The Key System, originally called the San Francisco, Oakland & San Jose Railway and nicknamed the Key Route, was founded in 1903 by F. M. Smith, a.k.a. Borax Smith for his fortunes in borax. Smith came to the East Bay in 1881. He saw the East Bay’s potential in the real estate market. To sell his remotely located land, Smith decided to use trains. Trains would provide future homeowners access to San Francisco.
In addition to his dreams of connecting the East Bay with San Francisco, Smith and his colleagues dreamed of lines to San Jose and Sacramento. However, Smith soon abandoned his dreams of connecting to Sacramento and San Jose when real estate sales and ridership did not meet expectations. In 1913, unhappy investors forced Smith out of the company.
The Key System, in addition to its many local street cars, had six main transbay lines to San Francisco. The name Key Route comes from the skeleton key shape that the transbay lines formed. The ferry slips formed the teeth of the key, the 17,000 foot long pier formed the shaft, Oakland formed the bottom loop of the handle, Piedmont the middle and Berkeley the upper loop.
Trains initially used a pier and ferries to move passengers to San Francisco, but later, trains used the Bay Bridge. In 1946, just after the war, the Key System, which was locally owned, was sold to National City Lines, a company that owned most of the nation’s biggest streetcar systems. The Key System, because of declining ridership ceased operation of trains on April 20, 1958 and converted to buses. Two years later, in 1960, the Alameda Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit) purchased the Key System from National City Lines.