When the oldest streetcar was new

How old is the oldest electric streetcar in Muni’s historic fleet? So old that it regularly crossed paths with cable cars on Market Street. When “dinkies” (small, single truck streetcars) like preserved Car 578 were new, they were also novel, in that cable cars dominated San Francisco transit and had the exclusive rights to Market Street. The electric cars only saw Market when they crossed it. While they looked like cable cars, they were twice as fast and very high tech for the time, 120 years ago.

Two photographic glass plates recently found by Howard Jarvis (no, not the author of Prop. 13 for those who remember back that far) appear to make the dinkies central to the composition. The two photographs were clearly taken by the same photographer, probably within a few minutes of each other, from the same place, the second floor of a building at Ellis and Market, looking southeast across to Fourth Street. Based on other photos of the same intersection, these shots were taken between 1898 and 1900. One photograph is shifted a little to the right from the other one. We include several crops and a full image here.

In the crop at the top of the post, we see a dinky identical to Muni’s Car 578, built in 1896, crossing Market from Ellis to Fourth Street, headed south to the Southern Pacific Train Depot. (We can’t make out the full car number, though it doesn’t appear to be 578 itself but rather another in the bright-yellow fleet of Ellis-O’Farrell line cars, all built by Hammond, which also built many of the California Cable Cars still in Muni’s fleet today.)

In the close-up below, we see that the dinky is crossing behind a green Hayes Street cable car (later the 21-Hayes streetcar and then trolley bus), which is about to pass an establishment called “Midway Plaisance, Home of Burlesque” on its route to the newly-opened Ferry Building. First, though, it will roll past a small shop with a sign on its roof that says RATS in big letters and ROACHES, ANTS, and BEDBUGS in smaller ones. Really wish we could read the rest of it but we presume it’s an extermination business, located where the landmark Humboldt Bank Building rose a few years later.

The Humboldt Bank was designed more or less as a bookend to the Call Building at Third and Market, which dominates the full frame below when you zoom out (remember when “zoom” had nothing to do with quarantine communications?).

Fascinating to look at the people (you can click on the above photo to get a larger view). Scores of men and women clearly visible, but not a single bare head. Interesting signs in this image too, such as “Ohio Dental Parlors” occupying a large space on the second floor in the building at left. (Did Ohio have some kind of advanced dentistry?)

A crop of the second image, above, shifted slightly south, reveals a few additional things. First, there’s the beer wagon at the corner, passing under the store awning advertising “La Harmonia Cigars”. Beer and cigars were the most common advertisements seen in photos of this era, and by extension, presumably the most commonly consumed “vices” of the city of the day.

The dinky in this image is headed north, toward Golden Gate Park out Ellis and then O’Farrell Streets. There’s a cable car in the same place as the first photo but we can’t tell which line it’s assigned to. What can’t be missed though are the garish ads for “Original Uncle Bill Private Loan Offices”. Uncle will loan you money “from $1 up” “at the lowest rate”. And, highly unusual for that time, he’s “open Sundays”. If it’s not already clear that it’s a pawnshop, the sign “unredeemed pledges for sale” is a giveaway.

One other piece of San Francisco trivia. The second image makes it clear that the big billboard to the right is for Roos Brothers, “leading clothiers”, at 27-37 Kearny Street, two blocks away. That building, plus the one the ad is painted on, plus everything else visible in the above photo (except the Call Building), burned on April 18, 1906. But Roos Brothers survived as a family business and later relocated to a stylish store directly across the street from the billboard at Market and Stockton (shown in the Google Maps image below on the left as XXL). Then, after a merger, the firm built a new building across the street, exactly where its billboard stood in 1900 (that location is now occupied by Ross Dress for Less, the white building with the bulbed corner on the right.). The old Call Building is the only common object in the then-and-now photos, though it’s almost unrecognizable following its renovation into an Art Deco facade as the Central Tower in 1940 (it’s the white building on the right in the middle distance).

While this intersection today is eerily quiet with no streetcars on Market or cable cars a block away on Powell, it’s still some consolation to get a fresh look at pieces of the past when photos like this appear. Thanks to Mike Ahmadi, who works with Howard Jarvis and let us post these great shots. Mike runs a Facebook Group called “In Howard’s Barn”, which has other great vintage photo finds and offers very hi-res prints for sale. You can inquire at inhowardsbarn@gmail.com. And as wonderful as these vintage photos are, take a moment to imagine yourself there, experiencing it all in glorious color, starting with the bright yellow of the centerpiece, the Ellis-O’Farrell line dinky. We’ll help.

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Our 2021 Calendar is Here!

