You need this mask!

Countless San Francisco commuters have probably taken a few moments to ponder this simple statement, which has been posted near the operator’s station of every Muni bus and streetcar since the early 1960s. The message is simultaneously friendly and forbidding, inviting yet indifferent, personable yet coldly professional. 

And now, it takes on special meaning, since many health officials recommend you minimize your talking in public proximity to others. What could be better than this?

You can only get it from us, in our online store. Don’t wait.

This mask joins our exclusive array of “Information Gladly Given…” products, including tee shirts (for both men and women), mugs, magnets, and stickers.

Every purchase supports our nonprofit’s efforts to advocate for the historic streetcars and cable cars and get them back on the street just as soon as it’s safe for operators and passengers.

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“My City, My Game”

“This is my city and my game…You birds’ll be in New York or Constantinople or some place else. I’m in business here.” – Sam Spade

Dashiell Hammett invented the genre of the hard-boiled detective (now often called Noir) with his short stores in the magazine Black Mask and then in the most famous of his works, The Maltese Falcon, published in 1930 and widely recognized today as a seminal work of American literature.

In that novel, the main character was cynical private eye Sam Spade, who became one of the most famous characters ever in detective fiction despite appearing in only that one novel of Hammett’s. But in both Falcon and in his earlier short stories, the major supporting character is San Francisco.

Dashiell Hammett

When the book was written, San Francisco was Hammett’s city too, a fact made obvious from the rich detail imparted in the spare, muscular prose Hammett favored. And though they only make cameo appearances in the book, streetcars and cable cars were a constant presence in the neighborhoods traversed by Spade, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo, and Wilmer Cook. By doing a little sleuthing of our own, we can extract some valuable clues into how San Franciscans like Hammett — and his creation Spade — relied on the rails to get around our town in the 1920s.

A, B, C, D, 1, 2, 3

“Spade…crossed [Geary] street to board a westbound street-car. The youth in the cap boarded the same car. Spade left the car at Hyde Street and went up to his apartment. His rooms were not greatly upset, but showed unmistakable signs of being searched. When Spade had washed and had put on a fresh shirt and collar he went out again, walked up to Sutter Street, and boarded a westbound car. The youth boarded it also.”

The Maltese Falcon

In that single passage, Hammett captures the quintessence of San Francisco’s streetcar environment in the 1920s. (From actual events mentioned in the book, experts have established that the novel is set from December 6-10, 1928.)

Union Square, 1927, looking east on Geary at Powell. Muni Car 187, right; Market Street Railway Company’s Powell Cable Car 502, left.


After leaving Joel Cairo at the Geary Theater, Spade boards a gray ‘Battleship’ on the first American big-city street ever served by publicly owned streetcars. The A, B, C, and D were all trunk lines on Geary, and though they began diverging from Geary at Van Ness, Spade would’ve climbed on the first car that came along, because he was only going four blocks, almost not worth wasting a nickel on.

Then, after ascertaining that his ‘rooms’ on Post Street had been searched, Spade hikes one block up Hyde to Sutter where he would’ve boarded a streetcar owned by Muni’s fierce competitor, Market Street Railway Company. It could’ve been on the 1, 2, or 3 line; again, it didn’t matter to Spade since he was only riding a few blocks. By that time, all the Sutter cars should have sported the recently patented ‘White Front’ paint scheme, making them much more visible in the night than their fog-colored Muni counterparts.

The Hunter-Dulin Building, about 1930. Note the streetcars on Sutter.

Although the book doesn’t say so, Spade’s regular commute to his office would also have been on the Sutter streetcars. Hammett aficionado Joe Gores—an excellent mystery writer in his own right—deduced from clues in the novel that Spade’s office was in the Hunter-Dulin Building, which still stands at 111 Sutter. (Across Montgomery Street, in the Holbrook Building at 58 Sutter, were Market Street Railway Co.’s executive offices.)

Hammett as Spade

Looking east on Geary at Leavenworth, 1930, the route Spade rode in the book.

It’s quite clear that Hammett set The Maltese Falcon in places he knew well from his own daily experiences in San Francisco. His ‘rooms’, for example, were more than likely Hammett’s own apartment of the period, 891 Post Street, #401. In 1928, this corner, Hyde and Post, was almost as rara avis as the black bird everyone was pursuing in the novel: a downtown intersection without any streetcar or cable car tracks at all, making it a relative oasis of serenity, largely free from the near-constant growl of nearby streetcar motors or clatter of track joints. Since this apartment is where Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon, perhaps that lack of streetcars in the streets immediately below is why they appear only rarely in the book.

