107 Years Ago Today

December 28, 1912, about 1 p.m., looking west on Geary Street at Grant Avenue. A crowd estimated at 50,000 people engulfs Muni’s first streetcars as they inaugurate the A-Geary line. Car 3 is in the foreground, left, trailing Cars 2 and 1 (which carried Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph). Click the photo and enjoy the wonderful detail. Try to find a bareheaded person (we found only one). Go window shopping at The Paragon, where a year-end 1/4-1/2 off sale is underway (that building is still there). Note that Car 3 is missing its rear “A” route plate (Did they run out? Was it filched?) A remarkable image. Courtesy SFMTA Archive.

On December 28, 1912, ten shiny gray streetcars with brick-red roofs lined up on Geary Street, from Kearny Street to Grant Avenue. The first, Numbered 1 in gold leaf outlined in black, opened its black scissor gate. Up stepped the Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco, James Rolph, Jr.

From his pocket, he took a Liberty Head nickel, with a large “V” on the back (people knew back then that was the roman numeral for “five”). He nodded at conductor Nathan Rahn, in his crisp navy blue uniform, and dropped it into the firebox. It clanked. The press was told this 1912-S nickel was one of the first 40 ever minted at the San Francisco Mint at Fifth and Mission. The Mayor strode through the car, its crisp pale yellow rattan streets still pristine, its wood paneling still smelling of varnish.

Originally, the streetcars were to have been decorated, and the Municipal Band was supposed to be aboard the first car, playing its way along the line to the initial terminal at 33rd Avenue. The Mayor personally scotched this idea, saying, “Let’s get the cars going all right first, and toot our horn afterward”. Still, the crowd estimated at 50,000 San Franciscans roared for a speech from the mayor. He answered their call with these remarks:

“It is in reality the people’s road, built by the people and with the people’s money. The first cable road in the country was built in San Francisco, and now the first municipal railway of the country is built in San Francisco. Our operation of this road will be closely watched by the whole country. s must prove a success! … I want everyone to feel that it is but the nucleus of a mighty system of streetcar lines which will someday encompass the entire city.”

Mayor James Rolph, Jr., December 28, 1912

Mayor Rolph then joined Motorman Eugene Clisbee on the front platform of Car 1, gave the signal, and the streetcar inched forward through the swarms of people to loud cheers, and the silent salute of dozens of American flags hanging from the upper floors of surrounding buildings. Filled with dignitaries and (literal) hangers-on, Car 1 picked up speed as the crowd thinned, and by Jones Street, was making good time. A photographer snapped the shot below, with an escort automobile next to it. (That photo ended up in the San Francisco Public Library with a notation “date and location unknown”. Until our nonprofit recognized it for what it was, documented the location and event, and publicized it.)

Car 1 on December 28, 1912, westbound on Geary at Jones Street. San Francisco Public Library.

While Mayor Rolph loved photo-ops, he was no one-block-and-off guy. He rode every inch of track, followed by the other cars that had lined up behind. Muni only owned ten streetcars initially, but just over two years later, they would be operating almost 200 streetcars on seven lines (plus two special lines for the 1915 exposition). With the opening of tunnels under San Francisco hills in 1918 and 1928, Rolph’s vision of city-wide Muni service would be achieved during his own tenure as mayor (he was elected governor in 1930).

Car 1 (center) near the end of its first service life at Sutro Barn, 32nd Avenue and Clement Street, 1949. MSR Archive.

Muni’s first ten streetcars were retired in 1951. Only Car 1 of this group was preserved, for possible static display in a museum. But in 1962, Muni craftworkers restored it to its original appearance to celebrate the Railway’s 50th anniversary, and it gave rides on Market Street for a nickel one week. This was the germ of an idea to operate historic streetcar service on our main street, brought to reality with the Historic Trolley Festivals of the 1980, which were the result of advocacy from early leaders of Market Street Railway (the nonprofit named for Muni’s old private competitor). The success of the Trolley Festivals led to the permanent F-Market line, which opened in 1995 and was extended to Fisherman’s Wharf in 2000, again thanks in large measure to the persistent and persuasive advocacy of Market Street Railway.

Rust and rot, Car 1, 2004. MSR Archive.

As for Car 1 itself, it began to rust and rot in the sun and rain after the covered storage sheds at Geneva Division were demolished in the 1980s. Market Street Railway advocated successfully for both restoration of this priceless vehicle and construction of protective covered storage for the historic streetcar fleet, both achieved around Muni’s centennial year of 2012.

Running any big-city transit agency is tough, to say the least. Running one in a high-density city with increasingly crowded streets is tougher yet. Despite the challenges, Muni’s leaders, with strong support from elected officials, have managed to turn one of America’s oldest transit fleets into one of its newest, and its greenest as well, in the past eight years. All while operating the nation’s largest fleet of vintage transit vehicles (cable cars as well as streetcars) in regular daily service, taking people where they want to go with delight.

Car 1, completely restored, at Muni’s centennial celebration on April 5, 2012, with many dignitaries including (on platform) Mayor Ed Lee, former Mayor Willie Brown, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. SFMTA photo.

Market Street Railway is proud to serve as Muni’s nonprofit preservation partner and salute it on its 107th anniversary. Please consider a year-end tax-deductible donation or membership to help us in our mission of preserving historic transit in San Francisco by clicking here. Thanks, and Happy 2020, everyone!

Source credit for opening day detail: “The People’s Railway” by Anthony Perles.

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Double your year-end donation!

Your year-end tax-deductible donation will be DOUBLED thanks to a matching challenge from our board members. Please read on!

