Vernon J. Sappers, born in 1917, was a pro­lific col­lector of all things relating to the Key System, the beloved San Fran­cisco Bay Area mode of trans­portation of long ago. His col­lection con­tained not only amazing pic­tures, but names and dates from streetcar drivers to the political movers and shakers, including bankers and real estate spec­u­lators. Sappers passed away before his book was pub­lished and after his death, his pub­lisher decided to abandon the project. He left his col­lection, including his man­u­script, to the Bay Area Electric Railroad Asso­ci­ation. Thanks to those wise folks, it was pub­lished upon the organization’s 60th Anniversary in 2007.

What the heck am I doing, reviewing a heavy tome of the history of one of the early stars of East Bay trans­portation? Here are a few reasons: my kids are fourth gen­er­ation born in Oakland, the home of the Key System; one of my grand­mothers com­muted daily to The City (aka SF) on the Key System train across the SF Bay Bridge (she worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad); and I grew up riding the Key System buses every­where, from the Oakland hills to a thriving downtown.

What com­pelled me to actually read the book, when my train-​​crazy cousin Jim Warsher alerted me to its pub­li­cation, was a remem­bered con­ver­sation with my children after showing them a framed, black and white, 1920 map of the East Bay, pub­lished by Suhr & Wieboldt, Funeral Directors. I had given the map to my father, who like my cousin, was also a train buff. The kids first began looking for street names they could rec­ognize. They mar­veled at the amount of open space and then turning back to the city streets of Oakland, Piedmont and Berkeley, almost said in unison, What are all these dark lines all over the place? I looked closely and answered, Those are train tracks.  Again, almost in unison, You mean like electric trains? But they’re all over! I answered, Yes, and yes. They wanted to know what hap­pened to the trains, and why?

What fol­lowed was a great dis­cussion about the loss of a trans­portation system that seemed to them even better than present day BART or AC Transit. So, to all those railroad and streetcar his­to­rians and afi­cionados, I apol­ogize for a laywoman’s review of such a won­derful book. In today’s economy, the subject of public trans­portation is again of keen interest. Light rails are back and a high-​​speed train from the Bay Area to L.A. is now on the drawing board.

Key System Streetcars is more than a ter­rific coffee table book. It is that rare history book which, because of its enormous and sharp pho­to­graphic content, and its lively and well laid out text, brings the past and present together in sur­prising ways. As we read of real estate booms in the early part of the 20th century and the need for trans­portation to serve new res­i­dents, we are reminded of history’s repet­itive nature.

Sappers has given us more than a nos­talgic look back at an industry that brought about change and vitality to the Bay Area; and believe me, nos­talgia abounds in this book, but its greatest strength is the story of pos­si­bility. Tracks change, streetcars are mod­ified, own­ership is con­sol­i­dated or made public. Real estate devel­opers are still with us, the trans­portation special interests con­tinue to wield their power, and our need to get from one place to another, effi­ciently and effec­tively, has not lessened. The Bay Area’s land­scape will change as a result of what we build to live in, work at and travel on. Let’s hope that when our time comes to publish a history of today’s trans­portation system, we have an his­torian with Sappers’ gift to lov­ingly create a window to the past while at the same time giving us a view to the future.

  • Anonymous

    Child is just starting to find that they can rec­ognize the street name. Their sur­prise, the amount of free space, and then return to the streets of Auckland.

    Table Pad Company

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