Before there was AC Transit or BART, there was the Key System. A privately-owned mass transit company that operated electric railcars, street cars, and ferries, the Key System linked ten East Bay cities and San Francisco.
It started in 1903, and quickly replaced horse-drawn carriages and stream trains as ways to travel between cities in the area. The Key System also built parks and hotels to encourage weekend travel on its trains–the Claremont Hotel is the most famous example.
The system began to decline after World War II, and the remaining lines were bought in 1958 by Alameda and Contra Costa counties’ new public AC Transit system. But local historians say the Key System modernized the East Bay, and made it a better place to live.
For a great book about the Key System, check out The Key System: San Francisco and the Eastshore Empire.
This promotional video was produced by the Key System in 1945. It tells the history of Northern California from the Spanish Mission days to the unveiling of the Bay Bridge, and it’s a great example of the “March of Progress” style of advertising.