Hard to believe that 2020 marks 25 years since the permanent F-line opened on Market Street, and 20 years since it was extended to Fisherman’s Wharf, where one of the famed Blackpool “Boat Trams” is pictured (both of the Boat Trams, we should mention, Market Street Railway acquired for Muni and paid to ship here).

Muni is, of course, America’s first publicly-owned big city transit system, celebrating its 107th anniversary of operation on December 28. Someone recently described our nonprofit as “like the starter dough that makes sourdough bread possible. Without that starter, always on hand to be a catalyst, no sourdough.” We’re certainly not as famous as San Francisco sourdough, but we’re flattered by the analogy.  As we’ve said before, it takes patience and persistence to accomplish good things in San Francisco. Important projects don’t get done as quickly as we would like, that’s true, but we’ve seen so many examples of other advocacy groups who constantly act confrontative instead of collaborative, and they usually end up with no results at all.   

We made some good progress in 2019, notably getting the Boats back into summertime waterfront service, to the delight of the public, thanks to SFMTA Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum. Having been at this advocacy for almost 40 years (since the planning of the first Trolley Festival in the early 1980s), we’ve seen both supportive and obstructive officials at Muni. But our patient building of relationships at City Hall and with leading businesses and neighborhood groups has enabled steady growth and improvement in the historic streetcar operation, and contributed to rejuvenation of the cable car system, overcoming the periodic internal indifference that now appears past. 

With new leadership in place at Muni and its parent, SFMTA, we believe 2020 can be a breakthrough year, with your help. There are already early indications that the beloved Boats will be cruising the waterfront more often in 2020. We believe contracts will finally go out to completely restore five more historic streetcars from the 1920s. They include New Orleans 913 (1923), Market Street Railway 798 (1924), Johnstown 351 (1926), Osaka 151 (1927) and Porto, Portugal 189(1929), restore them with their original trucks, not replicas, thanks to our advocacy, to give the traditional ride of these great vintage vehicles.

Additionally, original 1914 Muni 162 should reenter service, its 105-year old trucks completely rebuilt in-house, by Muni’s great crafts workers. Following that, its sister 1914 Car 130 is slated for a complete in-house rebuilding. Muni leadership’s decision to do this work in-house (pending identification of space and budgeting) is to us a clear demonstration of their strong commitment to the true permanent operation of not only the F-line, but also the E-Embarcadero line, where the double-end vintage streetcars will primarily be assigned. And again, thanks to our advocacy, we are closer to getting the E-line extended westward to Aquatic Park to serve Fort Mason, with a grant of nearly $1 million to get to the design phase approved by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

Our board of directors, chaired by Carmen Clark, joins me in thanking all our members and donors for their support that made these and other accomplishments possible. And this year, several members of our board members have stepped up to personally match the first $7,500 in year-end donations we receive. These will be used to help us strengthen our day-to-day advocacy to get the projects I mentioned across the finish line. They’ll also seed an ambitious project we’ll be telling you more about in the next Inside Track, our member magazine. Our San Francisco Railway Museum begins its 15th year of operation in a few months. It’s time to freshen it, both inside and outside, with more moving images and interactivity to appeal to new generations of transit fans, to build enduring support for the historic streetcars and cable cars. Your year-end gifts will be the “starter” for this important project, and our board match will double your donation’s impact

We hope to have made major progress on the museum by 2020’s Muni Heritage Weekend, August 22-23.  Of course, the oh-so-popular Blackpool Boat Trams will be there, along with both Melbourne trams, Muni’s 1912 flagship Car 1, 1896 “Dinky” 578, and much more. 

For all these reasons, and especially our board members’ matching offer, please consider a tax-deductible year-end donation to Market Street Railway. You can make a one-time gift of as little as $10, or a recurring monthly donation. Please click here to donate and help us keep the past present in the future. And please consider sharing this email with friends who might want to join Market Street Railway or make a donationThanks for your ongoing support.

Warm wishes for a very happy holiday season.

Looking forward,

Rick Laubscher, President, Market Street Railway

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2020 Muni Heritage Weekend: August 22-23

Just a sliver of the action at Muni Heritage Weekend 2019. More than a dozen rarely-operated streetcars, cable cars, and buses offered rides to the public.

SFMTA has confirmed to us that Muni Heritage Weekend in 2020 will take place August 22-23. This is earlier than the past few years and should give opportunities for more families from out of town to attend. We expect a repeat of past years’ successful events, featuring streetcars, cable cars, and buses from 70-137 years old carrying happy riders along the streets of San Francisco, with our San Francisco Railway Museum at the center of the action.

There are constraints on when this increasingly popular event to be scheduled. To ensure sufficient extra operators to pilot the heritage streetcars and buses, it can’t conflict with special events that require extra Muni service, such as Giants’ baseball games or major festivals. The plaza across from our Museum must be available from the city’s Recreation & Parks Department for staging and static displays, and plaza reservations didn’t open until a couple of weeks ago. And it must not conflict with periods when it is hard to get extra operators to work overtime, such as Labor Day Weekend.

One September weekend, the 19th and 20th, would have met these criteria, but that is Rosh Hashanah, and we and SFMTA agreed on the August 22-23 dates instead. The traction action runs from 11 am – 5 pm both Saturday and Sunday.

Folks coming from out of town can plan their visit with confidence now. We will be providing updates in the coming months on details of the event as we flesh out the activities. But there’ll be plenty to do; count on it. We will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the opening of the permanent F-line on Market Street and the 20th anniversary of its extension to Fisherman’s Wharf, so look for some special activities. We’ll also have some special activities for our members, particularly those in the Operator’s Circle ($250 or more in annual support). Stand by!

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