Anatomy of an Excursion
By Steve Crise
A good portion of the images we see on the PERyHS website are the result of railfan excursions trips. These excursions were put on largely by groups like the Electric Railway Historical Association (ERHA), Railroad & Locomotive Historical Society (R&LHS), Pacific Railroad Society (PRS, formerly Railroad Boosters) and many other clubs and organizations. These excursions were once so numerous that on almost any given weekend there could be an excursion on a railroad or streetcar line somewhere in Southern California.
Excursions were unique events because they gave the participants the opportunity to stop and pose the car or train at various locations along a prescribed route. Railfans would disembark from the train and line up shoulder to shoulder and make photographs of the equipment stopped at key locations along the route. However not all of the excursion riders were interested in taking photos of the cars, some just liked to go along for the ride because it was becoming obvious to them that sooner or later all of the streetcars and interurbans of Los Angeles were going to disappear forever.
As the routes of the Pacific Electric, Metropolitan Coach Lines and the Los Angeles Transit Lines became fewer and fewer, excursions became more frequent. But these excursions didn’t happen spontaneously; it took a lot of planning on the part of both railfan clubs and the hosting railroad. These excursions had to be planned so as not to interfere in any way with regular operations. Precise planning was important in making everything run as smoothly as possible. Schedules were created for each excursion that listed the beginning point, end point and all the stops in between and the length of time allowed for each stop.
One particular excursion we will examine is from a railfan group that I have very little information on that called themselves “The Friends of the Big Red Cars.” The Friends of the Big Red Cars organized an excursion with the Metropolitan Coach Lines that was to take place on September 7, 1957. Above is the original charter order typed up on Metropolitan Coach Lines stationery that describes the times and locations on which the excursion train would travel on the day of the excursion. As indicated on the charter order, the Friends of the Big Red Cars even had the opportunity to choose which two cars they wanted to use for the excursion. For this particular excursion they chose MCL 498, a longtime favorite car of railfans for excursions because of its large baggage doors, and MCL 316, both former Pacific Electric cars. It is interesting to note the bold capitalized letters in red ink reading on the charter order that read “OPERATION OF THIS TRIP IS IN NO WAY TO INTERFERE WITH REGULAR PASSENGER SRVICE.” One has to wonder with all of the stops along the way, how this event didn’t somehow run afoul of normal passenger operations or cause some inconvenience to a freight train movement. Interestingly, there is no mention of any kind of a penalty for disruption of regular service that the excursion may cause.
Above is a scan of one of the original flyers announcing the September 7, 1957 excursion sponsored by The Friends of the Big Red Cars. For the princely sum of $6.75 one could travel by rail from Watts to San Pedro, the Catalina Docks, Bellflower, Morgan Yard, Fairbanks Yard, and the 6th & Main Street Station The excursion also made allowances in the schedule to make many photo stops between destinations. And if that wasn’t enough, lunch and refreshments were also part of the fare. As a point of interest, $6.75 in 1957 dollars would be about $70.00 in 2022.
Pacific Electric combination car 498 had a long and illustrious existence. It was built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1913 for use on Southern Pacific’s Interurban Electric Railway that ran in the east bay area of San Francisco. When operations ceased on the IER in July of 1941, their cars came to Los Angeles and operated on the Pacific Electric for the United States Maritime Commission (USMC). Their first duty was to transport wartime workers to and from the shipyards in San Pedro mostly on the Long Beach and San Pedro Line. USMC 4702 was to be renumbered to PE 498 during an upgrading campaign in 1947. She joined the ranks of the average workaday fleet of PE cars mostly operating on the Long Beach Line. She lived out her days until being retired from service from the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority in April of 1961. But during PE 498’s long service record she became a favorite of excursion planners since it was only one of four cars to have the two large sliding doors where railfans jostled each other for the prestigious spots at the doors. In regular service these doors were very useful for crews to make quick work out of loading and unloading LCL freight or baggage at stations and stops along the route.
Above we see PE 498 in her daily work routine heading north on San Pedro Street about to cross 8th Street. In two blocks, the train will turn left onto the ramp that leads up to the 6th and Main Street Station. Judging by the dash sign, this train is returning from a trip from Bellflower, California sometime around 1947.
Ten years later and just a few short blocks north of where the photo of PE 498 was made is this shot from Ernest Hasse, one of the excursion participants. It shows the now re-lettered Metropolitan Coach Lines car 498 on the same day of the September 7, 1957 excursion. By this time most remaining cars of the former Pacific Electric are now working for the Metropolitan Coach Lines Company. MCL was a rail / bus operation with the intention of abandoning all rail lines within two years from its purchasing of the remaining passenger operations from the Southern Pacific. So you can understand why trips like these were so popular amongst railfans both young and old. They clearly understood that time was running out for this mode of transportation in Los Angeles. Incidentally, located just behind sister car MCL 316 is the ramp leading up to the 6th and Main Street station. This scene shows the train making its first photo stops on San Pedro Street before embarking on its appointed rounds. If the train is running according to schedule, this photo would have been taken at about 12:15 pm on the day of the excursion.
By 4:00 pm the excursion train has made its way to the end of the line at Bellflower. Now MCL 316 will be on the point of the two car train for the trip inbound and be back at the Watts Car House to be put back in the barn by 5:00pm. Another regular service car is seen in the background on a storage track. By this late date, cars no longer ran all the way to Santa Ana making Bellflower the end of the line for passengers.
In this photo we can clearly see these 1913-built vehicles are really showing their age. The deterioration is really obvious on the weather worn face of MCL 316. Visible are many areas of rust, different colors of paint and a twisted wooden ladder on the roof. These are only a few indicators that these cars are operating on borrowed time. But today fans are only thinking about getting their final photos of the Big Red Cars in action. This is another great Kodachrome shot by Ernest Hasse that has been preserved in the PERyHS Archives along with many other of Ernest’s wonderful shots from this era.
As these cars began to slip into oblivion a few farsighted individuals took on the responsibility of purchasing their favorite cars from the railroads as they became available. Trolley fans ended up preserving a very respectable number of Pacific Electric, Los Angeles Railway and Los Angeles Transit Lines cars for future generations to enjoy. This fledging group of railfans was once known as the Orange Empire Trolley Museum, and eventually made their home in the town of Perris, California. Today they are known as the Southern California Railway Museum. PE 498 was chosen for being saved from the scrap heap because of her unique baggage doors that made her an unusual item in the PE fleet. As this photo illustrates, Pacific Electric 498 has been returned to her former glory by the museum staff. She is one of those lucky survivors that have managed to live on into the 21 century. As of this writing, PE 498 is well past the century mark at 109 years old.
On this beautiful March day in 2018, I made my contribution to the legacy of PE 498 and made this portrait with motorman Harvey Laner at the controls. Harvey is member number 007, one of the original founding members of the museum. Both Harvey and the 498 are in excellent running condition and make frequent excursion trips around the expansive museums trackage during the museums weekend operations.
I think it would have been difficult for anyone at the St. Louis Car Company to believe this car would have lasted over 100 years, would have been employed by five different transit agencies, and then enjoy a leisurely retirement basking in the warm sun of Southern California.