail travel in a bygone era.

Remnants of the Beach Cities’ rich transit history can be found buried under the feet of joggers and walkers who make their way down the greenbelt, retracing the route and crossing the intersections where the old Santa Fe Railroad once ran.

Remembrances can be discovered in library books where photographs memorialize the steam engines that hauled cargo to and from the waterfront piers.

Black-and-white images capture the electric trolleys ferrying passengers to local beaches. 

Transit remains can be seen in the wooden crossbar dismantled from an old railway intersection that now stands in the corner of the , and the section of train tracks embedded outside the cottage that houses the Manhattan Beach Historical Museum.

At the Redondo Beach Historical Museum are timetables of passenger trains and pristine paper tickets—nearly a century old—encased in protective sleeves.

The Beach Cities’ old public transportation systems are part of the memories of residents like 82-year-old Henry Burke of Redondo Beach, who arrived in the South Bay as a 1-year-old after his family took a monthlong train journey from Manitoba, Canada, to downtown Los Angeles before riding the trolley to a new home in Redondo.

When they arrived on that June day in 1929, Burke said his family was overjoyed. 

“My mom got on her hands and knees and kissed the ground. She said, ‘This is heaven. I never want to leave.’ And that’s why we grew up here,” Burke said.

Burke’s early memories of the local transit system include discovering the nearby train yard, where the trolley cars were kept for the night in an unlocked facility. He joined other neighborhood children tempted to enter a place so inviting.

“We’d all go and play hide-and-seek among the cars and have a ball there,” he said.

A few miles away in Manhattan Beach, 72-year-old Steve Meisenholder shared some memories of his own, about the freight trains that rumbled through the community on the tracks of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.

“My kids would put pennies on the track,” he said of the early 1970s when his children were young. “When the train would come by, it would flatten the penny into a flat copper disk that was worth nothing. But they liked to do it.”

As president of the Manhattan Beach Historical Society, Meisenholder has worked hard to preserve the city’s past, and that includes the legacy of the trains that once ran through his community and neighboring Beach Cities.

In 1888, the Santa Fe Railroad completed the freight and passenger line through Manhattan Beach to Redondo and later built a substation at Center Street, which is now Manhattan Beach Boulevard. 

The Santa Fe railway was the only transportation system through Hermosa Beach at the time.

Fifteen years later, the Los Angeles Pacific Co. had five trolley stops in Manhattan Beach along the Strand and present bike path. In 1910, the company merged with the Pacific Electric Railway.

Pacific Electric's Red Car system was a mass-transit network in Southern California that used street cars, light rail and buses.

In 1940, the Red Car Line that ran from Los Angeles to the Beach Cities was discontinued. By that time, the system had begun to decline; the last Red Car made its final trip to Long Beach in 1961.

Outside the cottage in Polliwog Park that houses the Manhattan Beach Historical Museum, Meisenholder showed a section of the Santa Fe track that was laid in 1888 and torn out in 1986.

A diorama of the Red Car Line—measuring 7- 1/2 feet long by 2 feet wide—that depicts how the local trolley system operated on its journey along the coast, will be ready for viewing in a few months, he said.

The Hermosa Beach Historical Museum pays homage to the legacy of the steam engine, railroads and the electric car. 

In addition to the wooden barrier that once marked a railroad crossing, other memorabilia are on display, including books of photographs that show the Red Car Line moving through the city and long-ago images of the local electrical switching station that propelled the cars along Hermosa Avenue.

Although the photos, stories and memories are of a bygone era, the progress in transportation has not necessarily meant swifter travel.

“It’s slow,” said Meisenholder of the present-day light-rail system. “If you want to go to downtown L.A. you have to go from the Green Line to the Blue Line to the Red Line, and it takes an hour and 15 minutes to get to Spring Street.”

“In the old days, with Pacific Electric, you could get from Manhattan Beach … to L.A. in 45 minutes. It takes a lot longer now,” he said. “That shouldn’t be.”

Coming up: Journey through the South Bay with a Beach Cities Transit bus driver in Part 2 of Transit Tales.

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