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History Spotlight / San Francisco transit stories and videos

Telling a Great Story of 108 Years Ago

On or about April 14, 1906, 108 years ago this week, pioneering professional filmmakers the Miles Brothers bolted a hand-cranked camera onto the front of a cable car and rode down Market Street from Eighth Street to the Ferry Building. The film they shot has gained new interest in the past few years, since film historian David Kiehn demonstrated that it was made just a few days before the great earthquake and fire destroyed almost everything you see. (Previously, the film was thought to have been made in the summer of 1905.)

This “Trip Down Market Street” has been seen millions of times in the century-plus since it was made, but there’s only one fully narrated version we know of — ours! Click below for a preview.

In the full 11 minute video, Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher, author of ON TRACK and a noted San Francisco historian, tells you what you’re seeing on every block along the way in this memorable film, including social, economic, and political history to go with the transit history. It’s all woven together seamlessly, bringing this wonderful film, “A Trip Down Market Street,” to life.

You can see the full 11 minute video free at our San Francisco Railway Museum, open daily except Monday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. For just $12.95, you can also buy your own copy at the Museum, or right here at our online store (scroll down the store page until you reach the video). Remember, Market Street Railway Members get 10% off.

New Field Guide to SF's Historic Streetcars & Cable Cars

Market Street Railway is proud to announce the release of our new field guide to San Francisco’s historic streetcars and cable cars: ON TRACK.

Written by Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher, this 128-page guide tells you the story of each vintage rail vehicle in Muni’s fleet, gives you riding tips, lists the historic sites you’ll pass on each route, and shares insider secrets for great walks that link to your historic ride. It’s full color and there are great graphics of every car, and loads of current and historic photos as well.

ON TRACK includes a concise history of transit in San Francisco and the story of how vintage streetcar service came to be and grew in popularity. There’s even a trainspotter’s guide to let you record the vintage vehicles you ride or see.

At 4.5” by 9”, it slips right in your pocket, so it will always be at the ready as you ride or watch the cavalcade of cable cars and streetcars in the City.

We’ve written it to appeal to both San Franciscans and visitors from around the world. It’s available now at our San Francisco Railway Museum, or on our online store. It’s just $14.95, and remember, Market Street Railway members get 10% off!

All proceeds go to support the mission of Market Street Railway: Preserving Historic Transit in San Francisco. So pick up one for yourself, and additional copies too, because they make great gifts.

Photo of the (Past) Moment: Ferry Heyday

Ferry Loop from Tower Ralph Demoro shot c1936.jpg

Ferry Loop, April 1936. Ralph W. Demoro photo, Al Schwoerer collection. Click to enlarge.

Al Schwoerer recently posted this on our Facebook Group. The photo is from his collection, taken in April 1936 by the legendary railfan and photographer Ralph Demoro (father of the even more legendary railfan and journalist Harre Demoro.

It’s a classic moment in time, taken from the second floor of the Ferry Building on the very cusp of the opening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

That changed everything.

Ferry traffic withered and within three years, many of the streetcar lines that served the Ferry Building were diverted to the new East Bay Terminal at First and Mission.

Click on the photo to enlarge it and just look all the action. There’s a Muni bus on its 4-line (later the 32-Embarcadero) headed south, under the “Grand Cafeteria” sign. So few people rode this line that the State Board of Harbor Commissioners, which ran the Port of San Francisco in those days, had to subsidize it. (For you young transit nerds, yes there was a day when subsidized transit lines were the exception, not the (universal) rule. Next to the Grand, you can buy GallenKamp shoes for three bucks. In front of the bus, you got your beer truck. Prohibition is dead! For most practical purposes, it never actually existed in San Francisco, but it did put saloons behind the “speakeasy” curtain, which probably affected this block of The Embarcadero as much as any in the city. If you compare this to a photo of the same block pre-Volstead Act, almost all these storefronts were saloons, and all of them offered “free” lunches, consisting of bread, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and pickles, with the purchase of a “scoop” of beer — for a nickel.

The presence of a 17-line car (No. 129) on the loop, with a Zoo dash sign, tells us Ralph took this on a Sunday or Holiday, since those were the only days the 17 was extended via the 12-line on Sloat Boulevard to Ocean Beach. There’s also a 5, a 21, and a 31 on the loop, along with just one Muni car, a K.

As Al observed in his Facebook post, “lots of interesting stuff going on.” Amen.

