Mass Transit

Early Mass Transit of The San Bernardino Valley

By Mark Landis

Long before there were paved roads or freeways in the San Bernardino Valley, short line railroads and streetcar systems weaved intricate patterns through busy city streets and open fields, providing the region's first version of mass transit.

Toward the end of the 1800's, entrepreneurs in the San Bernardino Valley joined the rush of new railroad construction and began building a hodgepodge of short rail and streetcar lines to serve the developing cities.

Amid cheers and celebration from the local population, the first passenger train steamed into San Bernardino in September of 1883. The California Southern Railroad (which became part of the Santa Fe Railroad) built the new line into the valley, completing a major link to the rest of the country.

San Bernardino's first Depot was a humble boxcar that was set up as an interim facility at the site of today's Santa Fe Depot. In 1886, the boxcar was replaced with a huge wood frame and brick depot that became the center of transportation in the region.

City Street Railway Car in 1889
The City Street Railway started in 1885. The car traveled up and down "D" Street and along Third Street. Mules were used to haul the car. The driver shown here in 1889 is Lucas Westhoff.
(Courtesy of San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)

Public transportation in the San Bernardino Valley began with simple horse-drawn streetcars (they were called horse cars even though they were usually pulled by mules). In 1885, The City Street Railroad Company was organized and their horse cars began providing service from the Santa Fe station to downtown San Bernardino.

In 1889, the fledgling city of Redlands got its first horse-drawn streetcar line. For a nickel, you could travel on the 5 ½ miles of track that ran in the city's newly laid streets.

The mules often balked at their heavy tasks making for noisy rides and sometimes unpredictable schedules. In some areas, the grades proved too much for even the toughest mules and passengers had to get out and help push the cars over the steep slopes.

Car for the San Bernardino and Redlands Railroad Co., circa 1900
This car for the San Bernardino and Redlands Railroad Co., circa 1900, is shown after being refurbished after a fire in 1893.
(Courtesy of Mark Landis)

In 1888, the San Bernardino and Redlands Railroad Co. built a 10-mile-long narrow gauge line (36 inches between the inside edge of the rails) between the two cities and regular passenger service began on June 4th, of that year. The fare on the route was 30¢ one-way and 50¢ for a round trip.

The steam locomotive-powered line meandered through a picturesque route and was the primary mode of public transportation between the two cities until 1903.

Motor Line of Street Railway
The motor line of 1888 from San Bernardino to Redlands reportedly was a most important factor in the early growth of Redlands. A roundhouse fire destroyed the first two locomotives in 1893. This is one of the replacements after 1900. Due to its size it was called the "Redlands Dinky."
(Courtesy of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)

The Redlands Street Railway Company, a small horse-drawn line incorporated in 1888, became the Valley's first streetcar line to be electrified. The line got an infusion of new financial backing in 1898 when the Fisher family of Redlands purchased a controlling interest in the company.

In July of 1898, the Redlands Citrograph optimistically reported the electrification of the line; "A careful estimate has been made of the cost of the change from the present system to an electric system and it is found that is will cost $35,000."

Along with the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe mainlines, Redlands had several smaller streetcar systems including; The Terracina & Redlands Street Railway Company, and The Redlands Central Electric Railway Company. By the early 1900's, Redlands had established an excellent public transit system that was expanding to handle the prosperous new city.

A group of happy travelers aboard a San Bernardino Valley Traction rail car in 1908
A group of happy travelers aboard a San Bernardino Valley Traction rail car in 1908. A Rheostat controlled the electric car's speed. It was also equipped with an air-brake system to slow or stop the wheels.
(Courtesy of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)

The San Bernardino Valley Traction Company (SBVT) incorporated in June of 1901, became the first electric line to operate in the city of San Bernardino. The proposed standard-gauge line (4 feet - 8 ½ inches between the inside edge of the rails) was to be built from Redlands to San Bernardino, with the route passing through Colton.

The SBVT had good financial backing and was a mainstay in the San Bernardino Valley's public transportation system for the next ten years.

With razor-thin or non-existent profit margins, rail line mergers and closures were commonplace. As the SBVT gained a strong foothold in the valley, it began purchasing many of the smaller struggling lines and consolidating their facilities.

Pacific Electric's Urbita Springs line
Pacific Electric's Urbita Springs line at the busy intersection of 3rd & E St. in San Bernardino.
(Courtesy of Mark Landis)

The intersection of 3rd and E streets in San Bernardino was the hub of the city and its transportation system. Numerous rail lines, including the Southern Pacific, Santa Fe and several small city lines crisscrossed the congested area around the intersection. Tracks in the streets were often double-gauged (3 parallel tracks that could handle both narrow and standard-gauge trains) and electric overhead trolley wires clogged the skies.

Engine No. 1 of the Harlem Motor Road
Engine No. 1 of the Harlem Motor Road is seen about to leave San Bernardino in 1899.
(Courtesy of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)

New lines and extensions were built to serve major public attractions such as Harlem Springs, located at the present-day intersection of Baseline St. and Pepper Ave. The Harlem Motor Road as it became known, took passengers from downtown San Bernardino to the popular hot springs and amusement park. The narrow gauge steam line struggled as the popularity of the park waned and it was eventually bought out by the SBVT in 1903.

One of the most popular tourist routes on the SBVT was the line to Urbita Springs Park, located at the present-day site of the Inland Center Mall. In 1901, the SBVT purchased the amusement park that featured a boating lake, picnic grounds, merry-go-round, outdoor concerts, and a dance pavilion.

In 1906, the SBVT began constructing the Arrowhead Line with plans to eventually connect San Bernardino with an incline railroad up Waterman Canyon to the mountain resorts. Plans for passenger service up the incline railroad were scrapped, but the line was constructed from 3rd and D St. to a small station near the Arrowhead Springs Hotel.

Pacific Electric Car 1451
Pacific Electric Car 1451
(Courtesy of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)

As public transportation was emerging in the San Bernardino Valley, Henry Huntington and the Pacific Electric Railway Company (PE) were building a vast network of railroad systems around Southern California. In 1911, the SBVT was purchased by the Pacific Electric and the company began converting and upgrading the facilities to meet their standards.

In 1914, San Bernardino Valley residents celebrated as the PE completed an electric trolley line connecting Los Angeles with San Bernardino and their Eastern Division. The PE continued passenger service from LA to the San Bernardino Valley until 1941.

During the 1930's and 40's, highways and automobile transportation were greatly improved. Even the mighty Pacific Electric Railway couldn't compete with the automobile and the steel rails were eventually replaced with freeways.

By 1938, PE abandoned local passenger service on all but the original SBVT route from San Bernardino to Colton. PE buses were used until 1953 when the service was absorbed by the Metropolitan Coach Lines.