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Key System Streetcars

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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.

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