Rail lines Spade/Hammett could have ridden. Click to enlarge, then click again on the magnifying glass; on the underlying map you’ll see the tracks of every downtown streetcar and cable car line in 1927.

Hammett (and Spade) had plenty of transit options within walking distance, though, with the Geary and Sutter lines each one block away, as was the 10th & Montgomery Streets line, which ran up Post as far as Leavenworth, a block east. However, that line was so unimportant that it was usually operated by only one car (identical to preserved Car 578) to protect its franchise for Market Street Railway, and never even received a route number. The Montgomery portion of the was discontinued without replacement in 1927; the rest of the line was gone by 1932.

Montgomery Street “dinky” north of Sutter, 1927, with Spade’s fictional office in the Hunter-Dulin building in the background.

In the real world, Hammett would have used streetcars every day to get around town, as he had no automobile. At the beginning of his literary career, when he was writing short stories for Black Mask, the leading detective pulp fiction magazine of the day, his ‘day job’ was working as an advertising copywriter for Albert S. Samuels Jewelers at 895 Market, in the Lincoln Building at the corner of Fifth (now Westfield Center shopping mall, housing Nordstrom).

Postcard image of the Lincoln Building, Fifth and Market, 1922; The Emporium to its left. Samuel’s Jewelers far right and in the detail below, next to F.W. Woolworth. The street clock is now across Market, next to the Flood Building.

For five years earlier in the 1920s, he mostly lived with his wife and young daughter at 620 Eddy, between Larkin and Polk. ‘Mostly’ because Hammett was tubercular, and when the disease was active, he stayed in other nearby rooms to avoid the risk of infecting his family. In those days, before the 31-Balboa opened, Eddy was served by the westbound 4-Turk & Eddy line, which ran from the Ferries to the Richmond District. Hammett’s regular commute to the office would probably have taken him a block south to catch the inbound 4-car on Turk. That line made a clumsy dogleg when it reached Market, jogging a block north to Eddy before heading east again to merge into Market’s ‘Roar of the Four’ streetcar maelstrom at Powell.

A 20-line streetcar, shown here turning from westbound Ellis onto northbound Hyde, might have been Hammett’s ride home after an evening at John’s Grill.

For Hammett’s job at Samuels, it would’ve been quicker to jump off the car at Turk and Market and walk the short block to Fifth. For his previous job, as a Pinkerton detective, he would have stayed on the car until Eddy and Market (an intersection eradicated by the excavation of Hallidie Plaza as part of the BART project in the 1970s). Alighting from the car, he would have passed the Powell cable car turntable, sitting in the middle of an active street with no tourists waiting in line, and entered the ornate Flood Building at 870 Market Street, there to ride the open-sided birdcage elevators to the Pinkerton office in Suite 314 (five floors below Market Street Railway’s office today, Suite 803).

After work, if Hammett chose to grab a drink or meal at John’s Grill—then, as now, next door to the Ellis Street entrance of the Flood Building—he might have gotten home by jumping a 20-line streetcar westbound to Hyde, where the line jogged a block north to continue west on O’Farrell. From there, it was a two-block walk to 620 Eddy.

A ‘Pink’

Perhaps Dashiell Hammett, on his way to work, has just stepped off the #4-Turk & Eddy car angling onto Market Street past the Flood Building in the upper right of this 1925 view looking east on Market from Fifth. The buildings on the left were all ripped out in the late 1960s to build Hallidie Plaza, and the Powell Street BART/Muni Metro station.

Tagged as a communist during the witch hunts following World War II, Hammett was known as a ‘Pink’ in the early ’20s for a completely different reason: it was the standard term for Pinkerton detectives. It was this job that gave Hammett the grist for his detective novels. His first protagonist was a rotund nameless detective known as the ‘Continental Op’ after the fictional San Francisco detective agency the character served as an operative. The short stories featuring the Op built Hammett’s confidence and reputation.

Many of the Op stories were set in San Francisco and featured the same detailed city flavor as The Maltese Falcon. In The Whosis Kid, Hammett describes the Op tailing a suspect as he left the boxing matches at the Western Addition arena called Dreamland (later the site of Winterland). ‘The Kid walked down to Fillmore Street, took on a stack of wheats, bacon and coffee at a lunch room, and caught a No. 22 car. He—and likewise I—transferred to a No. 5 car at McAllister Street, dropped off at Polk…” (The same trip can be made on the same lines today, only on trolley buses instead of streetcars.)

