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Article: East Bay Yesterday: The History of the Key System

The Western Railway Museum in Suisun City offers rides aboard a restored Key System streetcar.

East Bay Yesterday: The History of the Key System

We're excited to announce another collaboration with East Bay Yesterday, a local history podcast and KPFA radio show based in Oakland. The podcast delves into Oakland's past, aiming to learn from it and shape a better future.

Liam O'Donoghue, the show's producer for the last seven years, believes that the stories and legacies of those who came before us may serve as both cautionary tales and inspiration for future solutions.

Recently O'Donoghue explored the history of the Key System which he believes holds many important lessons for creating a more transit-friendly future. Long before the existence of BART, AC Transit or even the Bay Bridge, the Key System connected the Bay Area through a network of electric streetcars and ferries. At its height, during the 1940s, the Key System boasted over 66 miles of track. 

The Key System was quick and convenient and Oakland commuters depended on its trolleys for local transportation for over six decades. The trolleys were clean, easy to use, and could even cross the Bay via tracks on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge.

Unfortunately, various factors, such as the growing popularity of cars and concerted efforts to control ground transportation networks by General Motors, Firestone, Standard Oil, and other companies led to the demise of many electric streetcars and interurban railways throughout the U.S.A. Oakland's Key System streetcars were discontinued in 1948, and the commuter trains to San Francisco were halted in 1958.

AC Transit and BART eventually filled the void, but public transportation remains challenging throughout the Bay Area. Problems with traffic, parking, and pedestrian safety are constantly in the headlines. 

This limited edition drop honors the Bay Area’s earliest public transportation system and long legacy of mass transit, with a new line of shirts and hats featuring a riff on the iconic Key System “flying key” logo. A version of this logo, created in 1925, was emblazoned on all the electric streetcars. 

O'Donoghue is eager to contribute to the solution by emphasizing the importance of public education in improving Bay Area public transit. He believes this collaboration will help raise awareness about this crucial issue. O'Donoghue hopes these shirts and hats will spark conversations about public transit in Oakland's streets.

Many resources are available to learn more about the Key System's history. The Oakland History Center has several books and files, and the Western Railway Museum is home to an extensive materials archive. The Oakland Heritage Alliance also hosts a Key System walking tour.

O'Donoghue produced a podcast featuring stories from elders who remember riding the rails back in the day - the episode dropped on July 28th. We hope you'll check it out. 

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