Electric trains, which started rolling in Chico exactly 100 years ago, leave a legacy … and, perhaps, a lesson
When 90-year-old Mendel Tochterman was a child, he often rode the electric train that stopped at the corner of First Avenue and the Esplanade. Not only was it the most economical way to travel, it was convenient, too.
“A trainman came to the house and picked up the luggage a day-or-so before we left, and [sent] it to the hotel,” he said. “All we did was get on the train and go.”
Before cars ruled the roads in Chico, electric trains carried passengers around town and as far as San Francisco.
September marks the 100th anniversary of the Northern Electric interurban train connection from Chico to Sacramento. Eventually stretching its rails to reach San Francisco in 1916 under the name of Sacramento Northern, this railroad brought new prosperity to the rural towns of Northern California.
Tochterman remembers the old trains he took at a time when automobiles were expensive to own and proper roadways were lacking. As a kindergartener, for instance, he would accompany his grandmother Ricka on the train to San Francisco for her regular doctor visits.
Nowadays, he sees cars buzzing up Main Street where trains once picked up passengers, and he wonders why such a promising form of transportation ceased to exist.
“I just don’t know how people don’t travel that way anymore.”
Chico’s ride on the rails essentially began with the Chico Electric Railway Co., established Aug. 12, 1904, by the Diamond Match Co. This was a trolley-car line, created to shuttle workers in the morning and evening to and from its plant on West 16th Street.
The Chico Electric ran streetcars from a depot at Sandy Gulch (now Lindo Channel) down The Esplanade to Main Street. At Fifth Street, the line turned west for a block to Broadway. There it turned south to East 16th Street, then east to Mulberry and from there south to East 22nd Street.
Another line ran from Second Street to Chestnut and then south to where the Diamond Match Co. used to be located, on West 16th Street. The third line ran from Main Street, west on Fifth, ending at the Southern Pacific Depot, which is now the Greyhound and Amtrak station.
Just a year later, Northern Electric Railway purchased Chico Electric and its trolley lines. Northern Electric’s main purpose was to provide an interurban train line to Sacramento, and it did so by first connecting Oroville to Chico in 1906. Northern Electric then aimed southward and proceeded to build the Sacramento-bound line, passing though rural towns along the way such as Biggs, Gridley and Yuba City.
Northern Electric established a train yard in Chico at the corner of Park and 20th streets, where Riebe’s Auto Parts and the New World Buffet are now located. This service depot, called “Mulberry Shops,” housed a lumberyard, blacksmithing and painting shops, as well as several repair bays. Everything from construction, service, and storage of the trains occurred there.
Most interurbans were modest in design. A steel chassis held wooden coaches on both the trolley cars and interurbans. The trains were orange. Westinghouse Corp. provided the motors that pushed them along, and operating controls were in the back and the front of trains. The backs of seats shifted to either side so when the train reached the end of the line, the conductor simply pushed them over and the train was ready to go the other direction.
Several high-end train cars called “parlor cars” ran for interurban travel as well. Parlor cars were the flagships of the fleet and boasted luxury accommodations for those passengers who could afford the higher ticket price.
One such parlor car, named the “Bidwell” after Chico’s founder, was constructed at the Mulberry Shops. This train eventually became the first Northern Electric train to connect Chico to the Bay Area in 1916.
The electric train was a smart idea at the time because various hydroelectric projects near the railroad’s infrastructure made power cheap.
Streetcars connected to power lines strung overhead as they moved around Chico at about 15 mph. Interurban trains used similar means while in town, but when they left Chico, an electric third rail sparked their motors to between 50 and 60 mph.
These electrified rails along the countryside had a downside, though.
“You could kill yourself if you touched the third rail,” said Robert Glover, a former Chico city planner who consults for railroads. “It was totally exposed. [That] would never be allowed today.”
In 1916, Northern Electric and the Oakland Antioch & Eastern Railway entered into a joint venture to provide direct service between Chico and the Bay Area. The OA&E, established in 1911, already controlled an electric railway connecting Oakland to Sacramento, not unlike Northern Electric’s connection from Chico to the state capital.