In The House in Turk Street, the Op tries to gain information by spinning a story to residents that he was looking for witnesses who might have seen his (phony) client ‘thrown from the rear platform of a street car last week’—a common enough occurrence in those days to be credible.

As a Pink, Hammett worked on a variety of assignments that contributed flavor to his later writing. One of his cases, though, never was fictionalized: the holdup of the California Street Cable Railroad—presumably at Cal Cable’s offices at California & Hyde. According to William F. Nolan’s biography, Hammett: A Life at the Edge, he took on this case, among others, as extra work because he needed the money. In October 1921, he became a father when his daughter, Mary Jane, was born at St. Francis Hospital, just a block from the Cal Cable offices.

California Street Cable Railroad Company Car House at California and Hyde Streets, site of a holdup Dashiell Hammett investigated as a Pinkerton detective. A Trader Joe’s occupies this corner today.

Hammett and cable cars

Cable Cars are never mentioned in The Maltese Falcon, although action takes place both on Powell Street (in a hotel dubbed the St. Mark, though from its location it is clearly the St. Francis), and in Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s apartment, likely located at 1201 California Street. Given Hammett’s familiarity with them and his penchant for local color, this may seem like an odd omission. It is possible that Hammett wanted to paint an urban landscape familiar to big-city dwellers all over America, and while streetcars were ubiquitous across the US in those days, cable cars were then running only in San Francisco, Seattle and Tacoma. It’s also possible he didn’t want to clutter his prose by explaining what a cable car was.

Whatever his reasons, Hammett himself would have ridden his fair share of cable cars in those days. For a brief time in 1926, he and his family lived at 1309 Hyde Street, between Clay and Washington. To cable car aficionados even then, this was a famous stretch of Hyde, carrying the last completely new cable car line opened in the city.

When the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line opened in 1891, the rules required that the cable on new lines be ‘inferior’ (pass underneath) every older cable line it crossed. This meant that the gripman had to drop the ‘rope’ (cable) at every cable crossing to avoid snagging the ‘superior’ cable of the older line it was intersecting—22 times in all on one round trip for this newest line. In this particular stretch near Hammett’s apartment, the Hyde line crossed older lines at five successive intersections: California, Sacramento, Clay, Washington, and Jackson. (The tribulations of operating this line was memorialized by Gelett Burgess in 1901 in his poem The Ballad of the Hyde Street Grip.)

Going north on Hyde was a lurching, jerky ride, as the first four blocks of this stretch were uphill, requiring the rope to be dropped and picked up again at each intersection before cresting the hill at Washington and coasting across Jackson. Southbound on Hyde, however, was a freewheeling joyride after Jackson, all the way past the carhouse on the southwest corner of California and Hyde (a supermarket today). Watch out, though: the line turned east (and uphill) at Pine, so the gripman had to be sure to take the rope after the carhouse.

Hammett may have ridden the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Street cable line to connect to the ferry (top right) to Sausalito to visit his wife and daughter in Marin. He would’ve gotten a bonus: a whiff of chocolate from the Ghirardelli factory to the left.

Hammett might have enjoyed this ride when he was living on Hyde, because the line then jogged down Jones to O’Farrell, a two-block walk from Samuels. (This portion of the great Hyde trackage disappeared in 1954.) Perhaps an even faster solution would have been jumping on a Washington-Jackson cable car a half-block from his house and riding directly to Powell and Market, with the jewelry store just across the street. Samuels later moved across Market to a location just east of the Flood Building. Its massive street clock made the move across Market too, and is today the only remnant of the family-owned jewelry firm that billed itself as ‘The House of Lucky Wedding Rings’.

It does not appear that Hammett wrote that slogan as part of his Samuels job. It would have been ironic if he had, for his own marriage was on the rocks. After leaving the Hyde Street apartment and his family for 891 Post, he rarely lived together with his wife again, famously beginning an affair with the playwright Lillian Hellman just a few years later, a relationship that would last until his death in 1961.

