The Pacific Electric Railway’s legacy of clean energy

Pacific Electric Railway car circa 1943. Orange County Archives

Even though L.A. is known as the mecca of car culture, it hasn’t always been so. In the 1920s, the city was the undisputed leader in public transportation, boasting the largest streetcar system in the world, known affectionately to Angelenos as the Red Car.

Metro reintroduced Southern California to rail transit in 1990, but the current system isn’t nearly as expansive as Pacific Electric was back in the day.

The Red Car system was built by Henry Huntington the nephew of railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington, one of the builders of the transcontinental railroad in the mid-1800s. After Collis died, Henry continued in his uncle’s footsteps, buying a streetcar system that he gradually transformed into the sprawling Pacific Electric Railway Company.

The system connected downtown with many areas in Los Angeles County and the neighboring counties of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino. Red Cars zipped around Southern California for more than a half century. At the railway’s peak, 900 streetcars ran daily on more than 1,100 miles of track.

The Red Car system ceased operation in 1961, but its influence can still be seen and felt in the communities it once served. The seaside city of Seal Beach commemorates the system with the Red Car Museum, which is inside an authentic Pacific Electric Railway car that ran along the 40-mile LA-Newport Line.

The Red Car Museum at Main Street and Electric Avenue in Seal Beach, Calif. Wikimedia Commons

Though Red Cars may have vanished, Huntington left many legacies in Southern California, including the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens on his former estate near Pasadena; Huntington Beach, known as Surf City, USA; and the city of Huntington Park.

But one huge and often overlooked indelible mark Huntington left on the state is a complex hydroelectric system known as Big Creek that traverses the slopes of the Northern Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Southern California Edison’s Powerhouse 1, Big Creek, Calif. Paul Griffo

Starting at Florence Lake at an elevation of 7,327 feet, water in the Big Creek system flows down 6,200 feet of mountain terrain through nine reservoirs — including one that is aptly named Huntington Lake — over eleven dams, and through nine powerhouses that can generate more than 1,000 megawatts of electricity for Southern Californians. Big Creek has been called “the hardest working water in the world,” and that’s no exaggeration.

Huntington originally financed the Big Creek project to power the Red Car system, but the project was later bought and expanded to its current capacity by Southern California Edison, and has become an indispensable source of clean energy for the California power grid.

This is where I write to amuse myself.