Posted on July 21, 2014

All Aboard! The Short History of PG&E Streetcars

By Matt Nauman

PG&E streetcars were essential as Sacramento neighborhoods such as Oak Park grew. (PG&E Archive Photo.)

You’re used to using PG&E gas to heat the water in your shower and PG&E electricity to watch sports or your favorite reality show on TV.

But a century ago, and through the end of World War II, PG&E customers used the company’s energy for another purpose: To get around Sacramento.

PG&E operated a streetcar line in Sacramento from 1900 until 1943. Rail enthusiasts are well aware of this, but most others aren’t.

“People don’t think of Sacramento as a city built by streetcars,” said William Burg, a historian with the state of California and author of “Sacramento’s Streetcars” (Arcadia Publishing). “But it was.”

His book chronicles how streetcars first were pulled by horses and then how the advent of electricity made them essential transportation and helped Sacramento grow.

Sacramento Regional Transit owns this streetcar that was part of the PG&E system. (Photo by William Burg.)

A utility owning a streetcar line was “standard for that era,” said Burg. “Most streetcar lines were owned directly by an electric utility or were part of an interlocking series of companies.”

Electric streetcar service began in Sacramento in 1890. In 1895, the massive Folsom Powerhouse began sending electricity 22 miles away to downtown Sacramento. In 1906, the Sacramento Electric, Gas, and Railway Co. became part of PG&E, and PG&E began operating streetcars.

Burg’s book, which chronicles the birth and death of the streetcars in California’s capital city, contains hundreds of photos. It is a treasure trove for rail enthusiasts as it’s full of descriptions about the variety of streetcars in use.

Streetcars were an essential conveyance as the suburbs and neighborhoods of Sacramento – such as Midtown, Curtis Park, Land Park and Oak Park – grew. In fact, land developers worked with streetcar lines to make sure that potential buyers could reach their new homes.

Ultimately, though, that standard business model was outlawed during the anti-trust movement of the 1930s.

As this token shows, many utilities, including PG&E, once operated streetcar lines. (Photo by Matt Nauman.)

Burg grew up in Sacramento and didn’t know the history until someone mentioned that old streetcar tracks were being removed on X Street. Then he wanted to know more.

Ever the historian, Burg knows of several locations where vintage PG&E streetcars exist.

The Western Railway Museum in Rio Vista has several PG&E streetcars, including a wooden-body car. And the Sacramento Regional Transit District has a 1918 PG&E car that is occasionally uses in parades and other events. Burg also is aware of a private collector who owns several PG&E streetcars.

Recently, the Market Street Railway Museum in San Francisco displayed a small exhibit of streetcar tokens – resembling coins in shape and size – including one that says, “Pacific Gas and Electric Co.”

The Museum is near San Francisco’s Ferry Building and a variety of historic streetcars from all over the world on MUNI’s F-Market & Wharves line roll between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Castro District in brilliant, nostalgic color throughout the day.

Invariably, tourists – and some locals – snap photos and jump aboard.

The colorful, historic streetcars on Muni's F-Market line in San Francisco come from all over the world. (Photo by Matt Nauman.)

“Streetcars take people back to a world gone away, a simpler world,” said Rick Laubscher, president of the Market Street Railway and author of “On Track: A Field Guide to San Francisco’s Historic Streetcars and Cable Cars” (Heyday Books).

“They don’t lurch like a bus; they glide. They add a spark to the street while doing a real job. They’re time machines that actually work.”

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"PG&E" refers to Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a subsidiary of PG&E Corporation.
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