During an earlier family split, Hammett lived for a time at 20 Monroe Street, an alley off Bush near Stockton, while his wife and daughter lived across the bridgeless Golden Gate in San Anselmo. He visited them frequently on weekends, likely using cable cars for the first part of the journey: walk two blocks north to California Street for a ride on the Cal Cable, with a free transfer to the company’s Hyde line, then onto the Northwestern Pacific ferry at the Hyde Street Pier, switching to the electric interurban train at Sausalito for the rest of the trip.

Murder atop Stockton Tunnel

A Muni streetcar on the original F-line enters the Stockton Tunnel, headed north. The fictional murder of Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s partner, which opens The Maltese Falcon, took place on what was a vacant lot next to the portal, to the right of that truck exiting the tunnel.

Of more import to the literary world, during his time at 20 Monroe Street, Hammett daily passed the scene of the most famous fictional crime in San Francisco history—a crime of his own creation.

To reach Samuels, Hammett would have either walked three-quarters of a block west on Bush to catch a Powell cable car, or jogged a few feet east on Bush to descend the stairs at the south portal of the Stockton Tunnel, taking an F-Stockton Muni streetcar to its terminal at Market, then walking a block to his office.

Certainly, then, Hammett was quite familiar with the rather foreboding portal, constantly rent by the echoes of Muni ‘A-type’ streetcars (including preserved car No. 1) roaring through the tunnel. Though the novel doesn’t mention it, that ear-splitting sound of streetcars emerging from the portal would have been an effective mask for the sound of the bullet from the Webley-Fosbery revolver in Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s hand. That bullet, of course, killed Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, to open The Maltese Falcon, setting off the entire adventure. The scene of the crime was the dark alley named Burritt Street, just across Bush from the apartment on Monroe. In those days, there was a steeply sloped vacant lot between Burritt and the tunnel portal, down which the dying Archer tumbled.

Up in the world

Even before The Maltese Falcon was published as a book in February 1930, its successful serialization in Black Mask was bringing Hammett great success. His last San Francisco address, 1155 Leavenworth, showed he was literally moving up in the world, onto the upper slopes of Nob Hill, between California and Sacramento Streets. Here again, he was sandwiched among three cable car lines, but by now he was well off enough to take taxis when he needed to get around town. He left town for good in October 1929, bound for New York and then Hollywood before writer’s block truncated his career.

Of course, Hammett’s writing also led to one of the most loved movies ever made. The Humphrey Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon was actually the third version of the book put to celluloid, and by far the most faithful. The first-time director, John Huston, is said to have created the screenplay by simply converting the book’s dialogue into script form, using the book’s narrative as screen direction. There was, of course, some necessary editing and a little simplification, including the removal of the book’s streetcar scene. Few movies of the day were filmed outside Los Angeles, and except for the first panoramic stock shot of the City from the Bay, The Maltese Falcon was filmed on Hollywood sound stages or back lots.

Hammett’s legacy includes some of the most vivid prose ever penned in a San Francisco setting. It also conveys enduring insight into the way transit served as the vital circulation system bringing mobility to San Franciscans—just as Muni does today.

The “dingus” that caused all that running around San Francisco, immortalized in Hammett’s book.

Written by Rick Laubscher; photos from Market Street Railway Archive unless otherwise noted. If you’d like to keep stories like this coming, please consider supporting us.

For those with a New York Times subscription, check out this great 2014 story retracing Hammett’s haunts.

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Muni Heritage Weekend postponed

The very popular annual Muni Heritage Weekend is being postponed at least into spring of 2021. No exact date has yet been sent for the rescheduled event.

The postponement has seemed inevitable for weeks, given the course of Covid-19 through San Francisco, and the enduring shelter-in-place orders. SFMTA and Market Street Railway, which co-sponsor the event, agreed this week that it was not feasible to hold it on August 22-23, its scheduled 2020 dates. As a result, we’ve jointly set a goal of holding the event next spring on a weekend to be determined.

2019 Muni Heritage Weekend

SFMTA has just released a “Transportation Recovery Plan” with six levels, tied to the resumption of business and personal travel in the city.

Six levels of SFMTA’s Transportation Recovery Plan. Click to enlarge.

These levels of service restoration would be implemented in concert with improved public health and business conditions, which will drive service demand. Rail service is scheduled to resume in Level 4, coincident with “Schools Open” among other milestones. That won’t happen before August. The final level, 6, occurs with “end of crisis; large events and tourism returns; increased demand for travel to downtown”. Again, no date on this.

Social distancing guidelines on Muni transit vehicles are very likely to still be in place this August, as are prohibitions of gatherings of 50 or more people. Even if the virus were to fade faster than currently anticipated, it would take longer than the three months between now and August 22-23 for Muni to properly organize and staff for the event.

