Vehicles of Recovery
January 18, 2007
San Francisco on the brink of disaster
On April 17, 1906, San Francisco was the West’s grandest metropolis. Four companies provided the city’s street railway services. San Francisco’s largest transit provider — with 139 route miles out of the city’s total of 154 — and its only city-wide street railway system was United Railroads of San Francisco (URR).
Central to its operation were its cable car operations that included the five Market Street cable lines built by the Market Street Cable Railway, the former Ferries & Cliff House Railway’s Powell and Sacramento Street cable lines, and two cable routes obtained from the Sutter Street Railway (Sutter Street, and the Polk-Larkin crosstown line). Its cable car lines tended to be very heavily traveled.
By 1906, the Geary Street, Park & Ocean was a wholly-owned subsidiary of URR. Its 4.13 mile cable car line from Market Street ran to a terminal adjacent to Golden Gate Park between 11th and 12th Avenues on Fulton.
The Presidio & Ferries Railroad provided a direct 5.6 mile route from the city’s commercial area to Cow Hollow-Harbor View (today’s Marina District) via Union Street over Russian Hill. Although, primarily a cable car operation, there was a connecting horsecar service to the Ferry at the line’s eastern end, and on its western end steam dummies served the Harbor View resort. The conservatively managed and profitable California Street Cable Railroad operated two major cable car lines and a short shuttle on just over 5 route miles.
Despite San Francisco’s cosmopolitan character, the city’s street railway system in April 1906 was largely obsolete. Its cable cars had been under economic siege since 1887-88, when Frank Sprague created the first successful electric streetcar (trolley) system in Richmond, Virginia. The electric streetcar provided better service to the public, with larger-capacity cars, faster journeys over greater distances, and improved safety at lower cost than did cable cars. Although over 78% of URR’s trackage was electrified by April 1906, these lines were largely relegated to what were then regarded as secondary streets, such as Mission and Third Streets.
A strong ‘city beautiful movement’ had arisen, operating as the Association for the Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco. Its influential proponents had successfully blocked conversion of the cable car lines to streetcar by legislatively prohibiting overhead wires on the major transit thoroughfares of Market, Geary, and Sutter Streets. “Wires are ugly,” they said. URR had been using all of its political tricks to convert (where hills did not prohibit) its cable lines to electric operation, to no avail. With the election of Patrick Calhoun to the presidency of URR in late 1905, this effort intensified.
Cost calculations and operational considerations showed the overhead wire system to be preferable for electric streetcar operation to the complicated underground conduit systems.
Even after the earthquake and fire, the physical plant of URR’s electric operations — tracks, cars, powerhouses, and overhead plant — were in fair to very good operating condition. Ironically, URR’s electric streetcar fleet was obsolete. The cars mainly followed cable car designs and most were over five years old.
Many of the new electric streetcar lines had pushed San Francisco’s built-up areas beyond those of 1890, when cable cars ruled supreme. URR’s streetcar network was laying the foundation for the development of the Richmond, Noe Valley, Outer Mission, Portola, Eureka Valley, Bayview, Bernal Heights, Sunset, and Excelsior districts. The pattern for San Francisco’s future growth was set by these car lines.
San Francisco on April 17 was still a cable car city. The majority of street railway trips were by cable car. Cable cars served the established districts, whereas streetcars tended to serve developing areas.
Dance with the Devil: The earthquake and fire
Every San Franciscan who survived remembered vividly where they were at precisely six seconds after 5:12am on April 18, 1906, the moment that the great earthquake struck. In the contemporary public’s mind, the earthquake is perhaps best remembered for the fires it spawned. Sixty-seven hours after the shake the fires had ceased raging and much of the city — including the important northeast section that encompassed the downtown residential, commercial and financial districts — lay in ruins.
Nearly 200,000 out of San Francisco’s population of 432,000 were left homeless. Many fled the city. Others lived in tents on city streets, in parks or military reservations. The death toll was in the thousands. Property loss was eventually estimated at $400 million in 1906 dollars, equivalent to $8.6 billion 2005 dollars.
