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Historic Transit Heartland: The Castro District Has Seen Just About Everything

Cable cars on Castro? An 'elevated' railway at Harvey Milk Plaza? Four streetcar tracks on Market? It's all part of the transit history in a San Francisco neighborhood that has truly seen it all over the years.

The Neighborhood Cable Cars Built

Eureka Valley was rocky farmland when public transportation reached the area in the 1880s. First came a steam-powered railcar, then a cable car line operated by the Market Street Cable Railway Company, owned by Southern Pacific interests. This company ran several lines from the Ferry Building out Market, branching onto various streets. Some of these routes survive even today as large portions of Muni's 5, 7, and 21 trolley bus lines, and the F-Market & Wharves streetcar.

The coming of the cable car and its speedy (9mph) trip downtown brought a building boom to the valley and the hills to the south, fueled by the extension of the line out Castro into Noe Valley to 26th Street. Victorian row houses marched up the streets within walking distance of a car stop. More remote blocks atop Dolores Heights took decades longer to develop for lack of public transit.

The 1906 Earthquake ended an era for the Castro as well as the City. While the buildings of the neighborhood survived, the Market Street cable system was badly damaged. United Railroads (URR), by then the owner, had for years wanted to replace the cables on Market with faster electric streetcars, but had met resistance from those who considered overhead trolley wires to be unsightly. In the confusion following the earthquake, URR's owners took a straightforward approach to get what they wanted. They bribed the entire Board of Supervisors. Within weeks, the wires were up on Market and streetcars reached the Castro. But from 18th Street south, the Castro hill was too steep for streetcars. So that portion of the cable line was left in place as a remnant.

Along Comes Muni

The obvious corruption surrounding the private transit operation, coupled with the arrival of the Progressive Era in San Francisco, brought forth the nation's first major publicly owned transit system in 1912: the Municipal Railway. Muni's first line went out Geary from Market along an old cable route, but bigger things were in the offing. The ambitious and capable city engineer, Michael M. O'Shaughnessy, encouraged by the peripatetic mayor, 'Sunny Jim' Rolph, laid plans for what was the biggest infrastructure project built in San Francisco to that time: a streetcar tunnel under Twin Peaks, to open up the distant sand dunes in the west to housing.

Where to start the tunnel? O'Shaughnessy felt there was only one logical spot: what was then the end of Market Street, at Castro. The East Portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel was carefully recessed into a little rise (adjoining what is now Harvey Milk Plaza) so that one day it could be connected to a subway under Market.

MSRy streetcar no. 201 turns of Market, and over Muni tracks into the Twin Peaks Tunnel, as it continues towards Noe Valley on Castro Street.

The private URR wouldn't share its tracks on Market with Muni, so Muni laid its own rails outside the URR tracks, and by 1918 the tunnel and tracks were open, turning upper Market into a bustling boulevard.

Throughout the 1920s, the neighborhood around Castro and Market prospered. The streetcars of the 8-line, by then owned by Market Street Railway (MSRy), successor to URR and namesake of our organization, competed with the K and (after 1923) L tunnel cars of the Muni. Together, they provided the largely working-class residents of Eureka Valley with some of the most convenient public transit in the City.

The picture diversified in 1935. San Francisco's first trolley bus line opened: the 33-line along 18th Street and over Twin Peaks to the Haight. It was converted from a streetcar route by MSRy partly to save money, since the streetcar required two crew members and the bus one. The same year, Muni brought the motor bus to the neighborhood, with what was then called Muni's 6-Eureka-Diamond line (now essentially the 35-line), running from the now-vanished Eureka Valley station of the Twin Peaks Tunnel (at Market and Eureka) southward up the hill, competing with the Castro cable car. Muni was soon using little White gasoline buses on the line, including No. 062, preserved by Muni with our organization's help.

Castro Cable Finished

So in the years just before World War II, the Castro was the only neighborhood in the City served by all four modes of transit: streetcar, trolley bus, motor bus, and cable car. That ended April 5, 1941, when the Castro cable passed into history, replaced by a new crosstown motor bus line, the 24-Divisadero. There was neighborhood support for keeping the cable cars, but the line was losing buckets of money, and the private operator could not sustain the losses. Tragically, no Castro cable cars were preserved, but Muni recently restored a near-twin from the Sacramento-Clay line (abandoned in 1942), which may one day operate on special occasions on the surviving California Street cable line.

