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Key System

key trolley group taken in piedmont park.JPG

The Realty Syndicate & the Key, 1897 - 1903

The American Cities and Technology Reader
Wilderness to Wired City By Gerrylynn K. Roberts, Open University · 1999

The Realty Syndicate not only installed the streets, sidewalks, and sewers, but also provided financing for home builders, an unusual practice available only to heavily capitalized firms. Land that was accessible to an electric railway, namely that owned by the Realty Syndicate, was usually the first choice of middle class families who depended on public transportation to Oakland to get the breadwinner to work. So important was real estate to Smith's overall money-making plans that in 1903 he created a commuter line called the Key System that was never intended to make money. Directly competitive with the Southern Pacific Railroad in the Bay Area, the Key System was instead designed to sell real estate in the manner of Smith's other ventures. Smith expected that the profits that the Realty Syndicate would earn on land would more than offset the operating losses of the transit system. In the words of one of Smith's senior executives: "The matter of operation or relations between the two companies (the Key System and the Realty Syndicate) has been very similar to the relation between two pockets in the same man's trousers.” 

SF Chronicle, March 22, 2014:

How ambitious Key transit network reached the end of the line

The Key System was the brainchild of a businessman named Francis Marion Smith, better known as Borax Smith, after the mineral that made his fortune. His genius was in recognizing where the Bay Area would be growing and how to get people who lived there to and from San Francisco.

...Smith and his partner, Frank C. Havens, created a company called the Realty Estate Syndicate, which acquired 13,000 acres of undeveloped land in the East Bay.

The firm built two large hotels, the Key Route Inn in 1907 at Broadway and West Grand Avenue in Oakland and, eight years later, the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley. Both were on Key Route train lines serving San Francisco. Realty Estate also built an amusement park, Idora Park, that opened in 1903 near 56th Street and Telegraph Avenue in Oakland.

...To gain a competitive advantage over his rival, Smith installed electric trains, which were cleaner, quieter and cheaper than steam. He also bought the wharves of a defunct railroad, which ran from the Oakland waterfront far out into the bay.

...The first Key System trains began running from downtown Berkeley to the Oakland pier in 1903. Smith's venture was an immediate success: Within a month, the 41 scheduled daily trips had to be expanded to 97.

Key System Streetcars: Transit, Real Estate and the Growth of the East Bay, Book by Vernon J. Sappers, 1990

The Realty Syndicate

Smith arrived in Oakland at a good time. Land was selling for $5 to $7 per front foot. All it really needed was public transportation and utilities, two amenities Smith intended to provide. Along with associates, Smith began buying thousands of acres of land and, on September 5, 1895, formed the Realty Syndicate Company with real estate speculator Frank C. Havens. Its offices were at 14 Sansome Street in San Francisco's financial district. Realty Syndicate's charter was broad. The company could engage in all forms of real estate investment and development, build railroads and wharves, and construct bridges, water companies and roads. It also was empowered to construct and operate vessels, including ferries. The company offered investment certificates called “Syndicate Sixes," which bore interest at six percent and matured in 10, 15 or 20 years.


At one point, the Realty Syndicate owned 13,000 acres of hill land between North Berkeley and San Leandro. The firm also had holdings in the flatter areas. Smith and his associates built two East Bay hotels, the Key Route Inn on Broadway at Grand Avenue (then 22nd Street) in Oakland, and the Claremont Hotel on Ashby Avenue in the hills on the Oakland- Berkeley boundary, at the end of a streetcar line and later a Key Route transbay electric train line.


Smith also was involved in the construction of the Claremont Country Club, Hotel Oakland and the bell tower at Mills College. He financed some of Oakland's first street paving projects, and built a boathouse on Lake Merritt. It was logical for Smith to become involved in the local transportation system, because transportation would increase the value of the real estate.

Once the land was sold and the new owners had residences constructed, there would be a built-in market for the streetcar line.


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Oakland Tribune - Wed - Oct. 26, 1904


San Francisco Chronicle - Fri - Jan. 1, 1904

The system was a consolidation of several smaller streetcar lines assembled in the late 1890s and early 1900s by Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, an entrepreneur who made a fortune in his namesake mineral, and then turned to real estate and electric traction. The Key System began as the "San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose Railway (SFOSJR)", incorporated in 1902. Service began on October 26, 1903 with a 4-car train carrying 250 passengers, departing downtown Berkeley for the ferry pier. Before the end of that same year, the general manager of the SFOSJR came up with the idea of using a stylized map on which the system's routes were laid out on the pattern of an old-fashioned key, with three "handle loops" that covered the East Bay cities of Berkeley, Piedmont (initially, "Claremont" shared the Piedmont loop) and Oakland, and a "shaft" in the form of the Key pier, the "teeth" representing the ferry berths at the end of the pier. The company touted its "key route", which eventually led to the company adopting the name "Key System".

