SacRT helps save four historic Sacramento trolleys, including one used in an East Sacramento restaurant

December 9, 2022 SacRT Blog

Streetcars once ruled the roads in Sacramento, taking thousands to work daily and helping give birth to the region’s first suburbs. 

As times changed, they eventually disappeared, ceding the streets in the post-war 1940s to private automobiles and buses. Unfortunately, few of those historic streetcars still exist. 

Now, though, SacRT and two other groups have launched an effort to rescue some of the last remaining few for posterity. 

Four trolleys, ranging in vintage from 1909 to 1929, have been recovered in recent years from private owners thanks to a “search and save” mission by the Friends of Light Rail & Transit group. SacRT has been holding them in storage. Now, SacRT is handing them to the Bay Area Electric Railroad Association, which restores trolleys and displays them at their Western Railway Museum in Suisun City. A number of years ago, SacRT refurbished a 1914 vintage trolley, sister to one of these in storage, that SacRT would bring out during the winter holiday season to run on K Street. 

Some longtime Sacramento residents may recall one of the four in particular, a bright yellow metal trolley known as the Christmas car because PG&E gifted them to Sacramento at Christmas time in 1929. Years after its 1940s street service days ended, the vehicle resurfaced as a quaint dining car in local restaurants, including the former Fish Emporium restaurant on J Street and later on Fair Oaks Boulevard. 

The other three are older wooden “California style” streetcars, originally similar to San Francisco’s cable cars. Riders could hop aboard anywhere on the open-sided trolleys. Later, they were enclosed, and entry was restricted to one front door so that the conductor could be sure to collect the 5-cent fare from each passenger. 

“It’s interesting to see SacRT tied to such a long history. Some of these streetcars were once maintained in what is now our bus maintenance facility on 28th and N streets,” says Traci Canfield, SacRT’s Senior Manager of Real Estate and Transit Oriented Development. 

What will become of them now?  Historian William Burg, author of “Sacramento’s Streetcars” from Arcadia Publishing, would like to see some of the other four refurbished and returned to use on the streets of Sacramento. “People love them,” he said. “It’s visceral. And it connects us to our past.” 

Bob Immergluck of the Western Railway Museum says they hope to refurbish a few of them, depending on funds, and eventually display them at their museum. The ones that are in too bad of condition to restore will be stripped of historically significant parts. But at the very least, he says, his group is pleased to have them safely in hand. 

“They played an important role in Sacramento,” he said. “For us, to preserve the relic, we can still see the materials, the architecture, and we can see the history.” 

Sacramento streetcar timeline, 1858 to 2022 

1858 – The first horse-drawn streetcars – called omnibuses – carry riders from the Sacramento riverfront to R Street, and later to the Sutter’s Fort area. 

1870 – The first streetcar rail lines open in downtown Sacramento (the rails were on dirt streets).  

1890 – The first electric trolleys begin rolling, using overhead power lines 

1906 – PG&E becomes the main streetcar company in Sacramento. About this time, Sacramento Electric Power & Light services its streetcars at 28th and N streets, a site still used by SacRT for bus maintenance. 

1929 – Streetcar companies increase fares from 5 cent fares to 7 cents. New metal streetcars arrive in Sacramento. 

1900 to 1940s – Streetcars promote development north of the river and in suburbs of Colonial Heights, Oak Park, Elmhurst, Land Park and East Sacramento. A popular line runs to the California State Fairgrounds on Stockton Boulevard.  

1930s – The first rubber-tire buses arrive, eventually taking the place of streetcars on rails. Private automobiles arrive as well, signaling the demise of streetcars. 

1947 – The last streetcar lines close. 

1962 – Sacramento city launches the government-owned Sacramento Transit Authority, the immediate predecessor to SacRT, operating buses but no rail transit. 

1973 – Sacramento Regional Transit is formed, creating a modern countywide bus system. 

1987 – SacRT opens its first light rail line, launching the successor to historic trolleys. 

2022 – SacRT advances plans for a hybrid streetcar/light rail line to run over the Tower Bridge between downtown Sacramento and West Sacramento. 

(Sources: Sacramento historian Bill Burg, “Sacramento’s Streetcars” by Arcadia Press, Motor Coach Age magazine, Bob Blymer photo collection, Western Railway Museum documents)