During the War, rationing of gasoline and rubber tires caused a national boom in transit ridership. Both Muni and MSRy ran their streetcars into the ground (literally in a few cases, when rotten platforms fell off). In 1944, after saying 'no' several times over the years, San Francisco voters okayed the public purchase of MSRy, which was consolidated into Muni, lock, stock, and streetcars. As the war ended, it was clear the equipment would have to be replaced, but with what?

The decision came down to convert all of the old MSRy streetcar lines, and some of Muni's, to bus operation: trolley bus in most cases, to take advantage of the overhead wires and poles already in place as well as cheap City-owned Hetch Hetchy hydro power. In fact, all the streetcar lines might have been scrapped if the Twin Peaks Tunnel and the N-line's Sunset Tunnel had been wide enough for buses.

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Ex-Market Street Railway Co. streetcars lay over on Castro near 18th Street shortly before trolley coaches took over the 8-line in 1949. Phil Hoffman photo.

The 8-line lost its streetcars in 1949, replaced by trolley coaches. The outer streetcar tracks had already been removed, and Muni's K, L, and M lines took over the 8's familiar spot in the center of Market. In the 1950's, more changes. Muni's original streetcars had reached the end of the line. Nostalgically referred to today as 'Iron Monsters,' during the prime of their lives they were generally called either 'battleships' (for their original gray paint) or 'boxcars' (for their shape), and had come to have more detractors than fans, especially on the tunnel lines where they were drafty and deafening to ride.

The City began replacing them with the famous 'PCC' type streetcars, known fondly in San Francisco as 'green torpedoes' for their color and streamlined shape. With upholstered seats and a springy suspension, they attracted a loyal following among Castro riders, and were the City's streetcar standard for 30 years.

Muni Metro Suffers Birth Pains

The PCCs might have stayed on the five Muni streetcar lines indefinitely, but for the construction of the Muni Metro subway under Market in the 1970s. It connected directly to the Twin Peaks Tunnel, obliterating the old East Portal at Castro.

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Temporary tunnel portals during construction of the Muni Metro subway.

During the protracted construction, though, Muni had to keep running the PCCs, because there weren't enough buses to substitute.

This led to one of the most comical sights in San Francisco's transit history: streetcars winding back and forth on trestle track above the excavation for Castro Station, seeking temporary access to the tunnel. Wags called it the 'Collingwood Elevated,' for the side street it blocked, but the neighbors on that street and others nearby had more pungent names for it.

During this period, of course, the neighborhood was going through more profound changes than any transit line could bring. The earlier generations of immigrants that originally populated the district, largely German and Irish, were gone, and their children and grandchildren were migrating to the suburbs.

A new wave of immigration was sweeping the neighborhood, predominantly gay men, drawn by the City's relative openness and the attractive (if somewhat down at the heels) housing in the area.

The new residents transformed the neighborhood in many ways, restoring its vintage homes, bringing new life to the street scene, even discarding the old name. No one called it Eureka Valley anymore. It was the Castro now.

The F-Market Line

It looked like surface streetcar service to Castro was history when the last 'green torpedoes' pulled into the barn in September 1982. But an unusual coalition of downtown business, Upper Market merchants, and Castro residents, organized by members of Market Street Railway, put together something called the Historic Trolley Festival, to operate restored Muni antiques and vintage streetcars from around the world on the Market Street tracks to provide a 'substitute attraction' for the cable cars, then being rebuilt.

It was supposed to be a one-year thing, but its popularity among Upper Market residents, many of whom preferred the old cars to the crowded Metro or the 8-line bus, called for its return. It ran five summers in all, and its success led to the construction of the F-line, with Castro providing the western anchor of the operation. The popular PCC streetcars, painted to honor the various cities that once operated this historic type, were selected to provide basic service.

The F-line opened from Castro to the East Bay Terminal on September 1, 1995, replacing the 8-line trolley coaches, and was immediately so popular that Muni realized it would need additional cars to operate the planned extension to Fisherman's Wharf. Muni acquired ten 1928-vintage trams from Milan, Italy, and opened The Embarcadero extension on March 4, 2000, providing direct service from upper Market to the northeastern waterfront for the first time.

So the Castro has seen a great deal of transit change and social change as well. But thanks to the F-line, one constant remains. When Castro residents head downtown, they ride the rails of Market Street, just as their predecessors have for more than 120 years.

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