Streetcars in the Sunset: Trolleys transformed sand dunes into neighborhood of today

When one thinks of San Francisco’s Sunset District, the image of fog, cold salty winds, and sand dunes comes to mind. People have aptly developed their perceptions of this part of San Francisco. While it might be sunny and warm in the Mission District, the Sunset often shivers under a blanket of fog with a biting wind off the ocean and a temperature fifteen degrees lower.

The Sunset, west of Twin Peaks and south of Golden Gate Park, is geographically one of the largest districts in the City. It was also the last major chunk of town to be developed. That’s where Muni, the old Market Street Railway Co. (MSRy), and streetcars come into the picture.

At the turn of the century, the area was comprised of sand dunes and scrub. A few hardy souls had cabins at Ocean Beach, there were a few cabbage patches near what is now Stonestown, and solitary houses dotted the dunes. The area was not easy to reach with Twin Peaks, Mt. Davidson, and Mt. Sutro separating it from the developed part of town. One had to circle around and come in from the Haight to the north or the outer Mission to the south.

In 1883, the Park and Ocean Railroad established the first viable means of access to this desolate area, building a steam railroad from Haight and Stanyan (where the cable car line from the Ferry Building ended) along H Street (now Lincoln Way) almost to Ocean Beach, then north through the western edge of Golden Gate Park into the outer Richmond District, ending at B (Balboa) Street. This steam route was electrified in 1898, and by 1902 was operated by conventional streetcars. By 1916, it formed the outer end of United Railroad’s 7-Haight line. This line also hosted ‘street sweeping cars,’ electric gondolas carrying ‘street dirt’ (horse manure) to fill in sandy gullies in outer Golden Gate Park, thus allowing the verdant growth seen there today.

But this line only touched the northern edge of the Sunset. United Railroads (URR), the predecessor of MSRy, bisected the district in 1916 by running a branch of the 7-line down 20th Avenue from Lincoln Way to Sloat Boulevard, calling it the 17-line. This line met up with an extension, built after 1902, of the trolley line that came down Mission Street from the Ferries, then across Ocean Avenue. The extension ran along Sloat all the way to the beach, though there were few houses to serve at first, and no ‘built-in’ attraction like the Cliff House at the end of the #1 and 2 lines to the north (the Zoo didn’t open until the 1930s).

These lines provided slow, roundabout service to downtown, and did not do much to attract people to live under the blanket of gray.

Enter the Municipal Railway, the City-owned streetcar system opened in 1912 on Geary Street. Real estate developers saw a gold mine in the Sunset, and encouraged politicians to extend fast Muni service to the district by means of tunnels. For ‘can-do’ City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy, that encouragement fit right in with his own vision.

In 18 months, he holed through one of the longest streetcar tunnels ever built, from Castro and Market under Twin Peaks to the middle of nowhere. When it opened on Feb. 3, 1918, with Mayor ‘Sunny Jim’ Rolph at the controls of gray-and-maroon car No. 117, 10,000 turned out to cheer.

Almost overnight, a new neighborhood erupted at the tunnel’s West Portal. Nearby, a tract of homes was staked out, not for blue collar folks, but for the well-to-do, taking advantage of this new transit marvel that could carry them downtown in 15 minutes. Its name:St. Francis Wood.

Muni planned three lines to go through the Twin Peaks Tunnel: the K-Ingleside, to share tracks with URR’s 12-line on Junipero Serra and Ocean Avenue, the L-Taraval (which was originally planned for Vicente Street), and the M-Ocean View. These lines were all operating full length by 1925.

Three years later, Muni did it again–tunnelled, that is–opening the Sunset Tunnel under Buena Vista Ridge, and running the N-Judah line through it to Ocean Beach. The N made the parallel MSRy 7-line on Lincoln Way (and the 6-line on Parnassus) seem poky, what with all their stops on Haight while the N whizzed through the tunnel.

The K, L, M, and N, financed by taxpayer money, brought on a real estate boom for such developers as Henry Doelger, whose tracts dominated the district. The Ingleside was built out by the early 1930s, Taraval Street morphed from sand dunes to a commercial strip by the late 1930s, Lakeside Village rose in 1940, and Stonestown and the Parkmerced complex were finished by the 1950s. The developments on 19th Avenue, added to the ever-expanding San Francisco State campus, finally began bringing some ridership to the lonely M-line, which had operated as a shuttle from West Portal for much of its life (served occasionally by Car No. 1, preserved in Muni’s vintage fleet).

Expansion of Muni to the Sunset was a deliberate act of public policy. The investment in tunnels was made knowing Muni’s private competitor couldn’t afford to match it, and would lose competitive advantage. The City wanted that: its goal was to municipalize–take over–all transit services, which it did by buying out the old Market Street Railway Co. in 1944 and the Cal Cable Railway Co. in 1952.

Interestingly, Muni’s expansionist fervor had cooled by then. It could have rebuilt the worn-out track of MSRy’s 6, 7, 12, and 17 lines and routed them through the Muni tunnels to speed those lines’ riders downtown. Instead, Muni ripped out the tracks and either discontinued parts of the routes or put buses on. Nor did Muni leverage its tunnel investment by adding additional lines on streets built extra wide to accommodate transit, such as Noriega.

Indeed, by the 1950s, transit managers around America were bus-crazy, and the evidence shows that if the Twin Peaks Tunnel had been built wide enough to accommodate buses, San Francisco’s streetcars might have gone to the graveyard, as they did in almost every other American city.

Instead, the trolley lines survived, using PCC cars (like the F-line’s colorful daily fleet) from 1957 until the J, K, L, M, and N lines were linked to the new Market Street subway in 1982.

Today, the Sunset is a thriving community but increasingly auto-dependent, as the Muni streetcar lines have reached saturation. Perhaps the new Breda LRVs and operational improvements will ease that. In the meantime, by looking carefully, one can catch glimpses of the early transit investment that spurred the Sunset to life: the spur of the L-line on Taraval from 46th to the Beach, now the oldest (1923) surviving streetcar trackage in town; the wide median running the length of Sloat, put there to carry the old 12-line; Railroad Trail behind the Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park, the route of the old steam trains, and later the 7-line; and if you know where to look, a few odd-looking additions to houses in the area bounded roughly by Irving and Lawton, 46th to 48th Avenues. They’re old cable cars, dumped after the 1906 earthquake when the lines were converted to trolleys, taken over by folks needing housing, and called ‘Carville’. Later absorbed into bigger houses, they now remind us of transit’s role in building the Sunset–in more ways than one.

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