What Do Neanderthals + Pacific Electric Red Cars Have in Common?

Red Car passing through Monrovia

For decades, two mostly late, great, robust institutions were errantly maligned.

Both were considered extinct. Both were large and said to have lumbered. Both were thought to have failed to coexist with rivals and then given way to smarter replacements that would become ubiquitous.

The latter point, ubiquity, we'll concede.

As for the rest, it's well past time to give our collective due to those two institutions that aren't so often grouped together. We're speaking, of course, about Neanderthals and the Los Angeles area Pacific Electric Red Car system.

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Today, a media consumer can't rub-two-iPhones together and start a fire (or close enough)
without encountering mea culpa references not only to how strong, smart and successful the Neanderthals really were, but also the recent scientific understanding that modern humans carry up to 4% of Neanderthal and other ancient hominid DNA.

[See here and here, for instance. Also download the Smithsonian's whimsical MEanderthal mobile photo illustration app.]

Another institution that was much more impressive than the past fifty or so years worth of mainstream popular culture have given it credit for were the Red Cars.

Destroyed when a toon dressed as Christopher Lloyd bought up the once-best-in-the-nation interrurban system and then attempted to dip Roger Rabbit in toxins, the Red Car was the more than 1,100-miles of track, nearly 1,000-cars strong, bullfighter's cape-colored livery empire of Henry Huntington and company.

Huntington - his name now most associated with a botanical garden (including this sacrificial succulent), galleries and archives - was one savvy vertical integrator.

Commenters are encouraged to set this post straight, but isn't this following more or less accurate?: Henry, son nephew of Collis Huntington, bought up real estate throughout Southern California. Then he created a public transportation behemoth to bring potential residents to and from the subsequent developments and area attractions. Then, in the manner of the Mulholland-loving crowd, Huntington went to the Sierras and built an unprecedented hydro-electric power operation, shipping the resulting electricity back to Southern California and powering the Red Cars.

And those Red Cars needed power. Ridership reached 109 million passengers during the 1944 War year. But by 1961, the Pacific Electric was gone, done in by some combination of automobiles, corporations, public policy, arcane operating agreements about track-adjacent maintenance, and, as mentioned, the cartoon Christopher Lloyd.

But nowadays, contemporary Los Angeles yearns for the Red Car, or some approximation.

There's ongoing talk about putting a trolley Downtown. Every journal and salon and cultural institution in town seems to publish story after story and offer talk after talk or exhibition about the Exposition Line, the Gold Line Extended, the Subway-to-the-Sea-Or-Close-Thereof, and other urban planning, land use, and policy rail-related topics. Conversations turn quickly, too, to the high-speed rail and the wisdom of building the Kern section first.

There are, of course, various rail-related objections - reasonable and unreasonable - from cost and civil rights and seismic and neighborhood safety to neighborhood isolationism and NIMBYism.

Departures has happily participated in the rail revival conversation. Transportation lines - freight and commuter rail, highways, walking paths - have often run parallel to water bodies; the L.A. River is no exception.

Really, to spend any time at all with Departures: LA River is to encounter Metro subway / light rail car combos floating through frames, particularly in backgrounds, crossing bridges and running parallel to parks.

Departures: LA River also shows off the Red Car Pocket Park, and a Red Car Mural. Departures: Chinatown brings viewers along the Gold Line, too, as does the upcoming Departures: Highland Park.

Past Departures neighborhood Boyle Heights is finally served by the Gold Line Extension and more recently-discussed Departures area Compton is at least somewhat served by the Blue Line.

Moving along now....

In the great rail / trolley / interurban / etc. tradition of a perception - if not actual - conflict of interest, this Land of Sunshine express arrives now at its terminus with a fully-biased invitation that aims to blend community interest with some form of enlightened self-interest.

Your columnist is a member of the volunteer Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation. On the morning of September 24, 2011, the Foundation is scheduled to conduct the latest of the org's "Urban Archeology" field trips.

Participants will board a chartered bus at the MTA headquarters in Downtown and be taken on a three-hour ride that, where possible, mimics Red Car routes.

Tour guides - including one raconteur who rode the Red on its final day in 1961 - will provide an in-person history of the Pacific Electric. The guides will also point out key buildings still standing as well as other historic remnants of the octopus-ian reach of the system. And 20th century photographs from lines and sites long since gone will be exhibited on the bus' video monitors. The intention of the morning outing is in part to inspire more conversation about the future of L.A. rail by examining what existed during the recent past.

For more information on the Urban Archeology trip, visit this webpage. Please note that, unlike all things Departures, the Railroad Foundation voyage is not free.

P.S. - For anyone interested in taking a train-related ride of another sort... It appears that there's a railway that travels through Germany's Neanderthal Valley. If that train ain't named Mitochondria, it oughta be.

Neanderthal station, Germany


Photo: The still photographs accompanying this post were taken by Flickr user Adult Services Monrovia Library (top) and Grapitix (bottom). Each was used under Creative Commons license.

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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