We’re going to try to get access to the same location in the Ferry Building to match this photo for the next issue of our members-only color newsletter, Inside Track. If you’re reading this post and you’re not a Market Street Railway member, we can fix that right now. We need your support to keep San Francisco’s historic streetcars on track!

Skipping Stops, Then and Now

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Even in the 1930s, transit stop spacing was an issue in San Francisco. Click to enlarge.

This pair of notices from our namesake (Muni’s privately owned competitor from 1921 to 1944) recently came to our attention. They would have been posted inside Market Street Railway streetcars, probably in the 1930s, as part of a campaign to win rider acceptance of wider spacing of streetcar stops.

No question that the main reason the company president, Samuel Kahn, initiated the change was to cut costs by shortening trip time. For the private company, every nickel (then the standard fare) counted, and the more trips a crew could make in a shift, the more nickels the company counted.

The same arguments in the posters apply today, and are being made today by Muni in its efforts to speed up service as part of its Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP). Our non-profit supports Muni in these goals.

We also support them in the proposals to reduce the number of F-line stops on the downtown portion of our main street, something neither the old Market Street Railway nor Muni ever attempted way back when. It’s all part of the Better Market Street project, which we’re involved with (along with myriad other groups). We’ll explain our views in detail in the next issue of our member newsletter, Inside Track, due out in September. To get our newsletter and to support our efforts to improve and extend historic streetcar service, please join us!

Maya Angelou and Market Street Railway

Something about the poet and author Dr. Maya Angelou escaped most people’s attention, until now. She was once employed by our namesake, Market Street Railway Company, Muni’s old competitor, as a streetcar conductor. The first black female conductor in San Francisco history, in fact.

She said this decades ago in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” when she describes in some detail standing on the back platform of a 7-Haight streetcar collecting nickels from boarding passengers. But now it has become national news, because she talked about it with Oprah. Here’s a clip from that interview, courtesy Harpo Productions.

How Dr. Maya Angelou Became San Francisco’s First Black Streetcar Conductor

Dr. Maya Angelou says the love of her mother, Vivian Baxter, encouraged her to live a life full of pizzazz. It was also that love that helped Dr. Angelou to become the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco at age 16. “I loved the uniforms,” Dr. Angelou says. “So I said, ‘That’s a job I want.’” When she went to get an application, Dr. Angelou says, the staff refused to give her one. Find out how her mother encouraged her to persevere. Then, see how Vivian made sure her daughter was safe at work during her early-morning shifts.

We provided some photos of Market Street Railway streetcars on the 7-line to the program. They added photos of female transit workers from other systems, not San Francisco’s. The program promotes “How Dr. Angelou Became San Francisco’s First Black Streetcar Conductor.” Hiring records no longer exist, but anecdotal evidence we’ve gathered over the years indicate several African-American found employment on the streetcars a little earlier than Dr. Angelou. That, however, in no way diminishes her incredible story of perseverance and determination in overcoming both racism and sexism to land the job she wanted — when she was just 16 years old.

The video clip is well worth watching.

Visit Us This Weekend at the SF History Expo

Market Street Railway and the San Francisco Railway Museum invite you to visit us at the third annual San Francisco History Expo. This great event takes place Saturday, March 2 from 10-5 and Sunday, March 5, from 10-4, at the historic Old U.S. Mint at Fifth and Mission Streets, worth a visit by itself.


Our display of San Francisco transit artifacts at the first History Expo in 2011.

This amazing event, sponsored by the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, brings together more than 40 local and neighborhood history groups in a mini-museum of San Francisco history. It’s a wonderful opportunity for people to learn about the city’s varied history through displays, presentations, photos, videos, fine art, music, children’s activities and historical re-enactments.

This year’s event is bigger and better than ever, with the added excitement of a raffle. Tickets will be available for purchase at the entrance and throughout the halls, and each exhibitor will offer an item of their choosing for raffle. Buying extra tickets will increase your chance to win that special something, and will help offset the expenses of holding the event.

Over the last two years more than 7,000 people have attended this one weekend only event, and viewed exhibits from the SF Museum Historical Society, Guardians of the City, Market Street Railway, LGBT Historical Society, SF History Association, Chinese Historical Society, The Western Neighborhoods Project, and many others. This year promises to be the best yet. Visit our booth and see transit artifacts and interesting items from our archives.museum

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