Nevertheless, financial problems plagued the Northern Electric. The company filed for bankruptcy and was auctioned off to a corporate venture called the Sacramento Northern Railroad Co. in 1918. From then on, the new company’s name appeared on the train fleet along with a fresh coat of green paint.
The interurban trudged forth, servicing the communities that helped build it.
The first 20 years of the Northern Electric/Sacramento Northern interurban line were its most profitable, and prosperity came to communities it served.
“The interurban brought non-agricultural jobs—industrial jobs— into agricultural areas,” railroad historian Paul Trimble said. “With this increase in income, people bought homes and they could support families.”
Western Pacific Railroad acquired Sacramento Northern in 1925 but still kept the name. Four years later, the Sacramento Northern converged with the San Francisco-Sacramento Railroad Co.—formerly the OA&E. The move consolidated the north and south railroads, making a single line with one owner.
Still a relatively cheap way to travel, the trains held certain advantages over the automobile. On average, it took nearly the same time to drive a car to the Bay Area as it did to travel by interurban—about six hours. The difference was in the comfort level: sitting in a parlor car and watching the countryside pass by versus packing the family into a Model T to venture along countless rural roads. Those who set out from Chico in a car that year found themselves traversing dirt roads through Marysville, Yuba City, Sacramento, Vallejo … and on, and on, and on.
“That was a long voyage,” Tochterman said. “We didn’t drive down until 1928 or ‘30 [on those dirt roads]. It was a long drive until you learned some shortcuts.”
By the time the Great Depression hit in October 1929, the electric train connection from Chico to the Bay Area had already reached its zenith. Automobiles began to draw favor with the public, buoyed by government programs for building highways.
“When [people] bought automobiles, they stopped buying railroad tickets,” Trimble said. “[Farmers] bought Ford pickup trucks, and now they could drive their own produce to market instead of using the interurbans.”
In 1939, the Sacramento Northern christened service from Oakland to San Francisco via the Bay Bridge, thus bypassing the original ferry transfer. Yet the end was nearing for Northern California’s interurbans.
“As people began driving to the Bay Area or wherever they wanted to go,” Glover said, “the number of people riding the trains just kept dropping every year until [Sacramento Northern] decided it wasn’t economical, and they discontinued it.”
Sacramento Northern abandoned interurban passenger service from Chico to Sacramento on Halloween day in 1940. Interurban service throughout the system ended less than a year later. (The connection from Oakland to San Francisco on the Bay Bridge continued until 1958 under control of Key System, which operated public transit around San Francisco and its outlying communities.)
Chico’s streetcar system survived for seven more years; it was scrapped on Dec. 15, 1947. The wires that once provided power to the streetcars came down in 1951.
In the wake of passenger service collapse, trains and streetcars arrived at the Mulberry Shops to be decommissioned. The wooden bodies that made the trains so economically practical were simply chopped up and then burned, Glover said.
The Sacramento Northern also ran freight services originally established by the Northern Electric and the OA&E. In later years, freight trains actually ran down Main Street in downtown Chico on their way to the airport. Some of these services continued until the Sacramento Northern ceased to exist in 1983.
Reminders of the old electric train system remain in Chico.
An asphalt-paved bike trail on Park Avenue marks the path where trains once sat on tracks stretching out of the Mulberry Shops. A similar trail leading to the Chico airport exists where freight trains continued to run up Main Street and The Esplanade following the end of streetcar service.
Recently, local artist William EverOne painted a mural in City Plaza based on a photo taken of a streetcar that ran the Esplanade line after 1920. Buses designed like trolleys can be chartered from the Butte County Association of Government’s transit division.
Escalating gas prices and environmental damage from automobiles may revive the notion of interurban railways.
“I think public transportation will come back,” Tochterman said. “It isn’t popular now, not in a town like Chico. But I think for people that are working … it would be smart.”