Santa Barbara had a mule car system from 1875 until 1897 when conversion to electric streetcars took place. This system operated until 1929 when it shut down to make way for the automobile age. Both systems were basically safe, although accidents did occasionally occur. The worst one took place in 1904.
Accidents on the mule lines were quite rare primarily because the cars moved so slowly. One accident occured in September 1883, when the brakes failed on a car moving down State Street near Figueroa Street. Several passengers leaped off before the car left the tracks and smashed into an awning post near Canon Perdido Street. No one was seriously hurt.
Conversion to electricity brought more frequent accidents due to higher speeds, an increase in traffic as the number of automobiles grew, and a greater chance of horses being frightened. Inexperienced drivers of the new-fangled autos added another layer of problems. Traffic flow without signals or stop signs could be haphazard at best. Maintenance of equipment could also be a problem.
The single fatal accident of the streetcar system occurred on April 10, 1904. The Old Mission was packed on that Easter Sunday. Late that morning the congregation poured out of the church and quickly filled the two waiting cars. Shortly after their departure, another car moved up Laguna Street to pick up more Easter celebrants.
Car No. 16 was fairly new to the system. It was a standard-gauge car fitted with a narrow-gauge truck to operate on Santa Barbara’s tracks. The company had purchased two of these large cars in anticipation of opening a new line from Santa Barbara to Carpinteria, a dream that never materialized.
The car had seating for 48; that morning over 120 crowded on board. No. 16 lurched forward with its seven-plus tons of humanity and started down Laguna heading for the right-hand curve at Mission Street.
It soon became apparent all was not well. No. 16 whizzed past its first stop just below the mission, as it picked up speed. The car barely made the turn at Mission Street as both driver and conductor frantically applied two separate sets of brakes. Ahead was the sharp turn at the intersection of Mission and Garden.
Passengers began to jump from the car, breaking bones upon impact. The driver, Victor Kelton, threw the motors in reverse in a vain attempt to slow the car. It leaped the tracks at Garden, toppled onto its right side, and sparks flying, slid across the pavement until smashing into an electric pole.
Rescuers ran down from the Mission and poured out of homes to help. They took to the car with a variety of cutting tools to rescue the passengers. Beneath the car were four people, crushed to death. A fifth victim would later die at the hospital. An additional 30 were injured, 17 of them seriously.
A broken brake casting caused a failure of the front brakes. As a result of the tragedy, these larger cars were no longer put on the steep Mission run, and system-wide schedule changes were implemented to induce speed reductions. No. 16 was repaired and put back to work on the Westside run. It was renumbered No. 19 in an attempt to fade the memory of the only fatal accident in the history of Santa Barbara’s streetcar systems.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Santa Barbara Independent, 122 West Figueroa Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101.