Two transit pandemics

OFF YOU GO—A masked police officer leads two men away from a C-Geary-California streetcar at the Ferry Building during the 1918 flu pandemic. After mask wearing became mandatory, police arrested 100 men on one day alone at this location. A century later, masks are the rule again on Muni vehicles, this time for the Covid-19 pandemic. Colorized photo; original by Hamilton Henry Dobbin, California State Library.

The Bay Area’s transit agencies are slowly restoring service after deep cutbacks triggered by the shelter-in-place orders imposed in mid-March. Muni, for example, dropped from about 80 lines to just seven, with all rail service, including the historic streetcars and cable cars, suspended. San Franciscans have been ordered to wear masks whenever they’re in public places. (We have history-inspired masks at our store.)

We dug into newspaper archives to compare the impacts on San Francisco transit from the influenza pandemic of 1918 and today’s fight against Covid-19.

War and flu

As Fall 1918 began in San Francisco, the Chronicle and Examiner were both filled with reports of the Allied drive toward victory in Europe in what was then called the Great War. The stories filled page after page and went into minute detail. Another story was gaining daily headlines on the East Coast at the time, but getting short shrift here. On September 29, the Examiner ran a tiny story at the bottom of page 2: “BOSTON – At least 85,000 are ill from Spanish influenza in Massachusetts, and the death list is growing hourly…” This followed another small story three days earlier headlined “Two Suspected Cases Influenza are Found in S.F.”

SAFETY FIRST—A masked Muni bus operator at Kirkland Division, May 19, 2020. New Muni buses have plexiglass barriers between operators and passengers. Jeremy Menzies photo, SFMTA Archive.

Other than one outbreak in Seattle, blamed on visiting sailors, the West Coast had seen little of the influenza that was ravaging the East Coast and indeed most of the world. That Seattle outbreak, and similar ones in the east apparently triggered by sailors, may well have influenced San Francisco’s public health director, William Hassler, to quarantine all naval installations on September 21, even before a single case had been reported on the bases or in the city. According to John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, a history of the 1918 pandemic, Hassler “mobilized the entire city in advance, recruiting hundreds of drivers and volunteers and dividing the city into districts, each with its own medical personnel, phones, transport and supply, and emergency hospitals in schools and churches. He closed public places [including schools]. And far from the usual assurances that the disease was ordinary ‘la grippe,’ on October 22 the mayor, Hassler, the Red Cross, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Labor Council jointly declared in a full-page newspaper ad, ‘Wear a mask and save your life!’ claiming that it was ‘99% proof against influenza.’”

Masks on!

Two days later, masks were not just a recommendation. The city imposed what the Chronicle headlined as a “drastic new ordinance” requiring everyone to wear gauze masks in public “until the danger is past.” Violating the mask rule could bring fines ranging from $5 to $100 could be levied ($85-$2550 in today’s dollars), and up to ten days imprisonment. Though the news merited banner headlines, they were reserved for the second section of the newspaper, not Page One, where war news continued to dominate. The main article on the mask ordinance listed other emergency measures being taken, including opening “the Sacramento Street car barn…as a temporary hospital”. Presumably, this was the United Railroads’ cable car barn at Sacramento and Walnut Streets, which on April 18, 1906, housed (and thus saved) the cable cars now used on the Powell lines, but was not much used by the company then.

Advertisements in the newspapers seemed to convey the stressful times more than the news columns did. Department stores, including I. Magnin and O’Connor, Moffatt (where Macy’s is now) assured their patrons that they could shop “in perfect safety” because their clerks were wearing masks. A maker of loganberry juice touted it “for fever in influenza”. Pacific Telephone & Telegraph ran daily ads for a time, beseeching people to restrict their use of the phone in that pre-dial era because “of the large number of operators now absent because of illness” (as many as 700 at one point).

ON AND OFF—The second section front pages of the Chronicle, October 25 and November 22, 1918, announcing the beginning and (first) end of mandatory masking in San Francisco. The stories made it clear that many people deeply disliked wearing masks. Click to enlarge.

What we didn’t find in either newspaper was even a single mention of how the city’s transit companies were handling the mask ordinance. Police were given enforcement power in San Francisco. In Seattle, streetcar conductors were empowered to deny boarding to passengers without masks. But we found no indication that was imposed in San Francisco. We do know there was stern police enforcement. Reports on November 9 indicate the police courts were clogged with 1,000 “mask slackers,” including 100 at the Ferry Building alone. Most received the minimum fine, but one man was sentenced to 60 days in county jail for “denouncing the government and declaring he did not intend to wear a gauze mask.” Another man, who spit on the sidewalk when a cop told him to get a mask, got ten days behind bars.

