Berkeley Observed

Public transportation spurred city’s growth

Susan Cerny


An electric streetcar on College Avenue and Parker Street around 1940.

7 September 2002

Without public transportation in the form of trains and streetcars, the fast-paced urban development of the Bay Area from 1863 to 1915 would not have been possible. The first railroad in the Bay Area opened in 1863 and ran from San Francisco to San Jose. The transcontinental railroad opened in 1869, and soon there were rail lines around the state. The railroads made development possible and created a network of towns and cities.

When the University of California opened its first campus in Berkeley in 1873, the only way to reach the campus by public transportation from Oakland was by a horse-drawn trolley; it is reported to have taken about one and a half hours. However, only three years later, a steam train began operating on a spur line from Oakland to Berkeley Station at Shattuck Avenue and Center Street. Horse-drawn trolleys continued to make the shorter runs.

After electric streetcars began operating in Berkeley in 1891, property near the new and convenient streetcar lines was quickly subdivided. The earliest lines ran along Grove Street (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Way) and Shattuck Avenue. In 1892 an electric streetcar line was running along Telegraph Avenue. By 1912 there were so many train and electric streetcar lines crisscrossing Berkeley that no one was more than three blocks away from some sort of public transportation.


Photo from “Early Day Trolleys of the East Bay” (The Western Railroader, Vol. 22, No. 4; February 1959)

The AC Transit System that today operates in Alameda and Contra Costa counties is the legacy of the Key System (originally called the Oakland Transit Company). Starting in 1893, the wealthy Death Valley borax miner Francis Marion “Borax” Smith (famous for his 20 Mule Team borax products) began acquiring railroad and streetcar companies in Alameda County. By 1903 he had unified and modernized these companies and then expanded them into a coordinated transit system that eventually included ferries. Smith had laid the foundation for today’s transit system.

When the Key System streetcars began running on College Avenue in 1903, the farmland along the route was subdivided for housing and small commercial districts. Although buses replaced electric streetcars in north Berkeley as early as 1941, the streetcars on College Avenue were not removed until 1947.

In 1946, after many of the electric streetcar and rail systems had been abandoned, the Bay Area Electric Railroad Association was formed to preserve and interpret the history of electric railroad equipment. The association maintains the Western Railway Museum and Archive Center at Rio Vista Junction in Solano County ,where a visitor can not only see historic electric streetcars but can actually take a ride on them.

This article was originally published in the Berkeley Daily Planet.


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Text © 2002–2014 Susan Cerny. All rights reserved.