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The long anticipated opening of the Panama Canal was expected to bring tremendous growth and usher in a new era of prosperity for the West Coast. In 1910, the leaders of San Diego started planning an exposition to coincide with the christening of the Panama Canal. This was to be a grand event to advertise San Diego to the world, as the spot of choice for ships traveling through the Canal. 

This event was the Panama California Exposition and it would be held on a large parcel of land to be named Balboa Park.

In Balboa Park

Early San Diego developer John D. Spreckels played an important role in the development of Balboa Park. He donated the first $100,000 to kick-off the funding drive for construction of the newly proposed Exposition site, and as the owner of the San Diego Electric Railway Company (SDERy), he took the responsibility of providing transportation for the upcoming event.

Spreckels directed his engineers to design a special new streetcar to carry patrons to and from the Exposition. This new streetcar design was unique and built exclusively for San Diego, with the mild climate of the city in mind.


Spreckels had always been dedicated to the advancement of public transportation, even in the years prior to the planning of the Exposition. He worked closely with William Clayton, the Vice President and Managing Director of SDERy to achieve his goal. Both men were passionate about creating a long-term system that would extend throughout urban and suburban areas of the city. During these years of development Spreckels and Clayton helped extend over fifty miles of electric railway into outlying areas, thus helping to expand suburban development into the areas we now know as Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Normal Heights, and North Park. At the time however, it was evident that passengers were growing impatient with what was becoming an increasingly less enjoyable ride.

Click above to see more route maps from the early 1900s

There were many problems with the streetcars that were in operation in the early 1900s. "California Cars" as they were called due to their open-air structures, couldn't stand up to higher traffic and faster rail speeds. Riders often lost their hats or had the aroma of auto exhaust fumes blown in their faces. As a fix, the cars were modified to be completely enclosed which led to other problems. Passengers could only board from the rear platform which created crowding and made it difficult and time-intensive for the conductors to collect fares. Besides that, for many San Diegans, the closed cars proved to be less attractive than simply walking.

The California Car

Accidents were also an issue for these cars, especially during boarding, and especially for women. At the time, the tube dress was in fashion; these dresses and skirts had very narrow hemlines that fell at mid-calf, making it very difficult for the wearer to step up onto a high platform. They were known as "hobble skirts", a name which would later be attached to the Class 1 streetcars.

In 1910, Spreckels, Clayton, and others, realized it was time for a new and better streetcar that would be used during the Exposition and beyond. SDERy worked with the Saint Louis Car Company (SLCCo) to create a beautiful and unique set of streetcars that would influence other designs across the country.


Under the supervision of SDERy Superintendent Homer MacNutt, Abel A. Butterworth designed a brand new, state-of-the-art streetcar that reflected the progress in design and construction that had been made in the early century. This new "Class 1 Streetcar" design combined elements from the California Car and the Closed Car with modern operational advancements of the day.

The cars were larger in size; the all-wood bodies measured 43 feet 7 inches long and were topped with a high-arched, "turtle-back" roof that allowed passengers ample headroom. The cars were strong with a steel and wood underframe and could carry up to 39,000 pounds.

Sketch of the Class 1 by Richard Dodge

Each car was designed to have two sections: one side had standard open-and-shut windows while the other side had open window frames, without glass. Each side had drop curtains to block the sun or rain, depending on the section and the weather.

An important feature on the Class 1 streetcars was the new center-entrance. Instead of climbing up dangerous steps from the rear platform, passengers would be invited on through large opening doors with spring-loaded steps that lowered to street-level. A conductor would greet passengers as they boarded and collect their fares. Developed in 1905 by the Montreal Railway Company, this was known as the "Pay-As-You-Enter" or "P.A.Y.E." system. It solved the problem of lost fares and created a safer way for passengers to get on and off the streetcars.

News article about the innovative design of the Class 1s

While one conductor collected fares at the entrance, another acted as the "motorman". The motorman controlled the streetcar from both ends using the updated control system. Instead of taking the time to turn the cars around to go in the opposite direction, the motorman could now walk to the opposite side of the car and drive it back the way it came.

San Diego's cars were the first in the nation to combine the center-entrance with the P.A.Y.E. system. Soon after the Class 1s were completed, New York City commissioned their own P.A.Y.E. center-entrance cars to be used on the 4th and Madison Avenue lines.

