Electric trolleys were the main public transportation in San Jose between 1880 and 1938. These streetcars operated on nearly 130 miles of track throughout Santa Clara Valley. Automobiles were too expensive to be widely owned, so many San Jose residents used trolleys to travel around town and into the countryside, with tracks extending as far as Los Gatos, Saratoga, Alum Rock Park and Palo Alto.
The California Trolley and Railroad Corporation began its Historical Restoration Project in 1982 to restore six vintage streetcars. The Trolley Barn was built in 1984 in the style of trolley buildings of the early 1900s as a place to restore and display these streetcars. By 1988 the first restored trolleys were being used for public transportation in downtown San Jose, where they continue to operate today.
Tracks from the barn extend the length of Kelley Park to Happy Hollow Park and Zoo, and free streetcar rides are available to the public on weekends.
The Trolley Barn and trolleys are featured in the Historic Transportation Experience School Program.
The Trolley Barn is a joint project with the California Trolley & Railroad Corporation. Visit their website for a history of the trolley restoration project at History Park, as well as background on the trolleys in operation at the Park today.
View archival images of trolleys operating in Santa Clara Valley from History San José’s Collection.
History of Trolley Service
In 1868 Samuel Addison Bishop and his partners built the West’s first horsecar railroad which ran between San Jose and the mission town of Santa Clara. Cars were pulled along a line by horse over 4 1/2 miles of narrow gauge tracks. The horsecar railroad ran from San Jose Coyote Creek Bridge on Santa Clara Street to the Fredericksburg Brewery at the corner of Cinnabar and the Alameda, and from there to the town of Santa Clara.
Fares of ten cents were very popular from the beginning, and did away with the expensive and inconvenient stagecoach run. In 1871 Bishop acquired a second line which carried passengers from the train station in San Jose near San Pedro Street south to a terminus near Martha and Bestor Streets. Trains linked San Francisco to San Jose in 1864. Other horse-drawn lines were franchised. One ran from Market Street in San Jose to Lincoln Avenue in Willow Glen, a scenic route outside of the then City limits.
Jacob Rich built a parallel line on Santa Clara Street in competition to Bishop’s line in 1878. At the height of competition, trolleys left San Jose for Santa Clara every 7 1/2 minutes. After years in a court battle for franchise rights, the decision was made to merge both franchises and upgrade to electric trolleys. 1901 saw the last of the horse-drawn trolleys in San Jose.
Bishop and Rich’s first line carrying electric power was underground. This decision satisfied the safety-conscious City Council. However, this design was unsuccessful — mud and leaves fell into the conduit slot and blocked power. Pedestrians had the habit of poking metal umbrella handles into the slot, which shorted the system, and stopped all trolleys on line. Bishop and Rich sold their trolley interests to ex-banker James Henry who successfully put power lines over the street on poles.
In 1903 James Rea (a Gilroy dairyman and real estate agent), F. L. Granger (a Santa Cruz railway promoter), and D. A. Hale (a San Jose department store owner) successfully raised $500,000 in construction bonds. The San Jose-Los Gatos Interurban Line, started in 1904, originated at Market & Bassett Streets in San Jose and terminated opposite the Hotel Lyndon in Saratoga.
1938 saw the end of the trolley era. Tracks were torn up, and trolleys scrapped, sold or even used for housing.
San Jose and Peninsular Railroads ran on 126 miles of track from Palo Alto to Monte Vista near Cupertino, to Alum Rock Park in San Jose and to Los Gatos and Santa Clara, linking the towns of Los Gatos, Saratoga and Campbell to San Jose. Interurban lines crossed the Southern Pacific line in Los Gatos. Passengers could transfer lines and continue their trip to San Francisco or other destinations of the Southern Pacific line.
Special service trolleys were called flyers. Customers could board trolleys in Saratoga and arrive in San Jose in thirty minutes. In the spring the special Blossom Trolley ran along a 65-mile excursion through the Santa Clara Valley viewing the apricot, peach and pear blossoms for 35 cents. This was done in the luxury of the latest red trolley car with 52 plush seats, stained glass windows trimmed in gold leaf, and interiors finished in cherry wood.
Fares on regular trolleys started at five cents then increased to ten cents or metal tokens at a cost of 3 for twenty five cents. Tracks were laid in the middle of the streets in town at ground level, inside of road. Outside of town, tracks were raised like railroad tracks. Signs were hung on hooks on the outside of the trolleys to indicate the destinations.