While the postponement of Heritage Weekend is disappointing to all, it is in tune with the cancellation of myriad events that attract crowds. In a way, it may present an opportunity at the same time.

It has been harder to find workable dates for Heritage Weekend the past few years, as special events in the fall have proliferated, putting more demands on Muni to provide operators and work around street closures for races, Giants games, and the like. We (Market Street Railway) have been contemplating whether spring would be a better time. This looks like a chance to find out.

Meanwhile, streetcars continue to pop up periodically on the streets, either on operator training or testing missions. Pat Garvey posted the photo above to our Market Street Railway Facebook group the other day, with PCC “Green Hornet” 1058 out for exercise on Market Street, passing two masked bicyclists.

Market Street Railway will continue to press for the earliest feasible return to the streets for San Francisco’s historic streetcars and cable cars, consistent with operator and passenger safety. And we will be working with SFMTA to make the next Muni Heritage Weekend the best ever.

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Streetcars in the Sunset

Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph operates the first N-Judah car through the Sunset Tunnel, October 21, 1928.

When one thinks of San Francisco’s Sunset District, the image of fog, cold salty winds, and sand dunes comes to mind. People have aptly developed their perceptions of this part of San Francisco. While it might be sunny and warm in the Mission District, the Sunset often shivers under a blanket of fog with a biting wind off the ocean and a temperature fifteen degrees lower.

The Sunset, west of Twin Peaks and south of Golden Gate Park, is geographically the largest district in the City, and, with almost 90,000 residents, the most populous as well. It was also the last major chunk of town to be developed. That’s where Muni, its former competitors, and streetcars come into the picture.

Sand dunes and scrub

When people thought of San Francisco in its first 75 years of existence, they thought almost exclusively of the bustling port, downtown, and posh residential districts, all near San Francisco Bay. This made sense, as our unmatched natural harbor generated much of the city’s commerce. The city effectively turned its back on the mighty Pacific Ocean, so much so that the 11 square miles on the city’s oceanfront was known as the “Outside Lands”.

In 1870, inspired by New York’s then-new Central Park, the city engaged William Hammond Hall to design a similarly grand public open space cutting east to west across the Outside Lands. A street grid for the western part of town had been laid out, still mostly on paper, and the city claimed the four-block-wide swath of land between D Street (now Fulton Street) and H Street (now Lincoln Way) for the park, starting at Stanyan Street and running westward to the breakers of the Pacific. Residential neighborhoods were rising east of Stanyan, accelerated by the advent of direct-to-downtown cable car service on Haight, Hayes, and McAllister Streets. in 1883.

That same year, 1883, Southern Pacific interests, including Leland Stanford, effectively extended their Haight Street cable line westward by opening the Park and Ocean Railroad, using a steam train, from the Stanyan Street turntable to the doorstep of the already popular Cliff House. The steam line followed H Street/Lincoln Way almost to Ocean Beach, then turned north through the western edge of Golden Gate Park into the outer Richmond District, ending at B (Balboa) Street. The first weekend, 10,000 people reportedly rode that steam train to the beach. (San Francisco historian Gary Kamiya has a wonderful write up on the backstory of the Park & Ocean, linked here, but behind a paywall for some.)

From steam to electric

Car 703 (identical to preserved 578) on a Sunday “tripper” run behind what’s now the Beach Chalet restaurant in Golden Gate Park, October 1903. As its livery showed, this car served the 10th & Montgomery route on weekdays.

This steam route was electrified in 1898, and by 1902 was operated by conventional streetcars, though not really for residents — because there were hardly any. The northern end of Ocean Beach, where the Cliff House and Adolph Sutro’s grand bathing palace were located, were a prime Sunday recreation destination, soon attracting a fast growing amusement park called Chutes-at-the-Beach as well (renamed Playland in 1926). The Lincoln Way route to the beach was faster for San Franciscans from the Mission District and other working class neighborhoods south of Market and on Sundays, and United Railroads (which had consolidated several private companies in 1902) would add streetcars from other lines to the Haight/H Street line to handle the crowds.

Dumping “Street Sweepings” in Golden Gate Park, 1905

Having the streetcar tracks right up against the park had a side benefit. The city contracted with United Railroads to carry ‘street sweepings’ (horse manure) to fill in sandy gullies in outer Golden Gate Park. The company had special work cars with tilting bins that did the deed, using temporary trestles built from into the swales in the park. So in a way, streetcars built the Sunset’s park before they built the Sunset itself.

