Key System streetcar heading west on 12th Street about to turn onto Broadway in Downtown Oakland, circa early 1940’s.

1945 Key System token.The Key System (1903–1960) was a privately-owned transit system serving Alameda and Contra Costa counties. It was established by local businessmen F.M. “Borax” Smith and Frank C. Havens, who also ran the Realty Syndicate, a major property developer in early Oakland. In short, the same folks building new developments on the edges of town were also building the transit infrastructure to take people to those areas (less accessible in the pre-automobile era).

Ferry slips on the Key System MoleThe name is based in part on the shape of the ferry slips on the old Key System Mole. On a stylized map first issued in 1903, the system’s routes were drawn to resemble an old-fashioned key, including a three-looped handle covering Berkeley, Piedmont (or Piedmont/Claremont) and Oakland, a shaft in the form of the Mole, and teeth representing the ferry slips. Each of the systems’ routes was given a letter and a unique symbol, so riders could spot the correct train from a distance. Many of Oakland’s stairways and pathways were built to give people better access to the Key System lines.

It’s said that not only was the Key’s transbay commute about as fast as ours today on BART, it was a decidedly more upscale experience: one could buy a newspaper, order breakfast, the dining cars had silverware, linen tablecloths, fresh cut flowers, etc.). After the Key System mole burned in 1933 the system stopped using ferryboats, but starting in 1939 crossed the bay on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge.

Conspiracy theorists will be pleased to note there really was a conspiracy by GM, Firestone, Standard Oil and other companies that helped lead to the demise of electric streetcars and interurban railways around the U.S. But the Key System was also hurt by the popularity of the automobile and suburban movement which it allowed, and accumulated deferred maintenance. Buses began to replace the streetcars in time. With the rise of the automobile, its rolling stock of streetcars was retired and its buses were sold to AC Transit.

Timeline

  • 1890s - “Borax” Smith consolidates existing streetcar lines
  • 1902 - San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose Railway incorporated
  • 1903 - first streetcar runs, from Berkeley to the pier
  • 1908 - name changed to San Francisco, Oakland & San Jose Consolidated Railway
  • 1912 - name changed to San Francisco-Oakland Terminal Railway
  • 1923 - bankruptcy; reincorporated as the Key System Transit Company
  • 1933 - Key System mole damaged by fire
  • 1936 - Bay Bridge opens
  • 1937 - Key System supplements ferry service with buses
  • 1939 - Key System trains begin using lower deck of Bay Bridge, replacing ferries and buses
  • 1946 - National City Lines (front for GM, Firestone, et al.) buys 64% of stock
  • 1948 - local streetcars discontinued
  • 1949 - National City Lines, et al., convicted of conspiracy
  • 1958 - last train runs on April 20th on the transbay route
  • 1960 - remaining buses sold to AC Transit

Key System Map

1941 Key System Map of the East Bay electric trains (streetcar lines not pictured)

Key System and Rail Map, 1911

Origins

Before the Key System was created, there were numerous small transit systems around the East Bay. Some were horse-drawn, some were electric, but few of them worked together. Smith and Havens created the Key System by buying up these other transit systems and standardizing them so they could work as a single system.

One of the systems was the Oakland Transit Consolidated Company. It only lasted for two years by this name (1902-1904), then became the Oakland Traction Consolidated Company for a few years, and then became the Oakland Traction Company,

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