Happy Birthday, Muni!

December 28, 1912. Fifty thousand San Franciscans gathered at Market and Geary Streets. Was it a presidential visit? No, it was the transit equivalent of a late visit from Santa. It was a new streetcar line.

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Car No. 1, with Mayor Rolph at the controls, on its first run out Geary, at Jones, December 28, 1912. San Francisco Municipal Railway Archives.

But symbolically it was a lot more than that. For the ten locally-built gray and maroon streetcars that began running up and down the A-Geary line that day had letterboards on the side emblazoned in gold leaf “MUNICIPAL RAILWAY.” They were the first publicly owned streetcars in any major American city. San Franciscans turned out because they were proud of what their government had done.

In those days, private companies owned transit lines, which made a profit, even with a five-cent fare. They were awarded franchises from cities for the right to use the streets, lay down their tracks, and string their overhead wires. In San Francisco, this arrangement had led to significant corruption and the public was sick of it. So they approved a bond issue to purchase the obsolete Geary Street Cable Railroad and convert it to streetcars.

When Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph board Car No. 1, paid his fare (using one of the first 40 nickels produced by the San Francisco Mint less than three blocks away on Fifth Street), and personally took the controls for the ride out Geary, the crowd roared.

Ninety-six years later, with all the ups and downs of Muni, it’s good to remember the positive vision behind its creation.

Market Street Railway is working with Muni on its Centennial plan for 2012. A definite part of the celebration is the full restoration of Car No. 1 — that contract is already out to bid but the process has been delayed by non-responsive bids, which we will cover in the next issue of our newsletter for members, out in mid-January. No doubt though that a restored Car No. 1 will be part of the Centennial show. We’d like your ideas on what else should be part of Muni’s Centennial in 2012, so please feel free to comment.

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