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History of Market Street Railway

Our volunteer, non-profit preservation organization proudly bears one of the most famous names in San Francisco history. We are the fifth organization involved with street railways to carry the name of San Francisco’s main street.

1934 Blackpool, England 'boat tram' on San Francisco's Market Street

1934 Blackpool, England “boat tram” on Market Street during the 1983 Trolley Festival.

We were founded in 1976 by three transit preservationists to preserve a vintage Municipal Railway trolley bus that was about to be scrapped.

The group stayed very small until the advent of the first San Francisco Historic Trolley Festival in 1983.

This summertime operation of vintage streetcars on Market Street started out as a joint project of Muni and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

The initial plan was for a one-time event, to serve as a substitute attraction for the famed cable car system, then being rebuilt. But the first Trolley Festival proved so popular that Mayor Dianne Feinstein asked that it be repeated the next year, then the next. Since several of Market Street Railway’s board members were closely involved with the Trolley Festivals anyway, the Chamber asked the group to assume its non-profit support role.

Since then, Market Street Railway has grown to have more than 1,200 members from San Francisco, the Bay Area, and throughout the world and the Trolley Festivals grew into a full-time historic F-Market streetcar line in 1995. In March 2000, the F-line started service along The Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharves and was renamed, appropriately, to the F-Market & Wharves line.

Market Street Railway volunteers restoring streetcar no. 162. Steve Ferrario photo.

The efforts of our organization and its members have helped Muni acquire more than 20 historic transit vehicles. Our volunteers have actively helped restore about fifteen vintage vehicles, including streetcars, cable cars, trolley coaches, and motor coaches. While we have essentially completed that mission, our volunteers continue to help keep the streetcars of the F-line sparkling by cleaning them on the line every day. We also document the history of vintage street railway operation in San Francisco through our quarterly newsletter, Inside Track, and through our website and blog.

Market Street Railway served as a catalyst for winning public funding and support to build the F-line historic streetcar service, and is now actively working to bring to reality a second line, the E-Embarcadero to link waterfront destinations from Mission Bay all the way to Fort Mason.

We maintain three downtown locations: the San Francisco Railway Museum at the Steuart Street F-line stop, in the Hotel Vitale building across from the Ferry Building; an office in the landmark 1904 Flood Building at 870 Market Street, where the F-line intersects with the Powell Street cable cars; and the David L. Pharr Historic Streetcar facility at 1 Buchanan Street (corner of Market & Duboce) on the F-line, in the shadow of the landmark 1937 US Mint, where we take on projects that enhance and contribute to the restoration of the historic fleet.

Reflecting the pride we feel in our name, we have adapted (and registered) the red and green shield used by our most recent namesake predecessor, and incorporated into it our non-profit mission of “preserving historic transit in San Francisco.” We welcome your interest as a member and as a volunteer.

Read on to learn the history of previous other organizations who used this venerable name.

The Market Street Railroad Company, 1860-1882

In 1857, the California Legislature granted Thomas Hayes (after whom Hayes Street and Hayes Valley are named) the franchise for what would become the first street railway on the Pacific Coast. It opened on July 4, 1860, operating on Market Street from Third to Valencia, terminating at 16th & Valencia Streets. It was named the Market Street Railroad Company. It operated both as a horsecar and steam train line.

The Market Street Cable Railway Company, 1882-1893

Thirteen years after the Market Street Railroad Company pioneered street railway service in San Francisco, Andrew Hallidie invented the cable car, with the first route opening on Clay Street in August 1873. Superior to horse-powered lines, it spurred conversion and construction of new routes. In 1882, one of the ‘Big Four’ who had built the Central Pacific Railway across the Sierra as part of the transcontinental railroad took over the Market Street Railroad. Leland Stanford and associates formed The Market Street Cable Railway Company, and converted their lines to cable power.

The Market Street Railway Company, 1893-1902

The electric streetcar, made practical in 1887 by Frank Sprague in Richmond, Virginia, quickly began eclipsing the cable car as the state-of-the-art for urban American transit, except on the steepest hills. By 1893, the year of Stanford’s death, interests associated with his creation, now named the Southern Pacific Railroad, took over the business, renaming it the Market Street Railway Company, and setting out to convert its many lines (which by now ran all over the city, not just on its main street) to electric streetcars as quickly as possible. This they largely accomplished, except on the namesake street of the company. The city’s board of supervisors had banned overhead trolley wires in the downtown area, including Market Street, in 1891, considering them ugly.