Transit suffers

So, if there were altercations on San Francisco transit vehicles over mask wearing, we didn’t find newspaper coverage of them. We do know, however, that the flu clearly affected the transit system. A tiny story in the October 27 edition of the Examiner states that Muni receipts had dropped 20 percent from the preceding week. Muni Superintendent Fred Boeken told the paper, “People are not traveling any more than is actually necessary.” The article then noted “The Municipal car men have also been hit hard with influenza and 139 men have been reported sick.” That was a substantial portion of Muni’s workforce at the time. A November 28 article reported that Muni was considering raising its fare from five cents to six because of the revenue shortfall, but that never came to pass. That same article said the much larger United Railroads “suffered in proportion” to Muni, but offered no specifics. 

Meanwhile…

Our newspaper archive search also turned up some other transit news during that three-month period. We saw four articles about streetcars fatally striking pedestrians; all the motormen were arrested for manslaughter. A sailor fell off an E-Union line “dinky” (identical to preserved Car 578) at Larkin and Green and died. A woman riding in an automobile was killed when it plowed into an A-Geary car stopped for the C-line switch at 2nd Avenue. A 22-Fillmore United Railroads car had a fuse catch fire; URR management said the motorman panicked; the car ran away downhill from Haight to Duboce, where it jumped the track; 20 people were hurt. A California Street cable car hit a pedestrian inbound at Powell and then slid down the hill to Stockton, terrifying riders. United Railroads sued the city for building the outside tracks for Muni streetcars along Market Street, claiming violation of their franchise rights (they lost). But in the western part of town, URR had agreed to share tracks with Muni on part of Taraval and Junipero Serra to allow creation of the L-line and the extension of the K, and a contract was awarded in this period to rebuild those dilapidated tracks to Muni standards. The Board of Supervisors discussed a claim by R. C. Storrie & Co., the contractor of the newly-completed Twin Peaks Tunnel, against the city. (Storrie is the guy who named a street created above the tunnel alignment near Castro after himself.)

NO, SIR—A Seattle streetcar conductor denies boarding to a rider in this colorized 1918 photo. It is unclear whether streetcar conductors in San Francisco had similar authority.

In other news we saw, City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy personally took an axe to a 150-foot tall fir at Hetch Hetchy to provide the city’s “Yuletide Tree” for Civic Center Plaza. The Examiner, which sponsored the tree, claimed it was the largest tree ever publicly erected at that time. A. P. Giannini bought a tavern at Powell and Market Streets, next to the cable car turntable, promising to replace it with a grand headquarters for Bank of Italy. That handsome building still flanks the turntable, now occupied by AT&T. Four prisoners escaped on a raft from Alcatraz, then a military prison. Breweries started closing after President Wilson signed the enabling legislation to impose Prohibition effective in June 1919. And the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution calling for a survey to bridge the Golden Gate, to include rail tracks. (The bridge finally opened, without tracks, in 1937.)

Masks off!

As mandatory masking kicked off, the Examiner ran a story on “fashion masks” for women. Cartoonists offered their good-humored take as well. But even as news columns reported the strongest examples of enforcement, a backlash quickly developed among some San Franciscans hostile toward the requirement. A group called the “Anti-Mask League” pressured politicians, including Mayor Rolph, to end the requirement. Health officer Hassler felt the pressure and introduced an ordinance to do just that, noting that his precautions, including the masks, had likely cut the number of cases and deaths in half. (The city’s reported flu death toll through November 20 was just under 2,000.)

“MASK-ER-RAIDING!”—October 27, 1918 Examiner cartoon as the mask ordinance went into effect.

At high noon on November 21, less than a month after masks were required, sirens and whistles sounded across the city and, virtually as one, San Franciscans unmasked. Hassler had urged people to keep their masks handy, just in case, but many if not most were immediately discarded into the streets. “Freedom to Breathe Ozone-Filled Air Brings Joy to Populace”, headlined the Chronicle, which also noted “libations were poured”. An Examiner headline read “Flu Mask Wearers Get ‘Bawling Out’” with the sub-headline “Those who do not doff gauze are ridiculed”, reporting that people who prudently kept their masks on were being mocked by strangers on the street. Examiner columnist “Annie Laurie” laid it on thick: “Didn’t you hate your mask? Didn’t you feel smothered and breathless—and shut up and tied down with a mask on?…The war is over, the flu is conquered. Our masks are off. Come, altogether, now – smile, smile, smile. And with that smile conquer fear and down pain and shake distrust and timorous caution to the four winds.” 

