The Key System’s March of Progress

Before BART and AC Transit, the East Bay was served by the Key System, an extensive streetcar network which linked to San Francisco over the lower deck of the Bay Bridge and arriving at the Transbay Terminal. This 1945 promotional film shows the once great Key System at its peak.

Thanks to Pedestrianist for leading us to a post at 38th Notes.

2 Comments on The Key System’s March of Progress

Remembering the Cable Car Rebuild 25 Years Later

On vacation last month, we missed the 25th anniversary of the return of the cable cars to the Streets of San Francisco. But it’s still worth a look back at that memorable project, which we chronicled in the pages of our member newsletter, Inside Track, five years ago:

When the reduced cable car system reopened in 1957, it was still old. During the lengthy shutdown of the California and Hyde Street trackage, Muni focused on consolidating operations with its Powell lines, not on complete renewal. Capital funding, as usual, was in short supply, so much so that in this same period, Muni had to effect a complicated lease arrangement for used PCC streetcars from St. Louis so the last of its original streetcar fleet could finally be replaced.

Having ‘saved’ the cable cars, most San Franciscans started taking them for granted again. But the system was growing sclerotic. In late 1979, a rash of accidents shut the system down for emergency repairs that lasted six months. Muni commissioned a complete engineering evaluation of the system, which concluded that it had to be rebuilt from the hole-in-the-ground up.

A $60 Million Job

The city’s politicians and business community rallied. Mayor Dianne Feinstein took personal charge of the effort. She helped win federal funding for the bulk of the rebuilding job.


The ‘gauntlet’ track on Jackson, between Powell and Mason, was showing its age shortly before the 1982 shutdown. Market Street Railway photo.

She recruited Chevron USA head Ken Derr to ‘tin cup’ leading San Francisco businesses to raise the required local matching funds. Market Street Railway director Virgil Caselli, then general manager of Ghirardelli Square, ran the ‘Committee to Save the Cable Cars’ that coordinated fundraising. In all, public and private contributions approached $60 million.

Time was of the essence. Major changes would trigger an environmental impact study, which would add a year or more to the process. So the only changes allowed were for the sake of improved safety, flexibility, and operability. For example, the Powell lines were engineered so that the higher capacity California-type cars could run safely on them.

The restrictions on new route trackage deferred the dream (originally proposed in 1954) of an additional cable car line using the tracks on California and Hyde Streets. The tight schedule couldn’t accommodate all the extensive connections necessary for through running of a ‘California-Hyde’ line.

Swarm of workers

Before dawn on September 22, 1982, the last passenger-carrying car bounced over the old cable car system. Soon the cables would fall silent for 21 months as workers swarmed the routes.
All things considered, the rebuilding went quite well, especially since there had been essentially no cable car engineering performed in the previous 95 years, and there was the potential for nasty surprises under streets and structures that had been little touched over that same period.
Contractors did get a big surprise when they started working on the venerable carbarn and powerhouse at Washington and Mason. Originally built in 1887 and rebuilt after being destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, it was found that the exterior brick walls were standing largely out of habit–there was no foundation to speak of.
The plans called for keeping the exterior walls only for appearance’s sake, building a modern steel and concrete structure inside. Still, they had to devise and implement a fix for the problem.


Headed for the home stretch of the project, brand new track frames a completely rebuilt powerhouse and car barn at Washington & Mason. Only the brick ‘wrapper’ is old. Market Street Railway photo.

The carbarn that emerged looked the same from the outside, but was completely new inside, from the cable winding machinery to a completely enclosed car storage area upstairs to better protect out-of-service cars (something the historic streetcars still lack).
On the street, 69 blocks of track were completely rebuilt with heavier rails and deeper flangeways, cable channels of concrete instead of rusted iron, and new pulleys with space-age components like Teflon for reduced friction. Curves were now banked, putting an end to the thrilling lurch around corners accompanied by the conductor’s yell, ‘cout [look out] for the curve!
The cars themselves got new, stronger trucks and improved brakes. A couple of cars were rebuilt; all were repainted. The Powell fleet received a new paint scheme derived from the 1888 Powell Street Railway livery. Car No. 3 was left in the Muni green and creme livery it had worn since the mid-1940s and dedicated to cable car savior Friedel Klussmann. (Later, some replacement Powell cars built for the fleet got other historic liveries.)

The result: a smoother-running and safer cable car system. There were some problems with some of the newly engineered features. For example, the metal pulley cover plates made a racket when automobiles ran over them, waking neighbors. But these problems proved minor, given the scope of the task.

More safety, less flavor

Perhaps inevitably, some of the flavor of the old system was lost: the clatter at Geary and Powell when the cable car passed over the remnants of the Muni B and C line streetcar tracks; the Belgian block between the rail in segments of Hyde Street; the lurch as wheels dipped into a trough in the track caused by subsiding streets. Now it was uniform, predictable, homogenized.