The Southern Pacific interests sold their San Francisco street railways to eastern capitalists in 1902. They were consolidated with other San Francisco lines into a giant company called the United Railroads of San Francisco. United Railroads, like its predecessor, lobbied to convert the cable car lines on Market to streetcars to no avail, at least until the great earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906, which destroyed most of the eastern half of the city.

United Railroads streetcars on Market Street

United Railroads streetcars on Market Street.
San Francisco Municipal Railway photo.

Seizing an opportunity, United Railroads wangled a ‘temporary’ permit to electrify its Market Street lines. (It was later revealed that the company had bribed many public officials to transform this ‘temporary’ permit into a permanent operation. But, the wires stayed on Market, and the streetcars with them.)

The Progressive Era was now sweeping California, with mounting demands for public ownership of utilities, including street railways.

In San Francisco, the result was the establishment of the Municipal Railway in 1912. It first operated on Geary Street, but soon embarked on a massive building campaign. By 1914, a new Stockton Street tunnel under Nob Hill carried the F-Stockton streetcar line from Downtown through North Beach and to the new Marina District. By 1918, the monumental Twin Peaks Tunnel (still in use today by the K,L,M & T lines) opened. The tunnel’s Muni streetcar lines helped open up the southwestern quarter of the city for development, and plunged the Municipal Railway into direct competition with United Railroads the entire length of Market Street.

The Market Street Railway Company, 1921-1944

This growing competition from the Municipal Railway, coupled with recurring labor troubles, and a 1918 accident that killed eight and injured 70 (to this day the worst streetcar disaster in the state’s history), spelled doom for United Railroads. Through reorganization and foreclosure proceedings, the once-mighty United Railroads disappeared in 1921—its assets and operations to be assumed once again by the Market Street Railway Company, which during the United Railroads era had continued to exist as a financial corporation holding much of United Railroad’s debt.

MSRy streetcar no. 824 at Playland at the Beach

Playland at the Beach, 1940.

This fourth incarnation of the Market Street name is still remembered by many San Franciscans. Its franchises included many routes still operated on essentially the same routes today by Muni, including such well known lines as the 2-Clement, 14-Mission, 21-Hayes, 22-Fillmore, and 31-Balboa (all streetcars then), and the Powell-Mason cable car. The Market Street Railway Co. also operated a number of famous lines that are no more, such as the 40-line interurban streetcar, which connected downtown San Francisco with the Peninsula, running as far south as San Mateo. It also operated the original Clay Street cable car line (now part of the 1-California trolley bus line), and the Castro Street cable car line (a remnant of the great Market Street cable system that survived until 1941, now part of the 24-Divisadero trolley bus line).

Perhaps most of all, the Market Street Railway Co. is remembered for a very simple idea. Noting that San Francisco’s famous fog could make transit vehicles difficult to see, they painted the ends of all their streetcars, cable cars, and buses a pure, stark white. Moreover, they patented this ‘White Front’ paint scheme on the basis that it was a safety feature. For years, San Franciscans referred to the Market Street Railway Co. trolleys as ‘the White Front cars’.

Times grew increasingly tough for the Market Street Railway Co. through the 1930s and into the 1940s. The City held control over its franchises to operate various lines, and because official city policy called for complete municipal ownership of utilities, the politicians never made things easy for the private company.

funston-yard.jpg

Funston Yard, Philip V. Hoffman collection.

The City tried numerous times to buy out the Market Street Railway Company, but time and again, voters turned down the bond issues required to finance the acquisition.

Finally, in 1944, a bond issue was successful, and the assets and operations of the Market Street Railway Co. were absorbed into Muni (which immediately had to paint over all the white streetcar ends, to avoid paying patent royalties to the paper shell corporation of the Market Street Railway Co. that survived a while longer).

The Market Street Railway, 1976-Present

The proud name of Market Street Railway lives again in our non-profit organization, which has now been around longer than our immediate predecessor, and hopes to stay around for many more years, preserving historic transit in San Francisco.

Please consider joining Market Street Railway to make sure we’re here for the next generation.

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