Major parts of the public transportation infrastructure were devastated. The largest street railway operator, URR, incurred significant damage. Trackage was ruined. All of the company’s power plants — both electric and cable — were rendered inoperative, except Bryant Street. Although some rolling stock was lost, the majority of URR’s cars — both cable and electric — survived, being outside the fire zone. What was significant was the damage to cable power plants, however.
URR’s former Sutter Street Railway operation’s powerhouse at Sutter & Polk, which ran both the Sutter and Polk-Larkin crosstown cable lines, was demolished. Most of those lines’ rolling stock burned. The cable conduit was destroyed at several locations.
The centerpiece of URR’s cable car lines, those built by the Market Street Cable Railway, suffered considerable damage. The conduit was destroyed in several locations. The Valencia & Market powerhouse that powered the Market, Valencia, Castro, and Haight Street cables was destroyed. Although not burned, the Hayes and McAllister powerhouses suffered considerable earthquake damage.
The destruction to URR’s cable system was so complete that management faced the choice of effectively totally rebuilding the cable system or making the company’s desired conversion to streetcars. The disaster now presented the opportunity to shift to a lower-cost, higher-productivity mode with a realignment of routes. The choice was easy.
The biggest problems for the company’s electric lines were track realignment, dangerous buildings along narrow streets, debris covering tracks and resuming electric power.
Of all railways, the Presidio & Ferries experienced the most destruction from the earthquake and fire. On April 30, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote “Union Street may never again be operated as a cable road.” It never did.
The least-damaged company was Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad, which continued running for hours after the earthquake. Although, the Chronicle in late April predicted that cable cars would not return to Geary Street, they did so on June 21, 1906.
The California Street Cable Railroad’s (Cal Cable) California & Hyde car barn and powerhouse was ruined, some of its trackage destroyed and 52 of its 53 cars burned down to their metal parts.
Recreating San Francisco: Recovery
There were many cable routes that would never see operation after April 17. Included in this category were the following.
URR’s former Sutter Street Railway’s short horsecar shuttle on Polk from Pacific to Union, and both its Sutter Street and Polk & Larkin cable lines (except Pacific Avenue, where cable cars returned during December, 1908.) Five URR lines built by the former Market Street Cable Railway — Market and: Valencia; McAllister; Hayes; Haight; and most of the Castro line. (Cable service returned to Castro from 18th to 26th Streets on August 29, 1907.)
URR’s former Ferries & Cliff House’s Ferries & Jackson line (which did not have a direct replacement.) The western ends of two other F&CH lines were discontinued: Sacramento-Clay cable west of Fillmore, and Jackson Street cable service west of Steiner Street (one block west of Fillmore.)
Presidio & Ferries (Union Street line) ended its cable service.
The only URR cable car line to return in its pre-quake routing was Powell-Mason. Electric streetcars would soon be servicing most of the abandoned cable services.
Several factors triggered this conversion. Paramount was the earthquake and fire which created the environment of necessity that URR president Patrick Calhoun seized. Almost as important was Calhoun’s drive and passion to successfully see URR’s cable lines converted, where feasible. He was noted for his discipline, ambition, and motivation, and also for a hot temper and a vindictive personality.
Calhoun knew the restoration of the city’s street railways was a keystone to San Francisco’s recovery. The rapid restoration of the street railway system would expand the city’s mobility, create income and employment, and be a significant factor in attracting the investment capital required to rebuild the city. A recovered San Francisco in turn was the key to the future success of URR.
San Francisco’s political state during this era was that every deed of consequence — good, bad, or indifferent — required the blessing of the Union-Labor Party, which meant political ‘Boss’ Abe Ruef. In this environment, many believed Calhoun turned to bribery to ensure his victory. On May 14, when the Supervisors approved the stringing of overhead trolley wires on Market Street, the San Francisco Examiner accused URR of being “corporate ghouls for using San Francisco’s adversity as a means to get its overhead trolley franchise passed.” Mayor Schmitz said the approval was only temporary. It soon proved to be permanent.