In 1908, the SFOSJR changed its name to the San Francisco, Oakland & San Jose Consolidated Railway. This was again changed to the San Francisco-Oakland Terminal Railway in 1912. This incarnation of the Key system went bankrupt in December 1923, and was re-organized as the Key System Transit Co., transforming what had begun as a marketing buzzword into the name of the company.

Following the Great Crash of 1929, the name was changed yet again as part of another re-organization. A holding company called the Railway Equipment & Realty Co. was created, with the subsidiary Key System Ltd. running the commuter trains. In 1938, the name became simply the Key System.


The Key System's streetcars operated as a separate division under the name "Oakland Traction Company", later changed to "East Bay Street Railways. Ltd", and finally to "East Bay Transit Co.", reflecting the increasing use of buses.


One of the systems was the Oakland Transit Consolidated Company. It only lasted for two years by this name (1902-1904), then became the Oakland Traction Consolidated Company for a few years, and then became the Oakland Traction Company,

Key System streetcars, 1904 - 1960

C, 10, 11 and 12 lines in Piedmont

(Until the Bay Bridge railway began operation, Key commuter trains had no letter designation. They were named for the principal street or district they served.)

For an interactive map of the Key System - go here


The San Francisco Call - Thu - Jun. 2, 1904

Interview with Xavier's wife, Elsie Martinez:


When I was young, the business section of Oakland ran from Fourteenth Street down to the Bay where the nickel ferry awaited us to take us to San Francisco. To go to San Francisco took an hour but, if the ferry were stranded on a mudbank at low tide, the trip covered two hours. Then Havens Key Route replaced the nickel ferry and the Key Route Station just below us at Fortieth Street and Piedmont Avenue was the end of the line. The dedication of the Key Route was a memorable affair. The dedication plans included a request for our seventh and eighth grade classes to sing at the dedication. The mayor of Oakland, a couple of prominent businessmen, and the son of Frank C. Havens, who represented him, gave the proper official speeches on acquisition of the Key Route as a fabulous addition and a testimony to the amazing growth of Oakland. The applause for our singing had hardly died down than the first train rumbled into the station. With lusty cheers we pelted it with our now wilted flowers, brought for the occasion. Then the mayor, with a grand gesture, ushered us into the train for our promised reward, the first train trip to the ferry slip, aboard the boat and across the bay to San Francisco and back. You can imagine what a great event this was for us.

Before the Key Route was running, Frank C. Havens had given father a pass to walk out on the pier any time convenient to him.

I am quite sure it is seven miles from the beginning of the pier to the ferry slip. He had been out several times, then he took me with him — a great adventure. We walked on a couple of twelve inch boards between the tracks with the water rippling against the piles under our feet. When the tracks were finished, George Sterling, his nephew, had permission to use an old hand-car to take his friends out to the ferry slip for the picnics for which he and Carrie were famous.


Alameda Daily Argus - Sat - Nov. 12, 1904

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Oakland Tribune - Wed - Jun. 1, 1904

City of Piedmont Transportation doc:

Piedmont originated as a “streetcar suburb” of San Francisco and Oakland and was connected to the business districts of these cities by trolley and ferry even before the Bay Bridge was constructed. Shortly after the city incorporated, the B electric car line from Trestle Glen and the C line from 41st Street and Piedmont Avenue provided connections to the ferry terminal in West Oakland. In 1924, the C line was extended to the Piedmont rail terminus at Oakland Avenue and Latham Street. Following completion of the Bay Bridge in 1938, the Key System provided direct rail service on both lines to San Francisco.


The transbay streetcars were supplemented by a network of local streetcars serving Piedmont, Berkeley, Oakland, and Emeryville. Line 10 traversed Central Piedmont, originating near Hampton and Seaview, passing through the Civic Center and along Highland to Park Way, then descending to Grand (Pleasant Valley), and continuing down Piedmont Avenue to Broadway and Downtown Oakland. Line 12 originated at Jerome and Oakland Avenue, continued down Fairview Avenue to Grand, and followed Grand through Downtown to West Oakland. Line 18 originated near Mandana Avenue, extending down WalaVista to the top of Lakeshore, then to Downtown Oakland before looping back up Park Boulevard to Leimert. Line 11 originated at Piedmont Avenue and Linda, following Linda to Oakland Avenue, continuing to downtown Oakland, then out East 14th Street to Fruitvale. Transit ridership declined as automobile ownership increased and the freeway system was constructed. The local streetcar lines were replaced by buses after World War II, with the right-of-way converted to other uses (including parks and private homes in a few cases). The transbay trains to Piedmont stopped running in 1958; transbay buses were substituted along their approximate routes.

