By Douglas Love, Chairman, California History Board
California is the birthplace and home of “car culture”. Before the introduction of the Model T by the Ford Motor Company in 1908, automobiles were the playthings of the wealthy. They were expensive, difficult to operate and unreliable. Even though auto makers were producing automobiles in the United States as early as 1897, most Californians relies on horses, buggies, wagons and streetcars for transportation. With the introduction of the Model T, this all began to change. Automobiles began to become common place and affordable. As early as 1912, California began construction on a system of interconnected, standardized highways.
After World War II returning servicemen came home and wanted to begin “normal” lives, which had been put on hold during the war. This included moving from the cities to the newly built, far flung suburbs, settling down and starting a family, and, of course, buying a shiny new automobile. Nowhere was this more evident than in California, especially Southern California. Because of the distances Californians had to commute and because of the State Highway system, the state was set for the development of a new cultural outlook, one with the automobile as its centerpiece. For most Americans and Californians in particular, the automobile meant freedom, ease of travel and became a status symbol. Here in the Golden State, a car was much more than that. It became ingrained in our identity. It was celebrated in movie and song. The automobile was part of us. From “Little Deuce Coupe” to “Do You Know The Way To San Jose” to “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow, from “My Mother The Car” to “Herbie The Love Bug” to “American Graffiti” to the “Fast and Furious” franchise, California has been promoting the love of the automobile for years.
But what of the era before the automobile? How did Californians travel to enjoy the riches of our State? Well, the answer was rail. For decades, Californians relied on streetcars, intercity rail and transcontinental rail to travel. In the late 1800’s to early 1900’s every city had a streetcar line, every town was connected by rail and every short line railroad was connected to the great transcontinental route. In 1873, San Francisco started the first cable car lines. In 1901, both the Los Angeles and Pacific Electric Railways began service in Southern California. Street cars and light rail carried more passengers on a daily basis than the Central Pacific or the Union Pacific. Today, we celebrate the achievements of Crocker, Huntington, Stanford and Hopkins but the streetcars which provided daily transportation for thousands are largely forgotten.
The Western Railway Museum, 5848 State Highway 12, Suisun City, CA, (707-374-2978) is a museum dedicated to the streetcar and its role in the development of California and the West Coast. It is operated by the Bay Area Electric Railroad Association and it is dedicated to the preservation of electric railway operation in California. The museum has several light rail cars in its collection and operates them on track which was once part of the Sacramento Northern Railroad. There is a small museum, a gift shop and a car barn with several trolley cars from around the world on display. The museum offers excursions using several different operational trolley cars and often they have a specific theme. Around Halloween, there is a Pumpkin Patch excursion and in the spring there are wine tasting and wildflower excursions. The museum is open Saturdays and Sundays from 10:30 am to 5:00 pm and on Wednesdays through Sundays from 10:30 am to 5:00 pm Memorial Day through Labor Day. For more information and train schedules visit their website at: www.wrm.org
After riding the train, you might feel a bit hungry. The city of Rio Vista is just a few minutes east of the museum on Highway 12 and one of the best places to eat is Foster’s Bighorn, 143 Main Street, Rio Vista, CA. (707-374-2511) Foster’s is a Rio Vista institution. The restaurant boasts a collection of over 300 animal trophies collected by Bill Foster, the original owner of the restaurant. The food is good, the service friendly and efficient and the bar has eight beers on tap, should you be thirsty. For their menu please visit: www.fostersbighorn.com.
Finally, just a bit further east on Highway 12 is the historic Chinese town of Locke. Locke began as a community built by and for Chinese agricultural laborers. There are several points of interest including the Dai Loy museum, The Chinese Association museum, The Locke Memorial Park and Monument, and, of course, Al’s Place Restaurant, better known as “Al The Wop’s” (13639 Main Street, Locke, CA. (916-776-1800)
Getting there: From San Francisco take the Bay Bridge to Interstate 80 East and then take Exit 43 off of Interstate 80 on to California 12 East. The Western Railway Museum will be on your right.