107 Years Ago Today

December 28, 1912, about 1 p.m., looking west on Geary Street at Grant Avenue. A crowd estimated at 50,000 people engulfs Muni’s first streetcars as they inaugurate the A-Geary line. Car 3 is in the foreground, left, trailing Cars 2 and 1 (which carried Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph). Click the photo and enjoy the wonderful detail. Try to find a bareheaded person (we found only one). Go window shopping at The Paragon, where a year-end 1/4-1/2 off sale is underway (that building is still there). Note that Car 3 is missing its rear “A” route plate (Did they run out? Was it filched?) A remarkable image. Courtesy SFMTA Archive.

On December 28, 1912, ten shiny gray streetcars with brick-red roofs lined up on Geary Street, from Kearny Street to Grant Avenue. The first, Numbered 1 in gold leaf outlined in black, opened its black scissor gate. Up stepped the Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco, James Rolph, Jr.

From his pocket, he took a Liberty Head nickel, with a large “V” on the back (people knew back then that was the roman numeral for “five”). He nodded at conductor Nathan Rahn, in his crisp navy blue uniform, and dropped it into the firebox. It clanked. The press was told this 1912-S nickel was one of the first 40 ever minted at the San Francisco Mint at Fifth and Mission. The Mayor strode through the car, its crisp pale yellow rattan streets still pristine, its wood paneling still smelling of varnish.

Originally, the streetcars were to have been decorated, and the Municipal Band was supposed to be aboard the first car, playing its way along the line to the initial terminal at 33rd Avenue. The Mayor personally scotched this idea, saying, “Let’s get the cars going all right first, and toot our horn afterward”. Still, the crowd estimated at 50,000 San Franciscans roared for a speech from the mayor. He answered their call with these remarks:

“It is in reality the people’s road, built by the people and with the people’s money. The first cable road in the country was built in San Francisco, and now the first municipal railway of the country is built in San Francisco. Our operation of this road will be closely watched by the whole country. s must prove a success! … I want everyone to feel that it is but the nucleus of a mighty system of streetcar lines which will someday encompass the entire city.”

Mayor James Rolph, Jr., December 28, 1912

Mayor Rolph then joined Motorman Eugene Clisbee on the front platform of Car 1, gave the signal, and the streetcar inched forward through the swarms of people to loud cheers, and the silent salute of dozens of American flags hanging from the upper floors of surrounding buildings. Filled with dignitaries and (literal) hangers-on, Car 1 picked up speed as the crowd thinned, and by Jones Street, was making good time. A photographer snapped the shot below, with an escort automobile next to it. (That photo ended up in the San Francisco Public Library with a notation “date and location unknown”. Until our nonprofit recognized it for what it was, documented the location and event, and publicized it.)

Car 1 on December 28, 1912, westbound on Geary at Jones Street. San Francisco Public Library.

While Mayor Rolph loved photo-ops, he was no one-block-and-off guy. He rode every inch of track, followed by the other cars that had lined up behind. Muni only owned ten streetcars initially, but just over two years later, they would be operating almost 200 streetcars on seven lines (plus two special lines for the 1915 exposition). With the opening of tunnels under San Francisco hills in 1918 and 1928, Rolph’s vision of city-wide Muni service would be achieved during his own tenure as mayor (he was elected governor in 1930).

Car 1 (center) near the end of its first service life at Sutro Barn, 32nd Avenue and Clement Street, 1949. MSR Archive.

Muni’s first ten streetcars were retired in 1951. Only Car 1 of this group was preserved, for possible static display in a museum. But in 1962, Muni craftworkers restored it to its original appearance to celebrate the Railway’s 50th anniversary, and it gave rides on Market Street for a nickel one week. This was the germ of an idea to operate historic streetcar service on our main street, brought to reality with the Historic Trolley Festivals of the 1980, which were the result of advocacy from early leaders of Market Street Railway (the nonprofit named for Muni’s old private competitor). The success of the Trolley Festivals led to the permanent F-Market line, which opened in 1995 and was extended to Fisherman’s Wharf in 2000, again thanks in large measure to the persistent and persuasive advocacy of Market Street Railway.

Rust and rot, Car 1, 2004. MSR Archive.

As for Car 1 itself, it began to rust and rot in the sun and rain after the covered storage sheds at Geneva Division were demolished in the 1980s. Market Street Railway advocated successfully for both restoration of this priceless vehicle and construction of protective covered storage for the historic streetcar fleet, both achieved around Muni’s centennial year of 2012.

Running any big-city transit agency is tough, to say the least. Running one in a high-density city with increasingly crowded streets is tougher yet. Despite the challenges, Muni’s leaders, with strong support from elected officials, have managed to turn one of America’s oldest transit fleets into one of its newest, and its greenest as well, in the past eight years. All while operating the nation’s largest fleet of vintage transit vehicles (cable cars as well as streetcars) in regular daily service, taking people where they want to go with delight.

Car 1, completely restored, at Muni’s centennial celebration on April 5, 2012, with many dignitaries including (on platform) Mayor Ed Lee, former Mayor Willie Brown, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. SFMTA photo.

Market Street Railway is proud to serve as Muni’s nonprofit preservation partner and salute it on its 107th anniversary. Please consider a year-end tax-deductible donation or membership to help us in our mission of preserving historic transit in San Francisco by clicking here. Thanks, and Happy 2020, everyone!

Source credit for opening day detail: “The People’s Railway” by Anthony Perles.