Sic transit gloria

There was a time when mass transit plus capitalism yielded urban development of the highest order. In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, enlightened entrepreneurs built streetcar and interurban electric transit routes to serve real estate developments built by their own companies, profiting both from land sales and transit patronage.

Maybe the greatest of them all was Francis Marion Smith "Borax" Smith, who made a fortune mining borax in Death Valley (Twenty Mule Team Borax was his brand name — coincidentally, they were the first sponsors of Ronald Reagan's television career in the early 1950s, but that is another story).
After he made his money, Borax Smith moved to the Bay Area and began working in what was then the cutting edge of transportation technology, electric traction. He built the Key System railway, an incredible operation which ran high speed transit lines to bring East Bay commuters into San Francisco.

Following the Great San Francisco Earthquake, the demand for housing in the East Bay was insatiable. His electric transit lines ran into Berkeley, Oakland, and the suburb of Piedmont. All of them converged near the present day Bay Bridge, and then ran three miles into the Bay on a sort of pier (called a "mole"), ending in a ferry terminal. [The approach to the Bay Bridge actually used some of the excavations for the mole itself.] At this terminal, passengers transferred to high speed electric—driven ferryboats, for a 15 minute voyage to San Francisco.

The entire commute took roughly the same time as BART trains do today: about half an hour from Oakland to San Francisco. But Smith's commuters had the opportunity to rush into the dining room of the ferry, where the experienced crew would dish out coffee and a legendary hash (the recipe lost, unfortunately), for 25 cents, something BART passengers cannot do.

When Smith built his quiet, swift, electric railway, he stole business from the Southern Pacific, long used to running California politics, and making a bundle at it. Edward Harriman, the New York mogul who controlled the SP, could not leave this challenge unanswered. He spent a vast amount of money at the time, electrifying the SP's commuter lines in the East Bay. Not merely up to the standards of what we today call 'light rail,' but a full scale 'heavy rail' system, with rolling stock built to the same standard used on Eastern trunk lines.

So the East Bay enjoyed two competing electric railway systems, complete with ferryboat fleets, vying to see who could provide faster and smoother transportation for commuters. In Berkeley, the two lines ran down the middle of Shattuck Avenue, four tracks of electrified railway running right next to each other. Today's BART subway follows the same route.

But it is in the quality of the real estate development that Smith undertook that we understand the character of he man. He took care to adapt his street system to the landscape, producing attractive curving streets, yielding magnificent views for home owners, and pleasing streetscapes to visitors. He employed fine architects and craftsmen to build his housing. And he understood that the creation of a new community meant provision of sites for churches, shopping, community facilities, and other necessary conveniences which would be convenient to walk to.

The neighborhoods developed by Smith and his associates remain some of the most attractive in America. Their only rivals, in fact, are found in the River Oaks section of Houston and the Country Club Plaza district in Kansas City, where similarly enlightened designers and developers took advantage of the possibilities of new materials and new transit technologies (including the automobile) at roughly the same time.

Smith's legacy has been commemorated with a brand new mural near one of his transit terminals, on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. The San Francisco Chronicle runs a story  today on it, complete with a picture of the mural, which features a Key System train. In the spirit of capitalist adventurer Smith, the mural's artist, Rocky Baird, sold 'passengership' in the mural to patrons: for $500, their faces could be seen peering from the windows of the Key System train. I like it, and I would wager that Smith would, too.

There was a time when mass transit plus capitalism yielded urban development of the highest order. In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, enlightened entrepreneurs built streetcar and interurban electric transit routes to serve real estate developments built by their own companies, profiting both from land sales and transit patronage.

Maybe the greatest of them all was Francis Marion Smith "Borax" Smith, who made a fortune mining borax in Death Valley (Twenty Mule Team Borax was his brand name — coincidentally, they were the first sponsors of Ronald Reagan's television career in the early 1950s, but that is another story).
After he made his money, Borax Smith moved to the Bay Area and began working in what was then the cutting edge of transportation technology, electric traction. He built the Key System railway, an incredible operation which ran high speed transit lines to bring East Bay commuters into San Francisco.

Following the Great San Francisco Earthquake, the demand for housing in the East Bay was insatiable. His electric transit lines ran into Berkeley, Oakland, and the suburb of Piedmont. All of them converged near the present day Bay Bridge, and then ran three miles into the Bay on a sort of pier (called a "mole"), ending in a ferry terminal. [The approach to the Bay Bridge actually used some of the excavations for the mole itself.] At this terminal, passengers transferred to high speed electric—driven ferryboats, for a 15 minute voyage to San Francisco.

The entire commute took roughly the same time as BART trains do today: about half an hour from Oakland to San Francisco. But Smith's commuters had the opportunity to rush into the dining room of the ferry, where the experienced crew would dish out coffee and a legendary hash (the recipe lost, unfortunately), for 25 cents, something BART passengers cannot do.

When Smith built his quiet, swift, electric railway, he stole business from the Southern Pacific, long used to running California politics, and making a bundle at it. Edward Harriman, the New York mogul who controlled the SP, could not leave this challenge unanswered. He spent a vast amount of money at the time, electrifying the SP's commuter lines in the East Bay. Not merely up to the standards of what we today call 'light rail,' but a full scale 'heavy rail' system, with rolling stock built to the same standard used on Eastern trunk lines.

So the East Bay enjoyed two competing electric railway systems, complete with ferryboat fleets, vying to see who could provide faster and smoother transportation for commuters. In Berkeley, the two lines ran down the middle of Shattuck Avenue, four tracks of electrified railway running right next to each other. Today's BART subway follows the same route.

But it is in the quality of the real estate development that Smith undertook that we understand the character of he man. He took care to adapt his street system to the landscape, producing attractive curving streets, yielding magnificent views for home owners, and pleasing streetscapes to visitors. He employed fine architects and craftsmen to build his housing. And he understood that the creation of a new community meant provision of sites for churches, shopping, community facilities, and other necessary conveniences which would be convenient to walk to.

The neighborhoods developed by Smith and his associates remain some of the most attractive in America. Their only rivals, in fact, are found in the River Oaks section of Houston and the Country Club Plaza district in Kansas City, where similarly enlightened designers and developers took advantage of the possibilities of new materials and new transit technologies (including the automobile) at roughly the same time.

Smith's legacy has been commemorated with a brand new mural near one of his transit terminals, on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. The San Francisco Chronicle runs a story  today on it, complete with a picture of the mural, which features a Key System train. In the spirit of capitalist adventurer Smith, the mural's artist, Rocky Baird, sold 'passengership' in the mural to patrons: for $500, their faces could be seen peering from the windows of the Key System train. I like it, and I would wager that Smith would, too.