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Transportation in California History

Whether by horse and carriage, train, boat, automobile, or even airplane, transportation was vital to California’s growth and success from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries.
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Exploring the Images

These images show some of the many types of transportation used in California by Californians — and by people coming to California from elsewhere — during the mid-19th to early 20th centuries. Whether by horse and carriage, train, boat, automobile, or even airplane, transportation was vital to California’s growth and success.

The Railroad

In the mid-19th century, most newcomers came to California on foot, rode across the country in horse-or ox-drawn wagons, or arrived by ship from other parts of the world. But in 1869, the first transcontinental railroad linked the eastern United States with the west, transforming a hard four- to six-month wagon journey into a few days on a train.

The railroad also carried supplies and goods. Logging trains like this one in Humboldt County carried lumber to support the mining industry and to build new towns and cities across the state. Sacramento’s train depot and levee system moved resources from remote areas to growing markets.

Ships and Boats

Shipping was active on many of the state’s natural bays and waterways. This photograph of a variety of ships at Arcata’s wharf in Humboldt County was taken sometime between the 1880s and 1920s, and shipping remains a vital trade link for California within the Pacific Rim.

Pleasure boats were common in California’s coastal cities, as they are today. Boats and personal watercrafts, like the one shown here in 1938, were a popular means of transporting people across Mono Lake. But the environmental damage this caused prompted such activities to be prohibited as a part of growing conservation efforts in the mid- to late 20th century.

Transportation Innovations

Change came quickly. By the turn of the 20th century, innovations in transportation technology dramatically increased the numbers of people and goods moving through California, and redefined how people lived, traveled, and communicated.

The invention of the safety bicycle in the 1880s gave people an alternative to walking and riding horses. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries bicycles had become a popular means of personal transportation, as shown by this large group of cyclists gathered in Arcata plaza.

California’s burgeoning cities spurred the invention of new kinds of vehicles. The first streetcar systems, like this one in Riverside, used horses. But soon the newer and more efficient electric streetcars began to flourish in cities like San Francisco. Ferries provided mass-transit and links to the trolleys for people commuting from the East Bay into the City.

Los Angeles also had an early electric streetcar system. But as the city’s population boomed in the early 20th century, automobiles quickly replaced mass-transit as the way to get around the sprawling metropolitan area.

The Open Road

Automobiles and motorcycles caught on fast — not only in Los Angles but also in the large cities in the San Francisco Bay Area. An early car race in Anaheim shows the fun and sport associated with automobiles in the early 20th century.

Motor vehicles also gave people new ways to explore California’s diverse terrain. Families took road trips into the Mojave Desert and along scenic ocean roads like 17-mile drive in Monterey. They also drove up mountains like Mount Rubidoux in the Inland Empire, where a new road was constructed in 1907.

Motor-homes made it even easier to take family vacations. This homemade version brought its maker to Yosemite National Park in 1921. The boom in road travel created a growing need for gas stations, which also sold food and water to keep adventurous drivers on the road.


The first successful airplane flight by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in late 1903 was an exciting glimpse of things to come. Although air travel was inaccessible to most of the public until after World War II, the possibilities of flight captivated Californians. Record-breaking flights and air shows over towns like Marysville attracted spectators from all over. By the 1930s, air travel was changing leisure time in new ways. In the rural town of Bishop, this small plane promoted fishing in remote areas.

The aerospace industry would soon find a home in the California. With increasing leisure time and evolving technology, airplanes would make the state — once considered the edge of civilization — a popular vacation destination for people around the world.

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"Transportation in California History" was curated and written by Julia Brashares and Kara O'Keefe Fos, in collaboration with staff at the University of California, in 2011.

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The text of this exhibition is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:

Transportation in California History curated by Julia Brashares, Kara O'Keefe Fos, and University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2011, Regents of the University of California.