The Key System: Oakland and East Bay Street Cars by Sheila Cassani

Key System Map


Oakland, California was once the hub of a privately owned mass transit company that operated electric streetcars throughout the East Bay and ferries connecting it to San Francisco (Key System 2013). The Key System, sometimes called the Key Route, derived its name from the system's routes, which resembled an old-fashioned key (Oakland Wiki 2013). In 1903, the general manager of the San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose Railway (SFOSJR), the company which the Key System operated under, designed a stylized map depicting the systems resemblance of an old-fashioned key that had a three-looped handle covering Berkeley, Piedmont and Oakland, a shaft that represented the Mole, which connected the streetcars to ferries, and teeth representing the ferry slips (Key System 2013).


The Key System emerged out of a consolidation of several existing streetcar lines into a single system (Greenberg 2012). Two local businessmen financed its development. Francis Marion “Borax” Smith made his fortune in borax mining and together with Frank C. Havens, established the Reality Syndicate, which developed many of Oakland’s neighborhoods (Oakland Wiki 2013). These transit and housing enterprises spurred the growth of the East Bay during the time of horse drawn carriages and steam trains (Raja 2010). In fact, the Laurel Districts original name in 1909 was Key Route Heights (Mailman 2005). Smith and Havens also invested in the development of parks and hotels, including the Claremont, which encouraged weekend travel on the system (Mailman 2005).

The company’s name went through many transformations before sticking with the original buzzword, Key System, in 1938 (Oakland Wiki 2013). Each streetcar line was assigned a letter and numerous stairways and pathways were built to give people better access to the Key System lines, many of which still remain today (Key System 2013). The Key System offered several amenities that we’d now find quite surprising such as dining cars with silverware and linen tablecloths, fresh cut flowers, and newspapers for sale (Oakland Wiki 2013). After the construction of the Bay Bridge and a fire that destroyed the systems ferry terminal, the Key System started connecting passengers to San Francisco with a railway on the lower deck of the bridge (Key System 2013).

In 1946, a company calling themselves National City Lines, who’s investment came from auto industry giants, General Motors, Firestone Tires, and Standard oil acquired sixty-four percent of Key System stock (Oakland Wiki 2013). Their efforts and the popularity of the automobile led local streetcars system to be dismantled (Greenberg 2012). In 1958, a Key System train traveled across the Bay Bridge on the transbay route for the last time (Oakland Wiki 2013).

Using QGIS: Where the Key Routes Would Run Today

Step 1: Reorient Key System Map


Step 2: Create Oakland Map


Step 3: Georeference Maps


Step 4: Create Routes Layer


Key System Map

Zoom in or out and navigate the map to see where the line would have been today


Rachel Greenberg Secret San Francisco: The Key System
Heath, Erin. 2012. Uncovering the Key Route
Transitmaps Tumblr Site
The Oakland Streetcar Plan Project
A map viewer for old Oakland maps
Wikipedia: Key System
Oakland Wiki: Key System
Tasneem Raja Forgotten Trains of the Bay Area: The Key System
Erika Mailman Oakland’s Neighborhoods