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The Santa Claus Special Comes to Santa Ana

Santa Claus Special at Santa Ana Station, November 27, 1948
Unknown Photographer; Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 10 x 8 in.
Gift of Mr. Frank Carter

Tis the Season

On Friday, November 26, 1948, a throng of parents and their excited children followed the parade route of the Santa Claus Special—a three-car train formed of a 660-horsepower diesel locomotive, a Railway Post Office (RPO) car, and a caboose—through Santa Ana. At the front of the train was none other than jolly old Saint Nick. With the holidays already well underway and Christmas rapidly approaching this weekend, the Bowers Blog looks at the Santa Claus Special’s 1948 visit to Santa Ana through photographic illustrations of the histories of the Pacific Electric Railway Company, the United States Railway Post Office, and the Santa Clause Special from the Bowers’ permanent collections.

Santa Ana's First Electric Rail Car, 1905
Unknown Photographer ; Santa Ana, California
Photograph and ink; 5 1/8 x 7 1/2 in.
Terry E. Stephenson Collection

A Desire Named Streetcar

The Pacific Electric Railway Company was founded in Los Angeles in 1901 by Henry E. Huntington and Isaias W. Hellman. Huntington in particular had experience with electric rail already through his work with Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco. Connecting the cities around Los Angeles with freight rail was a lucrative endeavor, but even from its inception the company’s passenger rail was rarely profitable. Instead, new passenger rail lines essentially served as loss leaders for Huntington and Hellman’s other investments in real estate development and the expanding Southern California electrical grid. Between 1903 and 1905 work was undertaken by Los Angeles Inter-Urban Electric Railway to connect the relatively new Orange County seat of Santa Ana to Los Angeles. Just three years later, Pacific Electric took over the route as part of the “Great Merger,” a concerted effort to unify all Los Angeles area streetcars under one company. For a time, the Santa Ana Line was among the most popular streetcar lines operated by Pacific Electric, with around two and a half million passengers at its height in 1945. The decline of the line in the early 1950s was a rapid one at the hands of automotive travel.

Clerks sort mail inside a Railway Post Office, 1945
Collection of United States Postal Service

Well Trained Postal Service

The United States Post Service and its predecessor, the United States Post Office Department, has had a very long working relationship with Santa Claus. Almost two decades before Coca-Cola popularized the rosy-cheeked, red-clad figure we know today, the volume of letters directed to Santa Claus led Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock to allow individual postmasters to respond to mail addressed to the North Pole. Today, the USPS operates Operation Santa which lets individuals adopt and fulfil letters that are sent to Santa Claus. In the first half of the 20th century, trains played a big role in the delivery of both inter- and intracity mail in the United States. The Post Office Department’s Railway Post Office (RPO) at one point had cars on 9,000 rail lines, including the line between Los Angeles and Santa Ana. These cars were particularly useful, as they allowed highly trained clerks to rapidly sort mail while in transit. Given that Santa Himself has a reputation for sorting through a lot of mail, it makes perfect sense that he would be seen exiting an RPO car. Unfortunately, 1948, the year that the Santa Claus Special came to Santa Ana began a marked decline of RPOs. With cheaper options available through trucks, much intracity mail had already been replaced, and an increasing reliance on airmail led to the last surviving RPO being discontinued in 1977.

Santa Claus Special at Santa Ana Station, November 26, 1948
Unknown Photographer; Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 8 x 10 in
Gift of Mr. Frank Carter

Something Special This Way Comes

The two-day event of the Santa Claus Special pulling into Santa Ana Station was organized by Pacific Electric in conjunction with the 20-30 Club—a group still active today which focuses on helping children and developing leadership skills in young adults—and the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce. On November 26, with ample time for mail to reach the North Pole, the Santa Claus Special followed a parade route from Flower along Fourth Street all the way to its destination where families lined up on the freight dock to sit on Santa’s lap and drop off their mail in the RPO car. The train’s PA system was modified to be able to sweetly serenade those in line with Christmas carols and hymns. November 27 held similar activities but lasted the entire day with Santa Claus periodically coming out of the RPO car to spread holiday cheer.

Parade Float for Opening of Pacific Electric Car Line, 1905
Unknown Photographer; Santa Ana, California
Photographic print
Gift of Mrs. D.C. Edwards

A Long-awaited Return

If the route taken by the Santa Claus Special seems like one on which you have recently been battling construction-related slowdowns, it is no coincidence. This same route, the one used on a daily basis by Pacific Electric’s Santa Ana Line will be almost exactly the same route followed by the new OC Streetcar; a decision which comes with the added benefit of reusing some of the infrastructure for the original Pacific Electric streetcar. The project is set to be completed by 2024.

Have a wonderful, warm holiday season!

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. References are available on request. Information subject to change upon further research.

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