Carville

The few residents in the Sunset early in the 20th century were concentrated near Ocean Beach and generally lived what was called a Bohemian lifestyle. They turned discarded horsecars and cable cars into beach cottages.

Carville, 1905. This shot is at what became 48th Avenue and Judah Street, where the N-line turns around today. Note the detail below. Car 1207, far left, painted green, had served what became the 14-Mission line; Car 1197, center, painted yellow worked Kearny Street. Both had been rebuilt from horsecars just nine years before, reflecting the fast evolution of electric streetcar technology.

In his book Carville-by-the-Sea, San Francisco historian Woody LaBounty says the retired railcars were used as “residences, vacation homes, clubhouses, restaurants, and even churches.” Famous people, including Jack London and poet George Sterling, visited. Gradually homes were built around the railcars and they disappeared from view, but LaBounty says at least one, a shingled box on Great Highway, has “a unique living room created from two cable cars while the bedroom is an intact horsecar.”

Streetcar startup service

H Street (Lincoln Way) near where Sunset Blvd. was later built, 1908

Carville residents used the Lincoln Way streetcars, which came to be numbered the 7-Haight line, but there wasn’t much else in the way of residents out west then. A developer subsidized a United Railroads (URR) subsidiary called Parkside Transit Company, running a line on 20th Avenue from Lincoln Way to Taraval Street, then west on Taraval to 33rd Avenue and south to Sloat.

Another of those single-truck dinkies passing a lonely house on 20th Avenue between Kirkham and Judah Streets, 1914.

In 1916, URR used the Parkside Transit trackage to run a new line, the 17- Haight & Ingleside from the Ferry alongside the 7-Haight & Ocean line, then cutting across the Sunset on 20th almost all the way to Sloat, jogging over on Wawona to 19th Avenue (back then then a regular-width, sleepy street) to go around what became Stern Grove and reach Sloat. There, the 17-line met up with the 12-Mission & Ingleside line that came down Mission Street from the Ferries, then across Ocean Avenue. The 12 then ran in the middle of extra-wise Sloat Boulevard to the Beach. But for decades, these lines traversed what were truly the “Outside Lands”, with few houses to serve at and no ‘built-in’ attractions like the beach amusements in the Richmond District (the Zoo and Fleishhacker Pool at Ocean Beach and Sloat) didn’t open until the 1930s).

The 12 and 17 lines were roundabout routes because Twin Peaks, Mt. Davidson, and Mt. Sutro separated the Sunset from the developed part of town. Coming in from Haight or Mission Streets was a slow ride and did not do much to attract people to live under the blanket of gray.

Muni burrows its way in

“Sunny Jim” Rolph’s first tunnel trip, opening the Twin Peaks Tunnel, February 3, 1918. SFMTA Archive

Enter the Municipal Railway, the City-owned streetcar system opened in 1912 on Geary Street. Real estate developers saw a potential gold mine in the Sunset, and encouraged politicians to extend fast Muni service to the district by means of tunnels and agreed to assess themselves to pay for it.

For ‘can-do’ City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy, that encouragement fit right in with his own vision. In 18 months, he holed through one of the longest streetcar tunnels ever built, from Castro and Market under Twin Peaks to the middle of nowhere. When it opened on Feb. 3, 1918, with Mayor ‘Sunny Jim’ Rolph at the controls of gray-and-maroon car No. 117, 10,000 turned out to cheer. Here’s a comprehensive look at how the Twin Peaks Tunnel came to be.

West Portal from Edgehill Way, 1920, with sand dunes and the Pacific beyond. (Dig that Buick!) The Twin Peaks Tunnel portal is just behind the man’s hat brim, the empty West Portal Avenue stretches out in front of his hat brim. Contrast this with the shot below, taken in 1929 from above the portal, below, showing the vibrant village that had grown up. The L-line tracks turn right here onto Ulloa Street.

New upscale neighborhoods soon appeared because of the fast tunnel service to the downtown business center. Forest Hill spread out around the station in the middle of the tunnel; indeed, real estate developers helped pay for the tunnel. Just beyond and south of the tunnel’s West Portal, the ritzy St. Francis Wood grew up.

