Forgotten Trains of the Bay Area: The Key System

Before there was AC Transit or BART, there was the Key System. A privately-owned mass transit company that operated electric railcars, street cars, and ferries, the Key System linked ten East Bay cities and San Francisco, and it shaped the development of this area.

It started in 1903, and quickly replaced horse-drawn carriages and stream trains as ways to travel between cities in the area. The Key System also built parks and hotels to encourage weekend travel on its trains–the Claremont Hotel is the most famous example.

The system began to decline after World War II, and the remaining lines were bought in 1958 by Alameda and Contra Costa counties’ new public AC Transit system. But local historians say the Key System modernized the East Bay, and made it a better place to live.

The promotional video below was produced by the Key System in 1945. It tells the history of Northern California from the Spanish Mission days to the unveiling of the Bay Bridge, and it’s a great example of the “March of Progress” style of advertising.

Lead image of Key System train #271 via JackSnell707 on  Flickr.

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  1. Jacob Wang

    “the Key System linked ten East Bay cities and San Francisco”: Which 10 cities?

  2. Matt Cotterill

    Wow, great stuff! Fascinating step back in time – thanks!

  3. Bob Ward

    There is a wonderful Key System book that is incredibly detailed:

    Key System Streetcars – Transit, Real Estate and the Growth of the East Bay, by Vernon J. Sappers pub. Signature Press

    pictures, maps, history…just fabulous

  4. Bob Towar

    Key System operated numerous local streetcar routes as well as six interurban train routes with direct service to San Francisco from east bay neighborhoods. The transbay routes converged at a ferry terminal which was used from 1903 to 1939. Trains ran on a double track railway on the bay bridge lower deck until 1958. The Key System was sold to National City Lines in 1946. This company began methodically eliminating street car routes in favor of buses. The last local streetcars were discontinued in November 1948; bay bridge trains from five remaining routes continued until April 1958. Electric passenger trains were also operated by Southern Pacific and Sacramento Northern in the east bay. However, those two companies abandoned service in 1941. Visit the Western Railway Museum on route 12 in Solano county to see operating streetcars and trains of this era. The museum is an excellent facility.

  5. Chris Gardner

    This was a wonderful find for me during my genealogy search. My daughter’s paternal great-grandfather worked for Key System for 50 years. I have a photo of Superintendent Alfred J Lundberg presenting 50 year pins to him and 2 other employees. Imagine working anywhere these days for 50 years! A great bit of history to have found. Thanks.

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