Tuesday, January 17, 2012
The Key System and the Great American Streetcar Conspiracy, Part 1
The Key System was a privately owned public transit system that provided electric streetcar service throughout most of the immediate East Bay, and offered commuter service over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. The Key System operated from 1903 until 1960, when the company was sold to AC Transit which replaced the rail service with gasoline powered buses.
The Key System has its roots in a collection of smaller rail systems that were serving the East Bay at the turn of the Twentieth Century. These companies were purchased and consolidated under the ownership of Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, a local businessman who had made his fortune by mining borax.
Initially the Key System served the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, and Piedmont. At its height, the company operated approximately 66 miles of track in the East Bay and had lines that extended from Richmond to San Leandro. However, a large part of the development and success of the Key System was dependent on the ferry pier that the company operated. The Key System's connection to San Francisco would remain one of its most important features for as long as rail service was offered in the East Bay. Up until 1939 the Key System operated a fleet of ferries that traveled from their pier in the East Bay to the San Francisco Ferry Building. After 1939, when the Bay Bridge was completed, the Key System offered a trans-bay connection via a dual track that ran through the lower deck of the bridge and connected to the newly built Transbay Terminal.
An example of how much the Key System affected the development of the East Bay and its cities can be seen when you consider that the Key System was never an independent corporate entity, but was always tied in closely with "Borax" Smith's other business concerns, especially his real estate company, the Realty Syndicate. The Realty Syndicate, a joint project between "Borax" Smith and Frank C. Havens, another local real estate magnate, purchased large tracts of undeveloped land in the East Bay and developed resorts and amusement parks on rail lines that were. of course, owned by the Key System. The Claremont Hotel was one off these, as was the Key Route Inn, and were served by dedicated San Francisco bound trains. Idora Park in Temescal, one of the East Bay's first and largest amusement parks in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, was also owned by the Realty Syndicate and was, just like the resorts, served by a central Key System line. Many neighborhoods in Berkeley that were owned and developed by the Realty Syndicate are still centered around paths and walkways that, in the heyday of the Key System, were designed to channel residents quickly and easily to Key System rail stations. The two companies were intended to work together, with residential neighborhoods owned by the Realty Syndicate providing the riders the Key System needed to profit, and the Key System supplying easy rail access and increasing the value of the neighborhoods that it served.