A Few Words About This Picture
At first this picture might look like a photograph of something under construction. But a closer look reveals that quite the opposite is going on. The most prominent implements in evidence are sledgehammers and pry bars, ordinarily used in demolition. The question then: What is being demolished, and why?
Charles C. Pierce, a leading commercial photographer in Los Angeles at the turn of the century, took this picture at the corner of First and Broadway there in 1898. The workmen seem to be attacking some sort of public utility. City maps show a streetcar line turning this corner in the 189Os, which was the case for eighty-nine years, from 1874 until 1963. While the first streetcars that made this turn were horse-drawn and the last were electric trolleys, for a time in between there were cable cars. What’s in the street does look like the structure that undergirded cable railways.
Cable cars were by no means unique to San Francisco, or even peculiar to steep hills. At least briefly they ran in twenty-eight American cities and towns, and a number of the lines were essentially flat. San Francisco had the most mileage, at 58.2, and Chicago’s system was the most heavily traveled, with 237 million passengers in 1892, but perhaps the most interesting was the one in Los Angeles.
The 1880s were boom years for los Angeles. Its population grew from ten thousand in 1880 to more than five times that by the end of the decade. To meet the growing demand for urban public transit, the Los Angeles Cable Railway opened to great fanfare in late 1889. When invented in the seventies, cable railways had been the cleanest, most reliable, and safest mode of urban transit yet devised. They were also far and away the most expensive. Capitalized at two and a half million dollars, L.A.’s cable railway was built at a stunning cost of twenty dollars per foot of track.
It was also obsolete even before it opened. In 1888 Frank Sprague had conclusively demonstrated the practicality of electric traction, a system that was much faster and much cheaper both to build and to operate. By 1890 a syndicate began building a competitive trolley-car system in L.A. called the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway. It was no contest. The trolleys epitomized modernity, often making better than twenty-five miles per hour while the cable cars poked along at eight miles per hour. Foreclosed in 1893, the cable railway was sold at auction to its rival for $1,344,000. Reorganized as the Los Angeles Railway (LARY), the company ordered trolley cars, strung overhead wire along the cable-car lines, and bonded the rails for return current. On the morning of March 18, 1896, the first inbound car out of East Los Angeles was impelled not by a wire rope underground but by the current coming through a little wheel singing along on a copper wire overhead.
LARY counted on using the converted cable railway for some time to come, but trackage designed for eightmph cable cars was not much good for twenty-five-mph trolleys. The new electries frequently derailed because of the tracks’ shallow flangeways. It soon became obvious that the railway would have to be replaced.
If the tracks had merely been spiked to ties (as horsecar tracks were), the task would have been simple, but cable railways were built to withstand extraordinary lateral forces, and the L.A. cable railway was as ruggedly engineered as any in the land. The demolition workers had to excavate more than thirty thousand wrought-iron yokes set in three feet of concrete—and without the benefit of pneumatic hammers. The men are about half done at this particular corner. They have stripped off the paving and bashed out some of the concrete, exposing the tops of the yokes. These fifteen laborers were probably happy for the unscheduled break when Mr. Pierce came to photograph them as well as some company officials, who are seen standing at left in coats and ties.
Ironically, had the electric trolley proved out just a year or two sooner, or had L.A.’s land boom peaked a year or two later, the cable railway would never have been built. Yet even in closing the system in 1896 and tearing it out two years later, Los Angeles was in the vanguard; nationwide operating mileage for cable railways, which peaked at 305 in 1893, did not fall below 200 until 1899, or below 100 until 1903. Ultimately, then, these men of destruction were pioneers in getting rid of something that only a decade before had been considered an everlasting technological fix.