Photos: Many L.A. Boulevards Began as Streetcar Lines

Electric railway tracks once ran down the median of Santa Monica Boulevard, shown here in West Hollywood in 1951. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Why do some Los Angeles boulevards like Venice or Santa Monica seem to wander across the street grid? What explains the oversized median dividing Culver Boulevard? And why are there two San Vicentes?

The answer behind these curiosities lies in these roads' origin as streetcar lines. In the decades that bracketed the turn of the 20th century, several electric rail lines stretched out from downtown Los Angeles toward the sea, meandering across the coastal plain to serve the scattered settlements of the time: Colegrove, Sherman, The Palms.

When it first opened in 1897, the Santa Monica via Sawtelle Line offered passengers wide-open vistas of bean fields and citrus groves from its electric cars. As the metropolis grew around the tracks, the rail line morphed into Santa Monica Boulevard -- complete with a sudden course correction in West Hollywood where the tracks once turned toward the town of Sawtelle.

Likewise, the Venice Short Line -- completed in 1903 to serve Abbot Kinney's new Venice of America development -- eventually became the meandering, 13-mile route of Venice Boulevard. Meanwhile, spur lines that peeled off the main routes at obtuse angles survive today as Culver and San Vicente boulevards.

A consistent pattern governed the evolution of these interurban rail routes into city streets. First, construction crews laid tracks and erected wooden poles that held aloft the overhead electric wires. A dirt path might run parallel to the rails, but only later would a real estate company construct paved automobile lanes on either side of the tracks -- making the rail line the new boulevard's median. Finally, as the Red Car system slowly died, the overhead wires came down and landscaping, bike paths, or new traffic lanes took over the median, erasing any trace of the boulevard's origins as pioneer rail lines.

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San Vicente's two segments never connected, but both followed the path of the Pacific Electric's Westgate Line. The developers of Westgate (now Brentwood) first dedicated a San Vicente Boulevard in 1905, borrowing the name from the area's Mexican land grant, Rancho San Vicente y Santa Monica. Early plans envisioned this San Vicente Boulevard extending through Hollywood all the way to downtown Los Angeles. These grand plans were never realized, but in 1922 the developers of the Wilshire Highlands and Carthay Center subdivisions resurrected the idea of an elongated San Vicente. Building an automobile boulevard along the tracks of the Pacific Electric's Westgate Line between Wilshire and Venice boulevards, they named the new street San Vicente Boulevard -- presumably in reference to the original San Vicente several miles to the northwest.

In 1906, Santa Monica Boulevard (seen here at Western Avenue in Colegrove) was little more than a narrow rail right-of-way doubling as a dirt road. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

1907 view of Venice Boulevard, looking west from Western Avenue. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Santa Monica Boulevard parallels Pacific Electric tracks in this 1935 photo, taken at Pandora Avenue looking east. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

A viaduct over La Brea Avenue at San Vicente separated streetcar from automobile traffic. 1936 aerial photo courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

Many streetcar boulevards cut across the street grid at odd angles, creating complicated intersections, like that of San Vicente, Fairfax, and Olympic, seen here in 1936. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

Electric railway tracks once ran down the median of Venice Boulevard, seen here at Fifth Avenue in 1929. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

A Pacific Electric car on Santa Monica Boulevard at Canon in Beverly Hills, 1954. Photo by Alan K. Weeks, courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

1940 aerial view of Venice Boulevard stretching toward the sea. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

In 1955, a Culver City auto dealership used the abandoned median of Venice Boulevard as a storage lot. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Los Angeles Examiner Collection.

The landscaped median of San Vicente Boulevard, seen here circa 1970 at Montana Avenue in Brentwood, once carried the Pacific Electric's Westgate Line. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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