When the long-awaited Expo Line opens on April 28, riders will be retracing a historic route through the city. Although its tracks, signals, and power lines are all new, much of the light rail line's right-of-way dates to 1875, when the first rail link between downtown L.A. and the Westside opened and gave birth to the city of Santa Monica.
In 1874, silver baron John P. Jones partnered with sheep rancher Robert S. Baker to develop a seaside resort town on Rancho San Vicente y Santa Monica. Perched atop picturesque bluffs and cooled by an ocean breeze, the town was favorably located -- except that it was a long stagecoach journey from the region's population center in Los Angeles. To make the town marketable, Jones built a 16-mile rail line between the Santa Monica Bay waterfront and downtown Los Angeles, naming it the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad. It was only the second railroad built in Los Angeles; the first was the Los Angeles and San Pedro, which opened in 1869.
At the mouth of the Santa Monica Arroyo, where Interstate 10 meets with Pacific Coast Highway today, a wharf -- forerunner to today's Santa Monica Municipal Pier -- extended into the ocean. There, ships could dock and unload freight onto rail cars. Heading east, the railroad passed through the future communities of Palms and Culver City before crossing the marshy cienegas of the Ballona Creek plain and then turning north to its terminal at San Pedro and Fifth streets in downtown Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles and Independence helped make Santa Monica palatable to real estate speculators and prospective residents, but Jones, who was politically well-connected as a U.S. senator from Nevada, had grander plans for the railroad. Intending to connect the line with the town of Independence in the Owens Valley, and from there to a silver mine he owned in the Panamint Mountains, Jones optimistically included "Independence" in his railroad's name. Later, Jones hoped, he could extend the line still further east to Salt Lake City and create a transcontinental line to rival the Southern Pacific.
But luck did not favor the railroad -- or Jones -- in its early years. Workers had surveyed the entire route and begun grading a path through the Cajon Pass when Jones' silver mine unexpectedly played out in 1876.
Meanwhile, excursion trains brought beach-going day-trippers, but Santa Monica's population stagnated in the midst of an economic depression, and the town struggled to compete with San Pedro as a shipping center. In dire financial straits, Jones reluctantly sold the Los Angeles and Independence to Collis P. Huntington's Southern Pacific Railroad on July 1, 1877 for $195,000. Decades later, Jones wrote to his wife: "If you only knew how my heart ached when I was obliged by stress of circumstance to part with the RR, which together with matters connected with it was the pet project of my life."
Seeking a monopoly over rail transportation in the Los Angeles area, the Southern Pacific connected the railroad with its transcontinental line, which had arrived in Los Angeles in 1876. Traffic increased along the Los Angeles & Independence during the 1880s, as a regional population boom swelled Santa Monica's resident population as well as the number of day-trippers. The following decade, the railroad briefly became one of the region's principal freight corridors when the Southern Pacific built a mile-long wharf near Santa Monica and attempted to establish a commercial shipping harbor there.
But with the federal government's 1897 decision to build a harbor in San Pedro instead of Santa Monica, the Los Angeles and Independence declined in importance. It also faced competition for passenger service with the electric railways of the Los Angeles Pacific, which crisscrossed today's Westside and first reached Santa Monica in 1889.
In 1908, the fabled red cars of the Los Angeles Pacific (later the Pacific Electric) replaced the Southern Pacific's steam trains on the now-electrified rails of the Los Angeles and Independence.
Renamed the Santa Monica Air Line, the route was intended as a shortcut between Los Angeles and the Westside communities of Culver City, Santa Monica, and Venice. With its dedicated right-of-way, the Air Line was unusual among L.A.'s interurban routes, which usually shared streets with automobiles and pedestrians. Fewer station stops and street crossings made for a quicker trip between the Pacific Electric's terminal at Main and Sixth and the line's coastal terminus at Santa Monica's Rustic Canyon.
Despite its advantages, the Air Line never took off. Passengers complained of rough trips along the tracks formerly traversed by steam locomotives, and other lines -- such as those that rolled down Santa Monica or Venice Boulevard -- traveled through more densely populated neighborhoods. Red cars initially whisked passengers away every hour, but by 1924 service diminished to one car per day. The Santa Monica Air Line limped along for decades until it was was finally abandoned in 1953, ending 78 years of continuous passenger rail service along the route.
Update, March 30: A previous version of this post described the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad as a narrow-gauge railway, as do most secondary sources on the railroad's history. However, reader Alexis Kasperavicius has pointed out that an 1876 report by the California Board of Commissioners of Transportation indicates that the road was standard gauge, at four feet and eight and one-half inches (see page 53). Other primary sources suggest that early advocates for a road between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley had anticipated a narrow-gauge railroad, but that the road's financiers opted for standard-gauge rails after Jones joined them as an investor.
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