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"Parting Thoughts:" The Final Act at the Transbay Terminal

12:15 a.m., Saturday, August 7th, AC Transit 4088 running on the Route O bound for Alameda left the Transbay Transit Terminal for the final time. This concluded 71 years of continuous operation of the terminal. 4088 rolled off the ramp where the likes of Key System Bridge Units, IER “Blimps”, and Sacramento Northern Interurbans once plied. One Frank Zepeda said, “Savor the Moment,” as our small group of transit fans walked out the door onto the Mission Street loop and said good bye.

Some might say that the terminal’s replacement is long overdue, that the old building is past its prime and has become an eyesore to the surrounding area. But with its demolition goes its soul, and with the passing of its soul goes a historic piece of the Bridge Railway. If one were to look past the pigeons, the homeless, and the grime, it was possible to catch a short glimpse of what life was like before the automobile became the primary mode of transportation. For transbay commuters this was at onetime the grand entrance to San Francisco.

So as the curtain falls, let’s take a look at the final day of operation at First and Mission. A tired face in front of the former Gray Line ticket office tells the story all by itself.

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As the afternoon rush gets underway, commuters begin to make their way through the concourse towards the ramp.

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Muni’s GM “New Look” 3287 was brought out for the occasion.

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But as the evening went on, the real reason everyone was there started to shine through the cracks. This was the time to take one last look, take one last picture. The final lineup started to take shape as closing time drew closer. Fellow photographer Michael Johannessen captured the last F, and some of the last patrons at midnight.

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By now the show was drawing to an end, and only a few more minutes would pass until the last set of taillights disappeared in the darkness and the stillness set in. The lights were on but nobody was home, even the pigeons vacated the scene. Progress tends to have a way of erasing history, so as one chapter ends another begins. But truth be told, the memories will last and I’m sure the stories will continue to be told. Because anyone who ever walked through those halls can tell you,  Transbay was quite the experience.

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I had done my own walk through at the beginning of June, since I’d entered the City on Greyhound, June 2nd 1994 and knew the Transbay Terminal wouldn’t be around for my next anniversary.

There is a certain look to California public buildings of a certain, mid-century point in time, and the TransBay, which isn’t really mid-Century, doesn’t have it. That’s the odd thing, it doesn’t really have much of a period feeling at all, aside from being out of date.

I found the shed to be the most compelling part of the structure. It was up there, looking up at the riveted steel girders and beams, the tin and concrete, the brass railings that I could get the best feeling for what had been. It was up where the tracks were, where the wires were once strung that I could get a sense that trains, not buses, had once ground off the bridge and into the terminal. I walked out on the ramps, to the far ends, and looked back, at all the new skyscrapers, and the delightfully exuberant Pacific Tell building, not giving an inch to any of the glass and stone boxes towering above it, such latecomers all. It was a sunny day and you could trace the ramps through the buildings and to a certain extent, back to the Bay Bridge. I could also see the shadows, in my minds eye, of the area walled in as it was by the Embarcadero Freeway, nearby, when I first saw the City back in the seventies.

I doubt the new terminal will have any character at all, even a half century after it opens. But who knows? Still, I won’t miss this sad old building. Of all the places, in all the world, where trains once rolled in and out, few ever had so little charm as the old Transbay Terminal.

The Chronicle reported that “The joint powers authority, Caltrans, the California State Railroad Museum and the Western Railway Museum have claimed items including benches, the bar, the cafeteria log book, brass railings, Key System signs and pieces of the terrazzo floor to save for posterity. Some will be displayed in a Bay Area transportation museum planned for Gateway Park on the Oakland side of the Bay Bridge.”

Does anyone have specifics on what items were saved. And what’s this about a “Bay Area transportation museum” planned for Oakland?

Good riddance. The building has long outlived its usefulness and should long ago have been replaced with something on the ground like the temporary terminal. I’m looking forward to our new terminal building and hope there will be some nods to what is worth saving from the original.

The late Harre Demoro wrote in one of his books that the Transbay Terminal had a fundamental design flaw. He stated that streams of boarding passengers interfered with streams of alighting passengers (because of the layout of stairs and passageways). This, in turn, would have prevented operation of the terminal at the full “design” capacity (because of the longer-than-planned “minimum” interval between peak-period train departures). As a consequence, the Bridge Railway could not have been operated at its full “design” capacity. I do not have the book in front of me, so I don’t know what, if anything, Demoro wrote about the feasibility and cost - and need - to correct the problem

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