No. 10 Line,  1895 - 1948

No. 10
10 line map 2.jpeg

Map from:
Key System Streetcars: Transit, Real Estate and the

Growth of the East Bay, Book by Vernon J. Sappers, 1990

Key System Streetcars: Transit, Real Estate and the Growth of the East Bay,

Book by Vernon J. Sappers, 1990:


No. 10 Line —

Piedmont Avenue & Hopkins Street Line

Horse car and cable traction on this route preceded electrification, which came in 1895. When Oakland Transit absorbed the independent Piedmont & Mountain View in 1898, the new company began to standard-gauge the line in 1902 from Mountain View Cemetery at the head of Piedmont Avenue, working south toward downtown Oakland. The massive, cast-in-place, “Isaacs Concrete Road Bed” made con-version difficult, costly and slow. Shortly after the rails were relaid the line was extended from Pleasant Valley Avenue up a new private right- of-way to Highland Avenue and then to Crocker Avenue. This line had the most private right-of- way of any line and a garden-like setting.


Feb. 13, 1912...... Average 10-minute morning and evening headway maintained.

Feb. 11, 1917 ......... Some new 700-series cars used all day.

Dec. 9, 1917........... Piedmont Park trippers discontinued.

Jan. 15, 1918 ......... Cemetery branch service abandoned due to World War I.

May 29-30, 1919.... Special cemetery schedule and trippers for Memorial Day.

Apr. 2, 1921............ Double track beyond Piedmont Park in use.

May 16, 1921.......... Cemetery branch car put on again.

Nov. 2, 1924............ Service started on Key Division from Piedmont Station to Pleasant Valley Junction (joint trackage).

Oct. 15, 1925.......... Piedmont and Hopkins (later MacArthur Boulevard) lines consolidated.

Nov. 20, 1925......... New feeder on Hopkins near Altenheim hill triples power available.

June 4, 1928.......... Line designation changed from A to No. 10.

Jan. 20, 1929 ..........Change to one-man nights and Sundays.

Apr. 1, 1929............ Change from 900 equipment to 700s. 900s put on Park Boulevard-Lakeshore line.

June 9, 1929 .......... One-man operation all day, except trippers during morning and afternoon peaks.

Mar. 24, 1930 ......... 100% one-man operation.

Mar. 22, 1941........ Cars rerouted from 12th Street to operate both ways on 13th in downtown Oakland.

On September 26, 1943, the Piedmont and Hopkins lines were separated on order of the Office of Defense Transportation. The No. 10 Piedmont line looped off Broadway via 9th, Franklin and 8th. The Hopkins line was re-designated No. 15, terminating at 13th and Jefferson. This change became permanent.

June 1, 1948 .......... Piedmont line abandoned, replaced by buses.

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Oakland Tribune - Mon -

May 22, 1939

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The San Francisco Call - Sun - Apr. 23, 1911

Building Piedmont Manor

Wednesday Walkers, Piedmont Post - July 31, 2019:

Walking on Wednesdays meets every Wednesday at 10:00 am at Exedra Plaza!

Register Here


The Number 10 line’s route also continued north through Piedmont to what is now Crocker Park. Last week the group decided to complete walking the Number 10 line by following its route to Crocker Park. The purposes was to focus on the homes that had been built on the right-of-way land after streetcar line was disbanded in 1948. Some walkers explained that the original streetcar line is evident when looking at the different architecture of the houses, and the construction of streets and parks. One week earlier they noticed that Highland Avenue is only two in the first block, from Moraga Avenue to Park Way. But Highland then becomes a 4-lane street all the way to Vista Avenue. The street was widened when the streetcars stopped running and the Key Route land became available. A similar change happened to Highland Avenue south of the city center. The right-of-way land in front of the Piedmont Community Hall became what is now the parking lot.



The land on Highland across from Guilford Avenue became the present large, open lawn at the corner of Sheridan Avenue. As the group started off they had a new understanding of them. The group’s destinations for the day included five homes that were built on the old Number 10 streetcar route: 129 and 120 Caperton Avenue, 322 and 321 Sheridan Avenue, and 463 Wildwood Avenue. Michael Gardner provided some history for the group on the small pocket park at the corner of Sheridan and Caperton Avenues. The Licht/Bloch family who built the home next to the park took care of the Park, however, when Sam Bloch, the last family member to live in the house, sold it, the City took over the park’s maintenance and continues to maintain it.


...The group then walked across the street to see the second Caperton home built on Key Route land. The architectural style of the three homes is very different from most of the surrounding homes, and clearly they were built later. What surprised the group was to realize how close to the older homes the streetcars ran. From Caperton the walkers went back up to Sheridan Avenue and then on to Wildwood Avenue to see other homes built on Key Route land. Nancy DeRoche noted that the home on Wildwood is next to the large home that Frank C. Havens originally planned for his home, but changed his mind, and built his mansion in Wildwood Gardens. The group crossed Wildwood Avenue and walked through the Hall Fenway that was near the end of the No. 10 route. It was easy to image streetcars rolling through on their way to the end of the line in Crocker Park.


