San Diego — All aboard! Quest to restore historic San Diego streetcars gives local antique dealer chance to give back, beat cancer.
Precious pieces of San Diego’s history sit motionless, carefully covered by gigantic grey tarpaulins, hidden among yachts in a local storage yard.
These tattered tarps do not cover any boat. Rather, they protect the last three surviving streetcars from the 1915 Panama California Exposition in Balboa Park.
Once uncovered, the magic begins. Peering through the wavy, hand-blown glass windows feels like looking through time. A conductor’s thunderous voice announcing, “All aboard!” almost echoes through the expansive Arts & Crafts era cherry wood interior.
One question lingers . . . how did these streetcars get here?
Sixteen years ago, an unassuming antique dealer visited a local community street fair. There, Christian Chaffee overheard a group soliciting to “please help save the old streetcars.” Intrigued by this message, Chaffee visited the Peach Avenue property, in El Cajon, where he was told the streetcars resided. All he found was a house. Disappointed, he approached the dwelling to knock on the door. An elderly woman with a wide smile greeted Chaffee and invited him in. As he crossed the threshold, he noticed the subtlety-arched ceiling. His disappointment dissolved into enchantment. The house was the “streetcars needing saving.”
The owner, an elderly widow, explained how she and her husband had loved living in the “old coaches” ever since they were married in 1939. After her husband passed away, the property upkeep had become burdensome. She needed to sell the property, but the buyer planned to charge her $30,000 to remove the streetcars. She desperately wanted to find a new home for her “old coaches.” Recalling the streetcar inside The Old Spaghetti Factory, Chaffee agreed to her request, thinking these cars could be used in a heritage-style restaurant. The owner was overjoyed. The three cars found a new loving, patron, sparing them from destruction.
Ironically, one week after Chaffee purchased the wooden streetcar bodies, representatives from the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine arrived to make a $25,000 offer. Chaffee said no. These treasures belonged in San Diego. Impressed by the high-profile interest, he immediately investigated the streetcars’ story.
The “old coaches” have a colorful past.
In 1910, sugar magnate, John D. Spreckels, and his San Diego Electric Railway Company, developed a unique fleet of special streetcars – the Class 1s – that could handle the large crowds anticipated for the Panama California Exposition. The local climate disqualified importing existing, “all-weather” streetcar designs. Spreckels envisioned a custom vehicle that would take full advantage of San Diego’s renowned weather. Spreckels’ plans took elements from the open-air, “California Car” and the “Closed Car” designs and refashioned them into a new, San Diego hybrid.
Half the streetcar is enclosed with wood and operable glass windows, while the other half is open air – retaining the overhead wood canopy, but replacing the glass windows with pull-down shades. Sitting in the open end is like being on your front porch. Like your front porch, the protected indoors are only a few steps away; unlike your front porch, this one moves.
Following the 1915 Exposition, the Class 1s provided continuing public transportation across the city for the next twenty-four years. The streetcars were “retired” in 1939 and replaced by the “PCC” era trains. Today, only three of the original twenty-four Class 1 streetcars remain. They sit patiently in the boat yard, waiting for another chance to serve San Diegans.
After painstakingly removing the streetcars from the property, including raking the ground for every last nut and bolt, Chaffee was unsure of his next move.
In 1999, three years after recovering the streetcars, Chaffee found himself recovering, from the worst news of his life: a terminal cancer diagnosis. Not knowing whether he would live another year, the antique dealer yearned to make his life “count” for something. He realized that restoring the streetcars could be his legacy to San Diego. Thus began his tireless quest to “save the streetcars” in earnest.
Christian Chaffee is a living, breathing, “Antiques Roadshow” marathon. One moment he extols the virtues of a Ming Dynasty bronze; next, he casually catalogues his extensive Samurai sword collection. His encyclopedic knowledge of ancient artifacts is amazing. Only a person with his acute sensitivity to the past could have fully imagined what the dilapidated streetcars could become.
Chaffee and his craftsmen worked meticulously to identify the streetcars’ original appearance. Like peeling layers of an onion, his team carefully removed countless coats of paint with heat guns. Their effort paid off; they discovered the original colors and handcrafted details. Gradually, Chaffee was able to re-assemble the giant 3D puzzle piece by piece, occasionally “pirating” parts from the two other cars. Eventually, car #138 was reborn, going from “chicken coup” to shiny streetcar.
A funny thing happened.
Restoring the streetcar restored Chaffee’s health. Since having a tumor removed in 2004, Chaffee is cancer-free. With a new lease on life, he now focuses on getting the streetcars riding atop rails again.
Chaffee established a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization – San Diego Historic Streetcars – aimed at raising the $5M needed to bring these jewels back to life. That sum includes:
- restoring the streetcar bodies with new, battery-powered propulsion units, allowing the cars to operate without the need for costly overhead electric cables.
- the installation and removal of temporary “Snap Track” rails.
The group envisions carrying passengers along a ¾ mile scenic route through Balboa Park for the fast-approaching Centennial celebration. Time is of the essence. The restoration work must begin by August, to ensure delivery of the operable streetcars by January 1, 2015.
What better way to celebrate the legacy of that coming-out party a century ago than by restoring and riding the remaining three streetcars for the 100-year anniversary? Surely, this is one cause that all lovers of San Diego can enthusiastically support. If every resident contributes $4 – one Starbucks coffee – these one of a kind streetcars can reclaim their rightful place carrying riders of all ages through the park . . . and beyond.
How many times have you heard, “once in a lifetime” overused in some shrill advertisement? Unlike those empty solicitations, getting these three historic streetcars back on the rails in time for the 2015 Centennial is literally a once in a lifetime opportunity. What better way to launch San Diego into the future than by hitching a ride aboard her storied past?
For more information and ways to contribute, please visit the San Diego Historic Streetcars website.
Photo by Bill Adams