Rail Returns to the Westside: The Expo Line's Historical Precursors

Named after the Ivy Park housing development, the Ivy station stop along the Santa Monica Air Line served present-day Culver City. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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.

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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.

1875 drawing of Santa Monica. The Los Angeles and Independence Railroad's western terminus was a wharf, which extended into the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Santa Monica Arroyo. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

A barn served as the Los Angeles and Independence's Santa Monica station in the railroad's early years. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Though Jones planned to extend the line to Inyo County, the Los Angeles and Independence was never extended past its downtown L.A. terminal at San Pedro and Fifth. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

In the 1890s, the Southern Pacific built a wharf into the Pacific Ocean near Santa Monica and attempted to build a commercial shipping harbor there. Freight traffic along the Los Angeles and Independence skyrocketed until the federal government chose San Pedro as the site of the region's harbor in 1897. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Southern Pacific excursion trains, shown here in a circa 1900 photo, regularly brought beachgoers and to Santa Monica. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

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.

Detail of a circa 1912 map of the Pacific Electric interurban rail system. The Santa Monica Air Line is highlighted in aqua. Courtesy of the Special Collections, Young Research Library, UCLA.

Detail of a circa 1920 relief map of the Pacific Electric interurban rail system. The Santa Monica Air Line is highlighted in aqua. Courtesy of the Special Collections, Young Research Library, UCLA.

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.

A Santa Monica Air Line car travels eastbound on Exposition Boulevard in front of USC's Mudd Hall. Photo by Alan Weeks, courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

A Santa Monica Air Line car travels west through Culver City at Venice and Robertson. Photo by Alan Weeks, courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

A Red Car traveling on the Santa Monica Air Line crosses over Motor Avenue. Photo by Alan Weeks, courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

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.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. 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. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

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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I'm curious about how Phase 2 will work. Most of the right-of-way has been paved over with parking lots, civic parks and courtyards, commercial buildings, and industrial buildings. It's actually a fascinating experience to view the right-of-way from Google Maps as you can actually see the haphazard structures that were placed on top.



Excellent Synopsis of the history of the Santa Monica Air Line route insofar as it's passenger traffic and influence on the development of the Westside. The primary reason the trackbed/right of way was still in existence into the 1980's was the fact that this route provided a very lucrative freight business for both the Pacific Electric railway and it's corporate successor, Southern Pacific. After termination of all Red Car passenger service the Air Line was a primary corridor for electric and later diesel-powered freight service for Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, and the Hollywood Freight Station at Santa Monica Blvd and Highland Ave. This involved the late-night operations of freight trains down the middle of Santa Monica Blvd and the mandatory use of the Air Whistle formerly used by the Red Car trolleys (due to it's softer tones) on diesel locomotives assigned to this district! The colour photos depict a rail enthusiast's excursion on the Air Line using Pacific Electric Business Car #1299 (now preserved at the Orange Empire Railway Museum at Perris, Ca) and one of PE's ubiquitous "Hollywood" cars at Culver Jct. outbound to Santa Monica just prior to the cessation of rail passenger service in 1953. Thank you for an excellent article!


Very interesting article. One minor change though. The Santa Monica AirLine was NOT abndoned in 1953. The last passenger train was 1953, but the freight operation continued on this line until the late 1980's or early 1990's.




Nice piece of history...and we can't wait for our light rail. When the “Subway to the Sea” arrives in Santa Monica in 2015 or thereabouts, you can bet it’s going to be a boon to our economy here @ the beach. The conclusions from a barrage of studies, polls, tests, reports, from such noteworthy sources as the Urban Land Institute and Coldwell Banker Real Estate, among others have determined that residences near cities with thriving economies and mass transit are the housing trend of the near future.