The Key System was a privately- owned intricate network of electric powered trains, cable and street cars woven throughout Oakland. The system served Oakland and its surrounding cities from 1903 up until 1960 and is remembered for connecting the people and places of Oakland that are arguably excluded in parts of Oakland’s current transit system. Many of the preserved streetcars and parts exist in transportation museums but the Key System building with its accompanying mural is one of the last historical places associated with the Key System. Originally built in 1911 and designed by San Francisco architects Frederick H. Meyer and Walter Reed, the building was used by the Security Bank and Trust. It was in 1943 that it became the headquarters for the Key System transit line. The building features ornate Beaux Arts style exterior architecture which is in relatively good condition for its age. The colorful mural on the plywood that encircles the entire first floor of the now vacant building was painted in 2008 by local artist Rocky Rische-Baird and his wife Erica.
To give some background, the Key System was started by Francis ‘Borax’ Smith with the original usage only as transit to get potential residents to his real estate properties within Oakland. In its early days, the system was electric rail cars and included a fast electric ferry service to San Francisco too. Over time, the company extended out existing lines, started using street cars and added many new routes to account for demand. The Key System was unique in design because some of it existed on permanent tracks and ran on cables and it also incorporated streetcars. The fact that the cable cars ran directly through streets meant it was interurban. The interurban aspect made it positive for businesses existing along the permanent routes and main thoroughfares. An excellent example of the positive effects on a neighborhood would be 7th Street in West Oakland. The speed of the electric lines made the commute across Oakland and through to San Francisco the preferred method of transportation but the influence of the automobile industry started to take hold starting in 1930. There was conspiracy that car manufacturer General Motors (GM) and other auto- oriented companies bought out the streetcar industries around the U.S. just so they could hasten the death of electric and cable car systems. It turns out this was true and later their holding company, National City Lines was found guilty in court of having a monopoly on the streetcar industry. People began to complain about higher fares and for the company, the Key cars were becoming more expensive to maintain. The system’s final demise was in 1960 when the last of the streetcars were phased out and sold to AC Transit.
The Key System had it’s fair share of problems and controversies, but it laid the groundwork for the current mass transportation in Oakland and the Bay like AC Transit and the BART. Though the inside is set to be re-purposed as new office space, the Key system building survives as an artifact of Oakland’s rich transit history.