Happy 105th Birthday, Muni!

On December 28, 1912, 50,000 people flooded Geary Street near Market.

They were there to cheer a streetcar!

More exactly, ten streetcars, lined up in numerical order pointed west, led by Car 1.

It was the opening of the first publicly owned transit system in a major American city: the Municipal Railway of San Francisco.

The new city-owned streetcar line on Geary was a product of the Progressive Era, which called for ownership of public utilities by the public, not by private corporations who did it to make a profit. “Muni”, as it soon came to be known by all San Franciscans, competed fiercely against private competitors until all transit routes were consolidated under city ownership mid-century.

The opening celebration saw San Francisco Mayor James Rolph, Jr. board Car 1, place one of the first forty nickels ever minted in San Francisco into the farebox, put on his motorman’s cap, and personally pilot the first car out Geary. San Franciscans considered it a very big deal, and supported Muni’s growth over subsequent decades.

For Muni’s centennial in 2012, Market Street Railway successfully advocated for the complete restoration of Car 1, which became the star of centennial celebrations, just as it was on that first day, December 28, 1912.

On a recent private charter of Car 1, a birthday party for a prominent San Franciscan (yes, you can charter it or other vintage streetcars for your own private ride), guests who had never experienced a ride on a vintage streetcar were incredulous that the city would still have — and operate — its very own streetcar. And the smiles and stares of onlookers along The Embarcadero reinforced that story line. San Francisco cares about its history, remembers its past, and puts it to work!

Happy 105th, Muni! San Francisco wouldn’t be what it is without you!

Share

Santa Claus Was Coming to Town

One of the joys of the San Francisco holiday season 50 or 60 years ago was the arrival of Santa Claus. Not down the chimney on Christmas Eve, but weeks earlier, down Powell Street on a cable car. Along with thousands of San Franciscans of a certain age, I (Rick Laubscher, Market Street Railway president) remember it well.

For many years after World War II, the Emporium chartered a cable car each year, decorated it, and carried Santa Claus downtown on its roof. At the turntable, he climbed down, crossed the street, and took up residence up on the toy floor (the fourth, if I remember right), just below the stairs to the roof rides. My mom brought me downtown (on a streetcar, of course) to see this spectacle a few times, and I firmly came to believe that the Emporium Santa had to be the real Santa (as opposed to Macy’s Santa) because he arrived on a cable car.

The photo above is before my time. Based on the license plate of the car at right, it is somewhere between 1948 and 1950. You can see that the procession contained more than just Santa. There’s a clown peering out from the rear platform and a horseback rider with the world’s biggest sombrero (Feliz Navidad!).

The shot below comes from the late 1950s. Looks somewhat scaled down from earlier years. The roof just looks like a cable car roof instead of the Beach Blanket Babylon hat we see above. No visible clown, no sombrero guy. But hey, it’s all about Santa anyway, right?

By the way, this shot would be impossible to replicate today. This first block of Powell Street, between Market and Ellis, had its historic street lamps removed and replaced by ugly square modern lights as part of the Market Street rebuilding in the 1970s. Trees were planted on both sides of the tracks that are now nearing the end of their useful life and thrust the whole block into shadow. One goal Market Street Railway has in 2018: include this block of Powell Street into the project currently being planned to revitalize Powell from Ellis to Geary. We would like to see all of lower Powell Street return to its historic look from 1910 to 1970, incorporating wider sidewalks for pedestrians and placing the cable cars and historic street lamps at center stage.

Oh, a trivia point: Santa always used the same cable car: Car 504, with a specially-strengthened roof to support Santa and the loudspeakers and decorations. That car was retired in the mid-1990s, but in true San Francisco fashion, it has taken on a new and useful life. Muni leased it to the San Francisco Giants, where it can now be seen from everywhere in the ballpark, sitting proudly on the centerfield concourse, renumbered 44 to honor Willie McCovey. (Powell car 24, still in operation, was dedicated to Willie Mays last year).

The Emporium, of course, is long gone, though its 1896 Market Street facade and its iconic dome, slightly relocated, are features of the modern Westfield San Francisco Center that now occupies the south side of Market across from the Powell Street cable car turntable. But decorated cable cars are still a feature of the season in San Francisco, thanks to efforts led by cable car gripman and Market Street Railway member Val Lupiz. Here’s a wonderful montage of 2017’s decorated cable cars that Val shared. (Click to enlarge.)

May we add one more thing? Our mission is preserving historic transit in San Francisco. We’d very much appreciate it if you could take a moment and make a year-end tax-deductible donation of as little as five dollars by clicking here, or by joining Market Street Railway as a member by clicking here.

Happy holidays from Market Street Railway!

Share

Hail and Farewell, Mayor Ed Lee

In transit jargon, the trip to the carbarn after completing the day’s runs is the pull-in. A man who helped revitalize San Francisco’s transit system has unexpectedly — and very sadly — finished his runs, way too soon.

Mayor Edwin Lee died suddenly of a heart attack in the early hours of December 12, 2017. He was just 65 years old.

Pictured above on a boat tram at the opening of the E-Embarcadero vintage streetcar line in 2015 with then-Supervisor Julie Christensen, we will always remember Mayor Lee for his delight with the historic streetcars. But he meant far more to the city’s transportation system than that.

As Mayor, Ed Lee put a team in place at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, parent of Muni, that dramatically improved the condition of the vehicle fleet, replacing hundreds of buses (both trolley coaches and motor coaches) and began the replacement of the light rail vehicle fleet. Led by SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin and Director of Transit John Haley, the LRV procurement and bus replacement were carried out in a fraction of the time that previous fleet replacements took.

He appointed strong bicycle advocates, disabled advocates, and transit advocates to the SFMTA Board of Directors. The Board’s strongest bicycle advocate, Cheryl Brinkman, is now the Board Chair.  These appointments are part of an important legacy.

 

And we also remember how Mayor Lee took delight in Muni’s centennial celebration in 2012, even repeating what his predecessor “Sunny Jim” Rolph had done a century before — personally take the controls of Muni’s very first streetcar (yes, the very same streetcar) to kick off the celebration.

Two bells, Mayor Lee. Rest in Peace.

Share

Snow in San Francisco 85 years ago today

Yep. It happened on December 11, 1932 — one of the few snowfalls in the city proper that actually stuck to the ground, if only for a little while. According to the site “California History,” The City recorded its coldest temperature ever, 27 degrees fahrenheit, on this day. This photo from Charlie Smallwood’s definitive history of the Market Street Railway, The White Front Cars of San Francisco, shows Car 206 on the 1-line at Sutro Division, 32nd and Clement Streets, during a 1932 snowfall. Thanks to Hans-Christian Kasper for sharing it to our Facebook group.

Share