(UPDATED May 17, 2007)
If you happen to be driving east along Highway 50 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, keep an eye out as you approach the town of South Lake Tahoe. Look carefully to your left a few yards before the entrance to the local airport and you may catch a glimpse of an improbable sight: a faded fleet of decomissioned San Francisco streetcars resting in the high alpine snowdrifts almost 200 miles from the city where they once carried passengers.
How did these streetcars end up so far from home? The story turns out to be an only-in-California mixture of romantic fantasy and radical idealism, and it begins during the early 1980s, when Muni, San Francisco's public transit agency, decided to retire the last of it's streamlined "Presidents' Conference Committee" streetcars.
The Wikipedia summarizes the origins of the distinctive PCC:
The unusual name comes from the fact that the car was designed by a committee, formed in 1929, representing various electric street railways. The Electric Railway Presidents' Conference Committee, or ERPCC, was tasked with producing a new type of streetcar that would help fend off competition from automobiles. The committee produced a high-performance design that was commonly used in the following decades. The cars were popular because of their distinctive streamlined design and smooth acceleration.
PCC streetcars were manufactured from 1936 to 1952, and ultimately almost 5000 were built. San Francisco operated a fleet purchased during the 1940s, but four decades later, the cars were worn and tired, and they looked ridiculous when painted in Muni's Disco-era "rainbow" livery. By 1982, Muni had acquired a modern fleet of "Light Rail Vehicles" from Boeing, the last of San Francisco's PCCs was finally removed from service, and a few of the old streetcars were sold off to the highest bidder.
The highest bidder turned out to be a man named Gunnar Henrioulle.
Telstar Logistics has not interviewed Mr. Henrioulle, but one former Sacramento transit worker calls him as "a railfan who has had a dream of starting a solar powered streetcar line in Lake Tahoe for many years." Our source says Mr. Henrioulle acquired about 20 cars from Muni when they came out of service in late 1982, and he described Mr. Henrioulle as being "a few fries short of a Happy Meal." (We think this was meant as a compliment. Sort of.)
A review of some of Mr. Henrioulle recent writings suggests that he is a lifelong train enthusiast, devoted public transit advocate, Peak Oil neo-millenialist, and occasional candidate for local political office. He uses all-caps for emphasis in some sentences, such as when he asserts that "railways in the US are of IMMENSE INTRINSIC VALUE." His mini-autobiography reads as follows:
My hands on steam engine credentials are limited to some work with Hal Wilmunder's Antelope & Western in 1960. On a dare, I stole a ride on SP 4460 from Palo Alto to 3rd & Townsend in July 1957. Only cab ride on big steam at speed. Got in trouble...After that I was with CalDWR- Water Resources. Then Aviation Maintenance, Pupil Transportation, and some railway experience, passed the Railway Rules Test (GCOR) and am presently working on rail transportation planning issues on the US50 Corridor between Sacramento, CA and Reno NV. Please see "Tahoe Valley Lines Mission Statement" in MASS TRANSIT MAGAZINE, 11-04, P.70. (Cygnus Publications). Former member High Speed Rail Association, American Public Transit Association.
There's an official-looking sign on the fence of Mr. Henrioulle's alpine streetcar salvage yard that depicts the logo for a transportation company called Tahoe Valley Lines. In 2004, Mr. Henrioulle wrote a desciption of his plans for the proposed railway:
In South Lake Tahoe, Ca., TAHOE VALLEY LINES is proposing to use a dozen rehabbed electric PCC Trolley Cars, circa 1945, to form the basis of a sustainable energy (solar & Hydro) public transit system. The track route would link the Airport (TVL) users, such as Virgin Atlantic (one possible airline) with resorts at Stateline, NV., and waterborne service on big blue Lake Tahoe.
The system route would be engineered to be part of a future electric railway along the American River corridor from Sacramento/Placerville, which would run on to Carson Valley & Reno, NV. The railway would junction near Strawberry Lodge, with the Lake Tahoe Line running thru a five-mile tunnel to the Tahoe Valley floor, with the main passenger/freight route using a 15+ mile bore to access the Carson Valley near Genoa, NV. This is compatible with existing demographics, not to mention projected growth.
The intercity railway will gain momentum with the inexorable constricting of surface transport with the onset of peaking oil, and the necessity to move more freight trans-Sierra via rail, as well as the growth in passenger numbers. The existing Sierra rail crossings will be inadequate to meet the growth in traffic, and are slow running as well. The 1869 & 1909 rail line capacity will be severely strained as the effects of oil depletion take hold, and shall prove inadequate; hence the US50/American River (HydroPower at hand) rail crossing is requisite.
This brings us more or less to the present day. While the exact status of Mr. Henrioulle's plan remains unknown, we assume it remains little changed and perpetually ongoing. To increase liquidity, he recently sold four PCC cars back to San Francisco for use on the city's restored F Market line, while San Diego acquired two in January 2006. The rest of the cars are still in the yard, and one of them, former San Francisco Muni streetcar No. 1127, can be photographed without trespassing significantly upon Mr. Henrioulle's property.
Here's No. 1127 as it looked in 1970:
Here's how it looked last week:
Only Gunnar Henrioulle knows what it might look like tomorrow.
UPDATE. MAY 17, 2007:
In the spring of 2007, Gunnar Henrioulle sold off much of his PCC streetcar fleet. For the complete details, read our more recent post: Lost Streetcars of Lake Tahoe to Become Diners and Sushi Bars in Missouri
One of our operatives received permission to photograph the Tahoe Valley Lines fleet during a full moon in May 2006. Check out Joe Reifer's amazing night photos.
(Contemporary photos above by Telstar Logistics)