A little over a month after the earthquake, on May 21, 1906, the supervisors formally approved the permanent overhead trolley franchise. The next day, URR received by telegraph $200,000 to be used to bribe city officials. The money was received in gold, but was exchanged at the US Mint for small bills donated for earthquake relief.
At Calhoun’s 1909 graft trial, a mistrial was declared. The case was ordered stricken by the California Supreme Court and Calhoun was exonerated. The populace was clearly tired of the bribery scandal, yet it — coupled to the company’s 1906 and 1907 strikes — created a voter reaction in 1909 that provided for the first phase of financing of municipal ownership of the city’s transit. This came to pass in 1912, when the Geary Street, Park & Ocean was discontinued and was replaced by two municipal streetcar lines.
One of Calhoun’s strengths was his ability to obtain the financial resources to carry forth his program of URR modernization. Importantly, URR’s Eastern and European investors supplied the necessary financial resources to finance both rebuilding and conversion. Calhoun went on a streetcar buying spree in St. Louis. From the St. Louis Car Co. he ordered 250 large state-of-the-art cars, of which only 200 were ultimately delivered. At the American Car Co., he purchased fifty completed cars built for the Chicago City Railway, who had consented to having its cars diverted to San Francisco out of sympathy for the stricken city.
Calhoun also acquired from the St. Louis Car Co. 16 classically ornate interubans for the San Mateo Suburban line. This order of 12 motor cars and four trailers had been rejected by the Philadelphia & Western. While enroute from St. Louis, the four trailers were sold to the Northern Electric Railway. With the arrival of these 262 cars, San Francisco’s streetcar fleet was largely modernized.
Prior to the headline-grabbing strikes and bribery charges — which decidedly blackened the URR’s reputation in the immediate post-quake period — Calhoun directed what can only be considered to be a masterful public relations program. As service was restored, URR offered free transportation on all its lines. Initially, these were electric lines outside the fire zone, such as Fillmore and 16th Street. After the city required fares be collected (to stop sightseers from crowding the cars) the company turned its receipts over to the Relief Fund, until it was directed otherwise. Also, during the period where lines were inoperative, cars were placed on streets outside of car barns and used as shelters by women and children. It was a public relations dream scenario.
Only ten days after the earthquake, URR had erected poles, strung overhead, and rebuilt the Market Street trackage, enabling it to run its first electric test car down to the Ferry amidst the cheers of the crowds which lined the city’s main thoroughfare amongst the massive destruction. By May 4, electric cars were running from the Ferry to Castro.
During the remainder of 1906, through 1907-08, URR restored lines mainly as electric routes. Cable service was restored on Powell, Castro, Sacramento, and Clay Streets and, paradoxically, on Pacific Ave., which was essentially flat, except for the last block.
On June 21, the Geary Street, Park & Ocean resumed service, the first cable car line to do so after the disaster. Although URR’s Geary Street line had lost its franchise, it was allowed to continue operating. The city was eyeing Geary for a municipal streetcar line.
The independent California Street Cable Railroad had no choice but to rebuild its cable lines. The company’s topography precluded the use of electric streetcars, except for the six-block Jones Street Shuttle. Cal Cable contracted with two SF car builders — J. Hammond & Co. and W. L. Holman Co. — to build new double-ended ‘California’ cars using, when possible, surviving metal components such as trucks, grips, stanchions, and even bulkhead door thresholds. Many of those cars are still providing service today. It rebuilt its car barn and powerhouse at California & Hyde.
The Presidio & Ferries Railway (the Union St. line) joined URR in converting to the electric streetcar. The P&F contracted with URR to rebuild and equip it for streetcar operation. This was made possible by a three-block detour off of Union via Larkin, Vallejo, and Franklin, thus avoiding an 18% grade.
Thus it was, due to that fateful April morning, that San Francisco was catapulted from a 19th century cable car city to a modern 20th century electric streetcar city.