READY TO RUMBLE—On November 30, 1918, at 11:46am, Muni Car 71 (identical to preserved 130 and 162) on the K-Market line is ready to pull out from the Ferry Loop, bound for the Twin Peaks Tunnel and St. Francis Circle (the extension through the Ingleside District was still several months away). Behind it, United Railroads Car 212 is boarding passengers for a trip out the 3-Sutter-Jackson line to Pacific Heights. Though the mask ordinance had been repealed a week before, many people in the photo are still masked. John Henry Mentz photo for United Railroads; SFMTA Archive. Lots of great detail here; click to enlarge.

Two weeks later, the final wave of flu hit San Francisco hard. Yet it was clear to the political leadership that masks were hated, and they delayed re-imposing mandatory masking for a full month, until mid-January 1919. Many refused to comply with the second mask ordinance. The Anti-Mask League held a rally at Dreamland on January 24, drawing some 2,000 mask opponents. But by this time, the disease was waning of its own accord, having “burned through” a high percentage of people worldwide. San Francisco’s mask ordinance was rescinded in early February 1919, not to reappear for more than a century.

The toll

The final tally showed San Francisco’s total death toll above 3,200 (in a population of 550,000), the highest on the West Coast. While much has been written about the city’s pioneering embrace of mandatory masks, less has been said about Hassler’s early actions to restrict public gatherings. Cities that didn’t, most notably Philadelphia, suffered greatly. 

No one at the time understood that influenza, like Covid-19, is a virus. Few saw the health imperative of keeping people distanced from each other and, indeed, it was a practical impossibility. Few if any people could work from home; you had to go out to shop; only the wealthy could shun public transit for their private automobiles. So, almost all businesses stayed open and people kept riding the streetcars, although limiting their trips, as we have seen. 

As we post this story (which originally appeared in our member magazine Inside Track), masks remain required in public places in San Francisco and surrounding counties. After five months with no rail service at all, Muni tried to reopen its subway under Market Street only to shut it down again after a couple of days, in part because a positive Covid-19 test came back or a key employee in their rail operations center.

We look forward to the day when all San Francisco transit, including the historic streetcars and cable cars, can resume operation safely for both operators and passengers, and our San Francisco Railway Museum is allowed to reopen. Meanwhile, you can support our nonprofit by shopping at our online store and purchasing among other items, yes, masks.

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When Heritage Weekend got a gift from us

Sadly, Covid-19 caused cancellation of the 2020 Muni Heritage Weekend, but we can still look back. The first actual Heritage Weekend was in 2013, an outgrowth of the 2012 Muni Centennial Weekend. And Market Street Railway made sure it kicked off with a bang, delivering a second Blackpool Boat Tram to Muni all the way from England, thanks to the generous support of the Thoresen Foundation and shipping help from FedEx.

We took some video of both the inspection and operation of Boat Tram 233 at the Beamish Museum in northern England, where it was on loan from its then-owner, and of its very first operation in San Francisco, a trip from Cameron Beach Yard to our San Francisco Railway Museum on November 1, 2013, for Muni Heritage Weekend.

While you can’t ride a real boat tram here today, you can share virtual rides on two continents! Click the image below and enjoy!

You can see more great videos on our YouTube Channel.

One more time, we want to thank the Thoresen Foundation for its very generous support that made it possible for us to bring Boat Tram 233 to San Francisco!

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Jubilation — and riots — on Market Street 75 years ago

When President Harry Truman announced the Japanese surrender on August 14, 1945, ending World War II, celebrations erupted around the world. As the primary port of embarkation for US troops headed to the Pacific, San Francisco’s revelry was especially intense.

Market, Fourth, and Stockton Streets, August 14, 1945

By early evening, crowds were pouring onto Market Street, almost like lemmings. Streetcars were jammed, and many celebrants climbed on the roofs of the cars. One was our late historian, Phil Hoffman. He remembered the night this way:

My mother must not have been paying attention, because I was 14 years old and said, ‘Can I go down and see the celebration?’ and in a moment of weakness she said yes…and I began to see people on the roofs of the streetcars. ‘Ha. This is my golden opportunity.’ So I climbed on the roof of Car 86, all the way up Market, until finally the inspector at Van Ness told me to come down, so off I went. I was ’86’d’ from Car 86. (Note to those of a tender age: to ‘Eighty-six’ someone means to eject them, usually from a bar.)

