ANTIQUES DEALER CHRISTIAN CHAFFEE is a man filled with desire for three vintage streetcars that once clanged along San Diego’s streets.
But he’s running out of time to get the yellow trolleys operating again to coincide with festivities marking the centennial of the Panama-California Exposition held in Balboa Park.
He’s hoping to have the cars, designated by the city as historic properties, restored and running on a demonstration line weaving along a temporary three-quarters of a mile right-of-way in Balboa Park by Jan. 1, 2015. Projected cost: $5 million.
In 1996, Chaffee saved the cars, which had been transformed into an El Cajon home, from the wrecking yard. The cars last ran on city streets in 1939.
“I’ve had 16 years to think about this,” says Chaffee, who sees an updated fleet of the cars returning to city streets. It’s not a pipe dream. Transit planners are considering bringing streetcars back to in-town neighborhoods.
But there’s a catch, as always. San Diego already has a vintage trolley running several days a week on a downtown loop that is operated by the Metropolitan Transit System. It shares trackage with the familiar San Diego Trolley.
But that car — and five others in the MTS car barn — does not hold the pedigree that is Chaffee’s ace up the sleeve. His cars were designed specifically for San Diego and were commissioned by entrepreneur John D. Spreckels for his San Diego Electric Railway Co. They arrived here just before the onset of World War I. Sleeker in design, but more utilitarian, the cars operated over MTS tracks are “imports’ from other cities, although they are similar to trolleys that once ran here.
Chaffee has run into a governmental maze to get his cars running, ranging from local planning groups to MTS, Caltrans and SANDAG. He’s poured personal funds into the effort, and has set up a nonprofit, San Diego Historic Streetcars, to push the idea. His cars make sense, he says, because of their accessibility with doors on each side, and controls to operate them at each end, eliminating the need to turn them around. And there’s the ambience, evoking an Arts & Crafts style with polished cherry wood, signal buttons embedded in mother of pearl and solid-bronze hardware.
“What you have here are three little cars that somehow survived. They need to be appreciated and taken care of,” says long-time San Diego journalist Welton Jones, who is working with Chaffee (a 2012 recipient of SOHO’s People in Preservation awards) on his goal to bring back a bit of the city’s history.
San Diego Life: By Carl Larsen Photography by Mark Briej