But here, we concentrate on the development of the expansive sand dunes that formed the flat part of the Sunset District. So we won’t discuss two of the three lines that Muni established through the Twin Peaks Tunnel: the K-Ingleside, which shared tracks with URR’s 12-line on Junipero Serra and Ocean Avenue, and the M-Ocean View, which ran through sparsely settled land southeast of the tunnel, but later grew important with the development of Parkmerced, Stonestown, and San Francisco State University.

The Twin Peaks Tunnel line that made the big difference in developing the southern Sunset District (which many call the Parkside District, though its nowhere near Golden Gate Park) was the L-Taraval, which opened in 1919 as a shuttle from West Portal and was extended through the tunnel in 1923. The L was originally planned for Vicente Street, but instead shared the tracks of the URR’s Parkside line from 20th Avenue to 33rd Avenue. See our centennial celebration of the L-line here for more detail on the L.

33rd Avenue and Taraval, looking west, 1923. This is where the tracks of the Parkside line turned south via 33rd, Vicente, and 35th to reach Sloat Boulevard and the 12-line. Judging from the Parkside Sales Office, center, the Parkside line (discontinued in 1927) had limited success in spurring residential development, unlike the Muni lines in the Sunset did.

Sunset Tunnel

Ten years after Twin Peaks, Muni tunneled again, this time under Buena Vista Park to create the N-Judah line from the Ferry Loop to a loop at Ocean Beach. The N made the parallel MSRy 7-line on Lincoln Way seem poky, what with all its stops on Haight while the N zipped through the tunnel.

Two rarely-seen photos of the N-line opening day, October 21, 1928. Above, Mayor Rolph pilots the first car past 31st Avenue toward Ocean Beach, Below, the end of the line at the Great Highway loop. The run numbers in the two visible cars (3 and 4) suggest that the Mayor’s car and its follower have come and gone. but the crowd continues to celebrate.
That building at the corner of Judah and LaPlaya (behind the streetcars in both the above and below shots) has been a restaurant for as long as the N has been a streetcar line. For decades it was Dick’s at the Beach (pictured below with PCC 1143 in 1961), popular with N-line operators and rail fans.

The L, and N, running parallel ten blocks apart through the Sunset, facilitated a building boom in the 1930s, further fueled by low-interest Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans. Developers such as Henry Doelger and Standard Building Company (“Sunstream Homes”) came to dominate the district, focused on working-class families.

Looking north on 31st Avenue from Lawton, 1930, two blocks north of the third photo up. A 1938 aerial map shows these vacant blocks built out, typical of what quickly happened within a few blocks of both the N and L lines.

Consolidating Sunset service

Expansion of Muni to the Sunset was a deliberate act of public policy. The investment in tunnels was made knowing Muni’s private competitor couldn’t afford to match it, and would lose competitive advantage. The City wanted that: its goal was to municipalize–take over–all transit services, which it did by buying out the old Market Street Railway Co. in 1944 and the Cal Cable Railway Co. in 1952.

20th Avenue and Judah, 1937. Market Street Railway Car 131 crosses Muni’s N-Judah tracks, headed for Stern Grove (a full size replica of the cab of this 1911 streetcar type is on display in our museum).

Lack of money blunted Muni’s expansionist fervor, though. After the takeover of Market Street Railway in 1944, Muni could have rebuilt the worn-out track of MSRy’s 7, 12, and 17 lines and routed them through the Muni tunnels to speed those lines’ riders downtown. But voters had only funded purchase of the MSRy’s decrepit assets Instead, Muni ripped out the tracks and either discontinued parts of the routes or put buses on. Nor did Muni leverage its tunnel investment by adding additional lines on streets built extra wide to accommodate transit, such as Noriega.

Buses make their mark

By 1951, the Sunset had grown enough to need extra rush hour bus service. Here, a 16 Noriega bus from White Motor Company loads neatly queued passengers on Mason Street near Market Street for an express run home.

However, Muni did take advantage of wide Sunset streets for bus service. Muni opened a pioneering bus on Noriega Street in 1941 that connected to the N at 22/23 Avenues and Judah. (This was extended downtown at the end of the 1940s to become the 71-Haight-Noriega with rush-hour extra service on the 16x-Noriega Express.) Another Haight Street bus, the 72-Haight-Sunset, ran down Sunset Boulevard (built in the 1930s as an automobile thoroughfare between 36th and 37th Streets) to Sloat. And after 19th Avenue was widened in 1937 to carry Highway 1 between the Peninsula and the Golden Gate Bridge (which forced the cutback of the southern terminal of the 17-line streetcar), Muni established its 28-line in 1949, still one of its most important crosstown lines, now running from Fort Mason to the Golden Gate Bridge and then all the way south to the Daly City BART Station.