Philip Hoffman

There is some great color film footage of V-J day and other vintage motion picture clips of San Francisco’s streetcar heyday, with interviews from Phil and other transit historians, including the late Arthur Lloyd, in our video production “Take Me Out”, here. A still frame is below.

But there is a much darker side to what was unleashed in San Francisco on V-J (for Victory over Japan) Day, a terrible and ugly side that got almost no public attention then, or in the decades that followed. Here’s how the Chronicle recounted it in a retrospective piece five years ago:

Thousands of frenzied, drunken revelers, an estimated 90 percent of them young Navy enlistees who had not served overseas, embarked on a three-night orgy of vandalism, looting, assault, robbery, rape and murder. By the time the “Peace Riots” burned themselves out on Friday morning, 13 people were dead, at least six women had been raped, 1,059 people were injured, and an incalculable amount of damage had been done to businesses, public buildings, streetcars, cars, traffic lights, signs, barber poles, marquees and everything else the rioters had gotten their hands on. They were the deadliest riots in the city’s history.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 15, 2015

The eye-opening article recounts some horrific and terrible individual crimes, and reports that no action was taken against any of the rioters, either by the military or the civilian authorities. San Francisco District Attorney Edmund G. “Pat” Brown promised an investigation, but both it and a grand jury probe yielded nothing. The city simply swept it, and the many victims, under the rug.

On the roof of a Muni streetcar, Market and Taylor Streets, August 14, 1945. Virginia de Carvalho photo, courtesy San Francisco Chronicle

One of those victims was Joe Georgy, a Muni inspector, killed when a rioter smashed him on the head while he was switching streetcars back at 12th and Market. Georgy was 34.

So, while many lives were saved by the Japanese surrender on this day 75 years ago, including in all probability some of the young sailor rioters, who according to contemporary accounts hadn’t yet been shipped out to the Pacific, too many lives were lost because of unchecked ‘celebration’.

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Unhappy 147th birthday, cable cars

In the wee hours of August 2, 1873, Andrew Hallidie gripped the first street cable car in history over a precipice on Clay Street. Hallidie, a Scots immigrant who had extensive expertise in “wire rope” technology to move buckets of ore above ground in the state’s mining district, had applied his knowledge to pull people in little cars up hills that horses couldn’t climb. His franchise for the line had technically expired at midnight on August 1, but there were delays, including the refusal of the gripman he hired to operate the car after taking a look down the hill. So Hallidie did it himself. Apparently, no one noticed that he missed his franchise deadline and even today, the anniversary date is commonly given as August 1. (That first operation, incidentally, was a test. Paying passenger service didn’t start until September 1.)

Hallidie’s invention soon swept the world because even with high capital costs, cable cars were twice as fast as horse-drawn streetcars even on level ground, meaning you could carry more passengers per day. Also, operating costs were lower (horses were very expensive to maintain). But the cable revolution only lasted 15 years until Frank Sprague’s development of the electric streetcar in 1888, significantly faster than cable cars and cheaper to build and run. Cable systems around the world were quickly converted, leaving only those serving steep hills. Buses ultimately took over almost all of those as well. By 1957, San Francisco’s was the only traditional street cable system left in the world. (Check out differences between cable cars and streetcars.)

Today, there’s no special bell serenade or even the clicking of the cable to mark the 147th birthday, because the cable cars are silent, shut down since March because of Covid-19. Muni officials have ruled out a comeback anytime soon, probably until an effective vaccine is deployed, because there is no way to shield the operators from passengers, as is being done on buses and light rail vehicles (and we hope soon on the shut-down historic streetcars as well). Indeed, it is possible that the silenced bells and cables could last longer than any previous shutdown.

In their entire 147-year history, there have only been two extended cable car shutdowns: one, following the 1906 earthquake and fire, which decimated cable car machinery and incinerated many cars, lasted about a year; the other, the complete rebuilding of the system from the dirt up in 1982-84, lasted about 18 months. Given the resurgence and persistence of the virus, the little cars could be off the street longer than that.

We hope not; instead we hope the 148th birthday can be celebrated on the cars themselves, climbing ‘halfway to the stars’! Meanwhile, we will be celebrating cable car history here, with a series of posts on little-known aspects of the little cars.

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