Michael Gardner informed the walkers that the home on the corner of Wildwood and Crocker was once a station house for the streetcar line. He also explained that the turnaround for the trains was further up Hampton Avenue where the landscaped triangle at the corner of Indian Road is now seen.

No. 11 Line,  1892 - 1948

No. 11
piedmont 11 line map_edited.png

Map from:
Key System Streetcars: Transit, Real Estate and the

Growth of the East Bay, Book by Vernon J. Sappers, 1990

Key System Streetcars: Transit, Real Estate and the Growth of the East Bay,

Book by Vernon J. Sappers, 1990:


No. 11 Line

Oakland and 38th Avenues

The 3.12-mile Oakland Avenue line originated as a part of Consolidated Piedmont Cable in 1892 and was later electrified. It was standard gauged in 1902 after acquisition by Oakland Transit. As a cable line, this route ascended the steep Oakland Avenue hill and used a long gravity loop on weekends. This was not practical as an electric line, so the route was divided, the steep hill line abandoned, and the lower end diverted via private right-of-way to Piedmont and Linda Avenues, avoiding heavy grades.


Oct. 19, 1910.......... Reconstruction of track on Broadway from 1st to 15th Streets, cars operating to 14th only.

Nov. 12, 1910......... Service to 7th Street resumed.

Dec. 4, 1923.......... Put on a 900 about noon and broke in all the men. Cars not good on grades.

May 11, 1925.......Crossover moved from 40th and Piedmont to Rio Vista Avenue.

July 25, 1926 ......Started using the 9th & Franklin loop instead of crossover between 7th & 8th on Broadway

June 11, 1928 ........ Change in route designation from B to No. 11.

Dec. 16, 1928......... Changed to one-man operation all day Sunday. Also evenings.

Dec. 17, 1928.......Changed from 700- to 900-type cars all day.

July 24, 1932 ....... Oakland Avenue No. 11 and 38th Avenue No. 15 consolidated as No. 11 Oakland Avenue-38th Avenue line. 900s replaced by 700s, which make better time.

May 1, 1935........Crossover at Piedmont and Rio Vista removed as track is reconstructed on Piedmont. Cars turn back at Linda and Piedmont.

July 25, 1937 ......... Service to 8th Street loop discontinued.

Sept. 26, 1943…….Oakland Avenue and 38th Avenue lines split by order of the Office of Defense Transportation. The No. 11 Oakland Avenue line terminated at the 9th Street loop.

June 26, 1948 ........ Rail service on Oakland Avenue replaced by buses.

No. 12 Line,  ___- 1948

No. 12
12 line map piedmont.jpg

Map from:
Key System Streetcars: Transit, Real Estate and the

Growth of the East Bay, Book by Vernon J. Sappers, 1990

Key System Streetcars: Transit, Real Estate and the Growth of the East Bay,

Book by Vernon J. Sappers, 1990:


No. 12 Line — Grand Avenue & Hollis Street


The Grand Avenue & Hollis Street line began as a shuttle on Grand Avenue from Wildwood Avenue (the Piedmont city limits) to Perry Street, where it connected with cars of Lake Shore Avenue line. It was built by Oakland Traction.


Dec. 26, 1912......... The former Grand Avenue shuttle is combined with W. 14th Street line. Terminates at SP's 16th Street depot.

Feb. 15, 1915 ......... Grand Avenue extended to Fairview. At this time the line was designated line D.

Feb. 17, 1915........ Grand Avenue and W. 14th Street lines separated and Grand Avenue combined with the Hollis Street line to connect with Key Route trains at Emeryville Shops.

1917.......Grand Avenue-Hollis Street line is changed to line C.

May 4, 1921............ Timetable shows line operated from Oakland Avenue with a siding at Elmwood.

Apr. 22, 1922.......... Sidings extended north and south making Grand Avenue double track to base of Fairview hill.

Nov. 7, 1926....... SP 18th Street red trains start operating over the C line trackage on Webster Street from 20th to 14th Streets.

June 16, 1928 ........ Route C changed to No. 12 line.

Apr. 14, 1929.......... One-man operation.

Mar. 26, 1933 ......... SP Red trains cease using Webster Street tracks of 12 line.

Oct. 20, 1935.......... Grand Avenue and Hollis Street line changed to Grand Avenue and W. 16th Street line. Hollis Street line abandoned.

June 27, 1948 ........ No. 12 Grand Avenue streetcar service abandoned.