Did you know Chico used to have a dedicated streetcar line? Called the Chico Electric Railway, the first trolley began its maiden run in town just after Christmas in 1904. From there it eventually expanded with service stretching all the way down to San Francisco.
In 1904, local business giant Diamond Match Co. needed a way to efficiently move its workers around Chico. A special trolley line was created to run them from the downtown commercial center up to the plant on West 16th Street.
After only a year in operation, the Chico Electric Railway was purchased by the Northern Electric Railway. The lines from Chico to Oroville were connected with the goal of creating an interurban railway all the way down to Sacramento. In 1906, the dream was realized and Chico residents could travel in luxury in “parlor cars” or in regular cars all the way down to the big city. And in 1916, a trolley named “Bidwell” was the first to head to San Francisco. Despite the popularity of this mode of transportation, Northern Electric filed for bankruptcy in 1918 and the system was auctioned off to Sacramento Northern Railroad Co.
When running in town, the streetcars were powered by overhead electric lines and operated at a sedate of 15 mph. But once they hit the countryside, the trolleys picked up a third rail which powered them to speeds from 50-60 mph. Originally painted orange, the color was updated to green after Sacramento Northern Railroad Co. purchased it.
With the expansion of the local trolley line to an interurban system, a new train depot was built. Called “Mulberry Shops,” the service depot was on Park and 20th Streets (Mulberry Station Brewing Company is one of the businesses located in the old depot station!) The trains had a significant impact on the local economy since they created industrial jobs for residents. With this increase in income from non-agricultural work, families prospered and invested more money in Chico’s economy.
During its history, multiple streetcar lines were built in order to drive the flow of commuters toward businesses, the downtown core, and industrial plants. This affected everything from the flow of traffic to the layout of the city and set the stage for Chico’s present conditions. For example, Main Street had to be large enough to accommodate two streetcar tracks, while Park Ave only had a single track.
The interurban train system unraveled in the reverse order in which it was built. With post-depression ridership down, Sacramento Northern Railroad discontinued service from Sacramento to Chico on Halloween in 1940. However, the trolley service in Chico survived for seven more years, clad in cheery yellow paint with numbered names like “Birney 60.” The last streetcar seen in Chico had its final run on December 15, 1947, and the electric lines were taken down in 1951. While regular freight trains continued to run, this marked the end of the trolley transportation era.
There are very few reminders in Chico of this one-essential streetcar service. Many of the old tracks have been paved over and exist today as bike paths, like the ones on Main Street, Park Ave, and the Esplanade. As for the streetcars themselves, Birney 62 is the sole survivor of this era, and is spending its retirement in the Western Railway Museum in Suisun City. Most of the locals who can remember riding the rails for a nickel fare are long gone, making it important to keep the memory of these unique streetcars alive.
To see photographs and more, head over to the Chico Heritage Association’s site here: https://chicoheritage.net