Or, How About “Step Down to Open”?

Like many transit systems, Muni has had its idiosyncrasies over its first century of serving San Franciscans. On a recent trip to look at historic buses, we were reminded of one that made us chuckle all over again.
After World War II, Muni got its first vehicles with treadles in the rear stepwells. When you stepped down, the doors opened automatically at stops. Not a world-shaking event to us today, but Muni management in that day must have thought it would befuddle riders — or they were singularly concerned about safety — so they posted these remarkably detailed instructions over the rear doors of all their PCC streetcars, trolley coaches, and motor coaches. Even after people got the hang of it, the instructions stayed up, well into the 1970s, if we remember correctly.
If you stopped to read something that convoluted by the back doors of a Muni vehicle today, you’d be run over…mostly by people climbing on without paying!

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Happy 120th Birthday, SF Streetcars

On April 17, 1892, the first electric streetcar service opened in San Francisco. The line started at Market and Steuart Streets, a block from the Ferry terminal and just a few feet from our San Francisco Railway Museum. The line of the San Francisco & San Mateo Railway ran out to Holy Cross Cemetery south of the county line, in what is Colma today. The line zigged and zagged through downtown, partly to avoid infringing on other companies’ street franchise rights, but generally followed Steuart, Harrison, 14th St. and Guerrero to reach San Jose Avenue.

DSC_1025 copy.JPGMuni’s historic streetcar collection includes one of the city’s earliest, single truck No. 578, built in 1895, shown here near the terminal of the city’s first streetcar line on Steuart Street, at our San Francisco Railway Museum.

Made practical by Frank Sprague in Richmond, Virginia, just five years earlier, the electric streetcar was already decimating its predecessor technology, the cable car, in big cities all over America, and why not? Streetcars were twice as fast and easier to maintain, although they couldn’t climb steep hills like cable cars could. They also (at least initially) required overhead electric wires, which many found unsightly. Opponents of such wires successfully kept electric streetcars off Market Street for the next 14 years, although streetcar lines did spring up on many other streets, including Mission and Fillmore.

The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the cable car systems throughout the city; the main transit company of the time, United Railroads, took the opportunity (with some help from bribes) to string “temporary” wires on Market and bring streetcars to the city’s main street, where they have remained essentially ever since.
All of these early streetcar lines were privately owned, built to make a profit (which they amazingly did with a standard fare of five cents). But 20 years after the city got its first streetcar line, it got its (and America’s) first publicly owned streetcar line, the Municipal Railway (Muni), whose centennial we celebrate this year.

On April 27, 1992, while the permanent F-line was under construction, Muni and Market Street Railway mounted a grand streetcar parade down Market to celebrate the centennial of San Francisco streetcars. Today’s 120th will be marked simply by the same steady service streetcars provide every day in San Francisco. Cheers!

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Muni Centennial Officially Under Way

Muni’s centennial officially kicked off this morning with the rededication of streetcar No. 1 at our San Francisco Railway Museum. Since we were involved in the action, hosting VIPs at the museum and speaking at the event, we’re glad our good friends at Muni Diaries shared the news quickly. The event combined speeches to an audience of several hundred invited guests in a tent opposite the museum and an inaugural ride on Car 1, with ridership limited for security reasons. (Though the venerable flagship of the fleet was made available to guests for a ride to Pier 39 right after the inaugural ride.)
Couple of notes:
Mayor Ed Lee reprised the role of predecessors starting with “Sunny Jim” Rolph by operating the car along Market from Steuart to Eighth Street. He showed a steady hand on the controller and an excellent touch on the air brake for a first timer. Of course, he had a great teacher in operator Angel Carvajal, who stood attentively by.
Mayor Lee also got some tips from a veteran “motormayor,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, who operated a variety of cars on Trolley Festival opening days in the 1980s, including the open top Blackpool “boat tram.” (She said she hoped it was still in the fleet. “Yes, Senator, you bet!”) Around Fifth Street, Mayor Lee offered the controls to the Senator, who said, “Thanks, Ed, but that’s the Mayor’s job!”


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Sen. Feinstein (on platform) graciously agreed to serve as honorary chair of Muni’s Centennial Committee. Photogs snap away at this group shot of committee members, including MSR President Rick Laubscher (next to the Senator). Mayor Ed Lee (at left on platform was joined by SFMTA head Ed Reiskin and Board Chair Tom Nolan (flanking Sen. Feinstein at street level) in leading today’s Mun’s Centennial kickoff.

Senator Feinstein showed why she has always been one of the classiest elected officials (and people) around, using her remarks to spread the credit around for the F-line when all who are closely involved know it wouldn’t have happened without her strong advocacy and constant championing.
Sen. Feinstein told a great story about riding the ORIGINAL F-line (F-Stockton that is) when she was just a tot. “We lived in a flat on Fillmore near Beach Street back then. I would get on the F-car [at Chestnut] and ride it through North Beach to 450 Sutter. [Her dad was a doctor.} I hadn’t learned to read yet, and had to ask the conductor which was the right street.”
We’ve heard countless stories from Muni riders that have some similarity to the Senator’s; it’s just another reminder of how many lives Muni has touched — and of the days when a small girl’s parents felt safe letting her ride Muni on her own.
By the way, if you haven’t had the chance to peruse the many stories about Muni history on this site, click on the “blog” tab at the top of the page, choose “History Spotlight” on the tabs underneath it, and click on titles that catch your fancy. And to see a truly funny story about Dianne Feinstein’s first encounter with a rail fan, click here.

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