No question, though, that the cable car system couldn’t have gone on the way it was. It was the proverbial accident waiting to happen–perhaps a catastrophic accident that might have called the wisdom of preserving the system into question. The reconstruction project significantly lessened the chances of that happening.

On June 21, 1984, Mayor Feinstein was joined by City, Muni, and corporate top brass and thousands of other San Franciscans to celebrate the full reopening of the cable car system–just in time to host delegates to the Democratic National Convention. The cable cars were “rebuilt and ready for another 100 years of service,” according to Muni officials. We’re only one-fifth of the way there [one-fourth now] , but so far, so good.

4 Comments on Remembering the Cable Car Rebuild 25 Years Later

Streetcar No. 1 Restoration Underway

Muni’s flagship streetcar, 1912 No. 1, has safely arrived at the shops of the contractor, Brookville Equipment Company in Pennsylvania (below), the first time in its 97-year life that the streetcar has left San Francisco.  Reports we’ve received tell us restoration has already started.

Car 1_Brookville_0709.jpg

The contract calls for the streetcar to be completely rehabilitated with its original motor and control technology intact, but with the addition of low-voltage circuitry for the interior lights and modern VETAG switch controls and GPS for tracking, like the PCCs, MIlans, and some other vintage streetcars have. The historic fabric of No. 1 is not supposed to be altered. In fact, the contract contains such language as the following:

The Contractor shall be fully aware of the historical nature of the vehicle and note that it is the SFMTA’s intent to preserve the design and integrity of the original interior and exterior to the greatest extent possible. For example, if slotted brass screws or hot rivets were originally used, then they should be used again or a substitute fastener if it closely resembles the original. The SFMTA will hold the Contractor responsible for any damage to historic Streetcar components caused during the Contractor’s possession of the Streetcar.

According to the terms of the contract, the car must be completed and returned to Muni by May 14, 2010, so time is of the essence for Brookvile. Market Street Railway will be monitoring the work to the extent possible with an eye toward maintaining the essential autheniticity of this irreplaceable streetcar.

6 Comments on Streetcar No. 1 Restoration Underway

2010 Museums in Motion Calendar Preview


Each year, Market Street Railway publishes a wall calendar featuring photos of San Francisco’s historic streetcars and cable cars. The Museums in Motion calendar is important to us as a fundraiser, a thank you to our members (all $100 and above Market Street Railway members receive one) and generate interest in historic transit.
The 2010 calendar won’t ship for a few months still, but with the final design sent off to the printers now we want thank everyone who has submitted photos via our Flickr group over the last two years. In addition to calendar regulars Peter Ehrlich and Richard Panse, next year’s calendar will feature photos from frequent group contributors Kevin Sheridan and Telstar Logistics’ own Todd Lappin.
Thank you all for your photo submissions, and don’t stop taking photos because we intend to do this again next year. We’ll announce here when the next calendar goes on sale and anyone who Joins Market Street Railway at the $100 level will receive a copy by mail.

Comments Off on 2010 Museums in Motion Calendar Preview

Castro’s Trial Plaza Extended Four Months

Georg Lester photo. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been enjoying time spent in the 17th Street Plaza that the trial period has been extended another 4 months. The plaza sits at the corner where Market Street (San Francisco’s main boulevard) and the thriving Castro Street shopping district both come together with 17th Street, where the F-Market & Wharves line turns around. The plaza has quickly become the heart of the neighborhood, where residents and visitors gather… — Read More

11 Comments on Castro’s Trial Plaza Extended Four Months

Back to the Future?

“New Orleans plans to outsource nearly every aspect of its mass-transit system to a French company, an approach that could appeal to other cash-strapped American cities looking to cut spending without eliminating bus or rail services.” So begins a story in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, accompanied by a picture of tourists riding a St. Charles line streetcar. Small irony here: New Orleans was one of the last privately owned big-city transit systems in the U.S., a subsidiary of an… — Read More

6 Comments on Back to the Future?

A Wish Come True

Henry onboard New Orleans streetcar no. 952 Couple of months ago, we got an inquiry from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, on behalf of a young man from Massachusetts who loves streetcars. Eleven-year old Henry Mulvey was very specific about his wish: he wanted to ride New Orleans “Desire” car No. 952. Last week, Muni and Market Street Railway teamed up to make Henry’s wish come true, and then some. Here’s the San Jose Mercury-News account, and what we heard back from… — Read More

4 Comments on A Wish Come True

Award Winning Photography

Kevin Sheridan photo. Congratulations to Kevin Sheridan on winning the black and white photography Best of Show award at the Marin County Fair for his untitled interior shot of light falling on the seats of Muni streetcar no. 130. View original award winning photo » Kevin, who goes by the name StreetRailway on Flickr, is currently the top contributor to the Market Street Railway Flickr Group and you’ve more than likely seen his work if you’ve visited the group before.… — Read More

2 Comments on Award Winning Photography