Real estate was so cheap in the Sunset back in the day that Muni’s private competitor bought two entire blocks to serve its streetcar operation (even though it had few lines out there). It owned the block bounded by Lincoln Way and Irving Street, Funston and 14th Avenues, originally intending to build a massive car barn there. Tight finances led them to turn it into a “boneyard” for out of service cars. The 1943 photo above shows a billboard at the boneyard promising to sell the land for housing if voters would approve purchase of Market Street Railway. (They finally did, the following year.) Of lesser value, but still important to Market Street Railway operations, was the block bounded by Pacheco, Ortega, and 21st and 22nd Avenues. The sand dunes there were “mined” by a conveyor belt on rails and loaded onto a differential dump car, which accessed the lot via a spur on Pacheco Street from the 17-line, delivering the sand to streetcar barns for use in helping stop streetcars when tracks were wet. This shot was taken in the late 1930s, after MSRy had already sold the strip at the right of the photo along 21st Avenue for new houses.

Other Muni bus lines connecting the streetcar trunk lines included the 18-Sloat, which took over the outer 12-line when streetcars were abandoned there after World War II and then crossed the Sunset on 46th Avenue, and the 66-Quintara, a lightly ridden route that serves now as a feeder for the N, but formerly ran rush hour service downtown via Haight Street. Today, Quintara is mainly served by the 48-line, another “Bay to Breakers” route that runs from Third Street in Dogpatch over 24th Street, Portola Drive, West Portal, and Quintara, with the distinction of connecting all six Muni light rail lines. In the past decade, heavy demand on the N-line led Muni to add peak hour express bus service to the N between Ocean Beach and Downtown.

But for the narrowness of the Twin Peaks Tunnel and (to a lesser extent) the Sunset Tunnel, the K, L, M, and N streetcar lines might have been converted to buses too, instead of being put into the Market Street Subway in the 1980s with modern light rail vehicles. By the 1950s, transit managers around America were bus-crazy, and operating costs of Muni’s old style streetcars, which required two operators by city ordinance, led Muni to cut streetcar service way back, even substituting a bus line called the 48- Ingleside-Taraval for K and L streetcars nights and Sundays in the early 1950s.

PCC 1037 on the new N-Judah right of way, in 1976, looking east from 15th Avenue.

Muni Metro era

Fortunately, though, voters repealed the two-operator requirement for modern streetcars in 1954, enabling Muni to replace its original streetcar fleet by 1958 with the streamlined “PCC” (like the F-line’s colorful daily fleet). The 1962 passage of the BART bond issue included a new subway under Market for Muni. To complement it, Muni planned major upgrades on its streetcar lines in the Sunset for faster operation. The deteriorating N-Judah trackway was rebuilt as a raised right-of-way in the mid-1970s, but opposition from residents over more difficult access to their driveways kept the trackway from being extended to the beach or from being implemented on the L-line. Fitfully and over significant resident opposition, Muni has been able to make incremental operating improvements on the N and L lines since then.

Just emerged from the Market Street Subway in early 1980, an N-Judah Boeing-Vertol LRV heads west on Duboce Avenue for the Sunset Tunnel while PCC 1134 is headed for Market in surface service during the phased opening of the subway.

The PCCs gave way to shiny new Boeing-Vertol light rail vehicles as the J, K, L, M, and N lines migrated into the new Market Street subway by 1982.

Remnants of streetcars past

Today, by looking carefully, one can catch glimpses of the early transit investment that spurred the Sunset to life: the spur of the L-line on Taraval from 46th to the Beach, now the oldest (1923) surviving streetcar trackage in town; the wide median running the length of Sloat, put there to carry the old 12-line; and Railroad Trail behind the Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park, the route of the old steam trains, and later the 7-line streetcars, discontinued through the park in 1947. All part of the legacy of streetcars in the Sunset.

Looking north on the 7-line’s right-of-way through Golden Gate Park, about 1946. The Big Dipper roller coaster and Playland-at-the-Beach are in the background.

Written by Rick Laubscher. Thanks to the Western Neighborhoods Project and SFMTA Archive for use of their photos. Uncredited photos are from the Market Street Railway Archive.

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