The power behind the Pacific Electric Railway

Pacific Electric Railway car circa 1943. Courtesy Orange County Archives

Even though L.A. is known as the mecca of car culture, it hasn’t always been so. In the 1920s, the city was the undisputed leader in public transportation, boasting the largest streetcar system in the world, known affectionately to Angelinos as the Red Car.

The system was built by Henry Huntington the nephew of railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington, one of the builders of the transcontinental railroad in the mid-1800s. After Collis died, Henry continued in his uncle’s footsteps, buying a streetcar system that he gradually transformed into the sprawling Pacific Electric Railway Company.

The Red Car system connected downtown with many areas in Los Angeles County and the neighboring counties of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino. Red Cars zipped around Southern California for more than a half century. At the railway’s peak, 900 streetcars ran daily on more than 1,100 miles of track.

The Red Car system ceased operation in 1961, but its influence can still be seen and felt in the communities it once served. The seaside city of Seal Beach commemorates the system with the Red Car Museum, which is inside an authentic Pacific Electric Railway car that ran along the 40-mile LA-Newport Line.

Though Red Cars may have vanished, Huntington left many legacies in Southern California, including the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens on his former estate near Pasadena; Huntington Beach, known as Surf City, USA; and the city of Huntington Park.

Southern California Edison’s Powerhouse 1, Big Creek, Calif.

But one huge and often overlooked indelible mark Huntington left on the state is a complex hydroelectric system known as Big Creek that traverses the slopes of the Northern Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Starting at Florence Lake at an elevation of 7,327 feet, water in the Big Creek system flows down 6,200 feet of mountain terrain through nine reservoirs—including one that is aptly named Huntington Lake—over eleven dams, and through nine powerhouses that can generate more than 1,000 megawatts of electricity for Southern Californians. It’s no exaggeration that the water in Big Creek has been called “the hardest working water in the world.”

Huntington originally financed the Big Creek project to power the Red Car system, but it was later bought and expanded to its current capacity by Southern California Edison, and has become an indispensable source of clean energy for the California power grid.