Instructions in the San Diego Union on how
to use the new P.A.Y.E. Cars

Not only were the cars technologically state-of-the-art, they were also quite beautiful. They were built and decorated in the Arts & Crafts style. The exteriors were painted a warm yellow with red pin-striping. There were gold-leafed oak leaves, car numbers and SDERy logos. The interiors were made with hand-polished cherry wood and solid bronze hardware. The ceilings were decorated with panels of gold-leafed oak leaves and bordered with red pin-striping. Even the tiny nickel-plated push buttons, used to alert the motorman, were inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Numbered 124 through 148, only twenty-four of these custom-made cars were built by the SLCCo, and when they were delivered to San Diego in 1912, they were greeted with much enthusiasm as crowds of San Diegans came to see and ride the beautiful new streetcars.


On June 1, 1912 the first Class 1 streetcar made a run on the 5th Avenue and Logan Heights line. The cars were a hit from the beginning. Passengers found them beautiful, fast, and safe, and the motormen operated them with ease.

The safety was the most attractive feature for many riders. With the new, lower steps ladies in tube dresses no longer had to worry about tripping (or scandalously baring their calves). The streetcars were even nicknamed "hobble skirt cars". In addition, long-time SDERy employee Minard J. Perrin developed the use of grab-handles on the right-hand side only, making it unlikely for anyone holding onto it to debark backwards, which was the cause of many accidents.

The Class 1 cars carried thousands of locals and visitors alike during the Exposition celebration and continued serving throughout the city for many years. They ran through Downtown's business district, through Mission Hills and North Park, from Ocean Beach to Kensington. They even served to link downtown to the U.S.-Mexico Border. Though this route was discontinued in 1916, the cars still ran from downtown to Chula Vista for years. Click here to see San Diego streetcar routes from 1892-1918.

Making a stop in Old Town

People were so pleased with the new cars that, despite the original seating capacity being only 44 riders, they frequently carried between ninety and one-hundred passengers during rush hour.


By 1924, SDERy needed to modernize and economize its operations and that meant changes to the Class 1s. The center entrances were replaced with wider dual doors opposite the motorman where passengers would enter, pay their fares, and move down to the seating areas, much like our modern bus systems today. This eliminated the need for one of the conductors and turned the operation of the Class 1s into a one-man operation. The wooden slat seats were replaced with two rows of hard-backed cushioned seats on each side of the car with room for a center aisle.

The renovated interior of the Class 1


The Class 1 streetcars continued to provide safe, reliable transportation after the close of the California Panama Exposition in late 1916. They served San Diego throughout the course of World War I, the Prohibition era, and during the Great Depression.

As the Depression gained a firm grip on the economy, cities across the country were facing major budget concerns. The large decrease in ridership and profits inspired city leaders to look for cheaper alternatives in public transportation.

At that time, the "The Presidents' Conference Committee" had designed a new low-cost mass-produced streetcar dubbed the "PCC Car". These PCC cars were made to look like a then modern-day bus with a streamlined form. The PCC cars have uni-body construction, just like a Volkswagen Beetle. Under increasing pressure to cut costs, the SDERy decided to order the more economical PCC streetcars, and made plans to retire the "old-fashioned" Class 1s.

With tighter budgets throughout the country, the PCC cars were eagerly adopted by over 60 different cities. Over 4,900 PCC streetcars were built, and to this day, many serve in public transportation systems across the United States.


In early 1939, the San Diego Electric Railway Company began the process of retiring the Class 1 streetcars. For a period of seven months that year, public sales were held to sell off the streetcar bodies, which could be purchased for $50 each.

Fortunately, some of the big, roomy Class 1 streetcar bodies were purchased, put on lots, and converted into residences. Within a few months, however, there were complaints, and city leaders passed laws which made it illegal to use any more of the retired streetcars as residences.

By late 1939, all of the original Class 1 streetcars had been retired from service. Those that sold had survived, but all the remaining retired streetcars were taken out to Mission Beach and burned. The scrap iron was sifted from the ashes and sold to a junkman.

Since 1939, anytime residential property with a streetcar home was sold in San Diego, the streetcar body had to be removed from the property, because they were not legally transferable as homes. The only streetcar bodies that could be used for homes were those that were grandfathered in, and continually resided in by the original property owner. Most streetcar homes were gone by the 1960s.

A young, newly married couple purchased three of the streetcars in 1939 during that short seven-month period. This couple lived in them together for over fifty years. These are the last of the original 24 Class 1 streetcars and they are ready to be restored and returned the streets of San Diego.

At the entrance of Mission Cliff Gardens


Much of the information found on this page
is from a report by Alexander Bevil, which
can be read in full here.





John D. Spreckels

William Clayton

Homer MacNutt

Abel A. Butterworth

Minard J. Perrin