We’d advise ordering this beauty quickly, including any gifts you want to give; we produced fewer than last year because of the uncertainty of when our San Francisco Railway Museum will reopen, so for now it’s only available online. Here’s the link to our store, if you don’t need any convincing (and why would you, with 13 eye-popping color photos of Muni’s historic streetcars and cable cars in action on the streets of San Francisco!) (Tip: you can get it free as a membership benefit. Read on!)

The design continues our traditional attractive layout. The size, 14×10 inches, is designed to keep shipping costs low, but is still plenty large enough to let the photos shine!

The year 2021 marks the centennial of the year our namesake, Market Street Railway Company, took over most of San Francisco transit operations from United Railroads, beginning a fierce rivalry with the young Municipal Railway (Muni) that culminated in the merger of 1944. We pay tribute to our namesake with rare thumbnail photos on the date pages, and a special page celebrating the centennial.

Reminder: if you make an annual membership contribution to Market Street Railway of $100 or more, you automatically get a free copy of the calendar. We will start putting the free calendars for our $100+ members in the mail next week. The US Post Office seems a little less efficient these days, so be patient…even though we ALL want 2021 to get here (because it means 2020 will be OVER!)

If you’d like to join now at or above the $100 annual level (or $10 monthly level) to take advantage of the free calendar opportunity, here’s the link to become a member.

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When will the cable cars and streetcars return?

The short answer is: we don’t know; it’s up to the virus and what we all do together to shorten its grip on our society. But Muni can be ready for that day, and we’re encouraging them to do so.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported the other day that cable car operations would likely not resume “until a coronavirus vaccine is widely available”, which health experts think could likely take a least a year, and possibly much longer, to create, produce, and adequately distribute. The article quoted SFMTA head Jeff Tumlin as saying, “The cable cars require the operator to have the most direct interaction with passengers, and we have no way to protect our operators on cable cars.” In our own discussions with current and former cable car gripmen, they agree that any type of Plexiglas barrier to separate themselves from riders would be infeasible. Beyond that, any kind of social distancing among passengers would drive down capacity to single digits per car.

The Examiner followed with its own, longer article, offering more historic perspective on cable car operations through the eyes of MSR President Rick Laubscher. Beyond the cable cars, both articles noted that Muni has not set a timetable to return the historic streetcars to service on the F- and E-lines, either. A Muni spokeswoman, Erika Kato, noted that most streetcars lack the Plexiglass barriers that currently operational Muni buses have.

The double-end “Torpedo” PCCs already have a protective barrier for operators, as shown in this 2012 photo with operator Angel Carvajal. The top portion here is open and swung behind his seat. Similar barriers are feasible to install on the single-end PCCs.

But that’s a fixable issue. The seven double-end PCC streetcars (Cars 1006-11 and 1015) already have these barriers. The two Melbourne trams, 496 and 916 have operator doors, as does “EuroPCC” (Brussels/Zurich) 737. On the operational Milan trams (about six currently), some hardware is still in place for the Plexiglas barriers that were on those cars when they arrived here from Italy 20 years ago. (Muni removed those barriers.)  It would be straightforward to fit Plexiglas shields again.

The bulk of the F-line fleet is the single-ended streamliner “PCC” cars, which have stanchions already installed in the right location behind the operator, requiring only fitting of hardware and plexiglas.  It’s our understanding that maintenance and engineering have done some preliminary design work already, and have asked top management whether they wish these shields fitted.  But we are not aware of any actual installation work being authorized as of yet.

Muni has the maintenance staff to do this. They’re at work right now, and they have already caught up on the streetcar maintenance backlog during the shutdown (the cars look great; all seats like new, scratched glass replaced, paint touched up).  

It’s clear that Covid-19 is going to be in our midst awhile, so it makes sense to have these changes implemented on the streetcars now. If we wait to do this until it’s safe to resume service, it would likely be an additional 3-6 months to get them back on the street. We are actively advocating for this protective word on the streetcars to be done now. When that’s completed, and with the same social distancing guidelines as other Muni vehicles imposed, it would seem there’s no mechanical or health reason the streetcars couldn’t return.

At that point, it would be up to where we as a society stand against the virus, how much ridership has returned, and how important SFMTA and the City consider the needs of the visitor industry in San Francisco among their many competing priorities. But with cable cars likely blocked from returning for a longer time, the F-line in particular will become the transit lifeline connecting Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ferry Building, Union Square, Civic Center, and the Castro. Operating it with historic streetcars would clearly send a message that San Francisco is committed to retaining its uniqueness and attractiveness to the world.

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