Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What a mural can tell us about our glorious past

Our glorious past / A mural depicts the famous Key System
electric trains that connected Oakland and San Francisco.

There are many colorful, vivid and fascinating murals that dot the urban landscape in my Oakland neighborhood. While some of them are reminders of the glorious past history of this East Bay city situated across the bay from San Francisco, in particular, one of them depicts the famous Key System electric trains.

Believe me, there's plenty we can learn from studying a single, neo-WPA mural.

The Key Route Plaza mural, a 23-by-14-foot colorful and historic mural created by local artist Rocky Baird in 2005, tells a story about a bygone era of transportation that once connected Oakland and San Francisco, two major northern California cities on opposite sides of San Francisco Bay.

The Key System electric trolley car company established its first transit depot at Key Route Plaza, at the corner of Piedmont Avenue and 41st Street in Oakland, in 1904. The orange and silver train depicted in the mural that is located on what formerly was part of the transit depot is Car No. 159 on the C-Line which, according to a historic plaque, made its final departure from Piedmont Station on April 19, 1958 at 6:45 p.m.

The quixotic creator of the Key Route, Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, is a larger-than-life giant figure shown in the mural. He was a Nevada mining magnate who made his fortune in borax before he lost much of it in transit. The key that he is holding "has three rings at its handle to symbolize three lines to Berkeley, Oakland and Piedmont. The long stem represents the Key Pier, which carried trains about three miles over the bay, and the teeth represent the ferry slip," wrote Sam Whiting in a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle article.

At its height during the 1940s, the Key System had over 66 miles of track and serviced the hills and dales of Oakland and Berkeley as well as other East Bay cities like Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, San Leandro, El Cerrito, Richmond and Albany.

A historic plaque at the site of Key Route Plaza.

According to the commemorative plaque at Key Route Plaza, back in 1939 it took the streamlined trains 27 minutes to travel from Oakland's Piedmont Station over the Bay Bridge to the First and Mission Station in "The City." Not bad considering that in 2014 it still takes 20 minutes to travel by light rail transit on BART from MacArthur Station in Oakland to Embarcadero Station in San Francisco.

The Key Route Plaza mural is filled with other symbolism, too. There are sections of the mural in which we see figures representing the Black Power and Women's Suffrage movements as well as a link to U.S. military might and our need for petroleum.

According to the artist, who was interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle about the mural, "the mural took two months of research and three months of painting." At a cost of $5,000 to create, Baird sold off the window seats in the train at $500 each to help raise funds.

Today, half of the depot sits idle while it awaits refurbishing into a cafe, while the other half has morphed into a popular municipal parking lot, which tells the fate of a train system that was displaced by the rise and popularity of the automobile.

To learn more about the history of the Key System: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Key_System

To read more about the history of Oakland's electric trains: http://www.oaklandmagazine.com/Oakland-Magazine/January-2008/When-Trains-Ruled-the-East-Bay/

Photos by Michael Dickens ©2014.

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