December 28, 1912. Fifty thousand San Franciscans gathered at Market and Geary Streets. Was it a presidential visit? No, it was the transit equivalent of a late visit from Santa. It was a new streetcar line.
But symbolically it was a lot more than that. For the ten locally-built gray and maroon streetcars that began running up and down the A-Geary line that day had letterboards on the side emblazoned in gold leaf “MUNICIPAL RAILWAY.” They were the first publicly owned streetcars in any major American city. San Franciscans turned out because they were proud of what their government had done.
In those days, private companies owned transit lines, which made a profit, even with a five-cent fare. They were awarded franchises from cities for the right to use the streets, lay down their tracks, and string their overhead wires. In San Francisco, this arrangement had led to significant corruption and the public was sick of it. So they approved a bond issue to purchase the obsolete Geary Street Cable Railroad and convert it to streetcars.
When Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph boarded Car No. 1, paid his fare (using one of the first 40 nickels produced by the San Francisco Mint less than three blocks away on Fifth Street), and personally took the controls for the ride out Geary, the crowd roared.
Now, 108 years later, Muni faces perhaps the most critical moment in its existence. Travel patterns that date back to the 19th century, focusing on connecting downtown employment and shopping with outlying neighborhoods, have been shattered by the pandemic, with no clear picture of how widespread and permanent the change to working and shopping from home will be.
We do believe that when the pandemic ebbs, tourism will return and help rejuvenate businesses from the Wharf to the Castro District, and we are advocating hard for the F-line to be reinstated to serve those businesses as well as the growing number of residents in new developments along Market Street. We would very much appreciate your support for our advocacy with a year-end tax-deductible donation or membership.
In whatever form Muni emerges from this cataclysmic event, its history as America’s first publicly owned big city transit system will endure — as will that very streetcar Mayor Rolph operated, Car No. 1 (above), which our advocacy helped get fully restored as Muni’s 100th birthday gift to itself in 1912. We can’t wait to see it carrying passengers on the street again — to celebrate the future reopening of the F-line!
January, 1945—newsboys at the Ferry Loop screaming headlines about the Battle of the Bulge and MacArthur closing in on Manila, their voices competing with screeching streetcar wheels and boat whistles. Open the paper— San Franciscans on casualty lists every day. Turn to the ads—the hot movie is Meet Me in St. Louis, with Judy Garland singing “Clang clang clang went the trolley.” An instant hit. But many newspaper readers were engulfed in a different part of the paper—the local news, which was dominated by the kind of titillating story that’s now standard fodder for cable television.
The story had many elements familiar today—sex, allegations of crime, local celebrities: San Francisco District Attorney Edmund G. ‘Pat’ Brown (later governor and father of another governor), noted criminal defense attorney Jake Erlich, financier Louis Lurie, hotelier Ben Swig, and others. And at the center of it all, a Muni streetcar conductor.
Francis Van Wie liked women. He met lots of them on the job: holding down the rear platform of aging streetcars heaving themselves around the city under the crush of wartime loads. With so many men overseas in the service, there wasn’t a lot of competition. So he courted them and married them. Quite a few of them. At the same time.
An unlikely lothario, Examiner reporter Norma Barzman described Van Wie as “on the wrong side of 50, round as a beer barrel, pale and meek looking with a shiny bald head and eyeglasses.” At 5 ́2 ̋ and 180 pounds, beer barrel was a pretty good description, and he became so famous locally, he complained, that whenever he walked into a San Francisco tavern, the bartender would buy his drink and someone would put a nickel into the jukebox and play the Trolley Song. Actually, for a time his fame spread nationwide, thanks to a story first scooped by Examiner reporter Ernest Lenn, but immortalized by Chronicle reporter Stanton Delaplane. It was the story of The Ding Dong Daddy of the D-car Line. Sort of.
When the US entered World War II in December 1941, Muni still competed with the privately owned Market Street Railway Co. (MSRy), our namesake. Both companies faced severe personnel shortages as regular employees left for military service. Out of necessity, long–time employment prejudices fell, and many African–Americans and women stepped through the ‘gate of opportunity’ to relatively well–paying jobs by climbing the two high steps onto a streetcar platform, most famously poet and author Maya Angelou. (After the war, though, returning male veterans squeezed out almost all the women, the majority of whom had been hired on a ‘limited tenure’ basis.)
A common practice of newspaper editors in those competitive days was to find a catch phrase to stoke public interest in the story. (A classic example of this was the unsolved dismemberment murder of a young Los Angeles woman that grew in public attention after a newspaper dubbed her the Black Dahlia). In the early going of the Van Wie story, one paper nicknamed Van Wie the Car Barn Casanova; another called him the Trolley Toreador. However, all other sobriquets soon gave way to the inspired invention of Chronicle reporter (later long–time columnist) Stanton Delapane: Ding-Dong Daddy of the D-car Line.
Delaplane later admitted he filched the name from a popular song of the previous decade— Ding Dong Daddy of Dumas, recorded by Louis Amstrong— given the fact that San Francisco streetcar conductors rang bells to signal the motorman, or ‘motorette’. Add an alliterative route letter and…bingo! Higher newsstand sales. There was one unfortunate fact in the way… Van Wie almost certainly never worked the D-line. Presumably, Delaplane and his editors followed the newspaper adage of the time: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
Muni and MSRy employment records of the period were destroyed, but recollections of contemporaries make it clear that during his spree, Van Wie was assigned to Turk and Fillmore, a MSRy division, while the D-line, always a Muni line, ran from Geary Division about twenty blocks away. (Muni officially acquired its private competitor, lock, stock, and employees— apparently including Van Wie— on September 29, 1944.)
Ruth Losaga, a retired MSRy ‘motorette’ and conductor, recalled in an interview with this author that during her tenure at the Turk and Fillmore Division, she had Van Wie as her conductor on Fillmore Street. She said, he was “The last person in that carhouse I would have expected to have been a bigamist,” and said that he did not cause her any concerns. Market Street Railway Historian Philip Hoffman recalls riding on Van Wie’s car on the 22-line and says that, after the trials, one of the papers staged a photo op with him on the rear platform of Muni D-line car No. 172.
In that period, Turk and Fillmore housed only two main streetcar lines, the 22-Fillmore and the 31-Balboa. Additional circumstantial evidence all points to the 22-line as Van Wie’s line. Consider that Wife Number Eight reportedly lived at 8 Sanchez Street (one block west of the 22- line’s turn from Duboce onto Fillmore—shown in the top photo). Another wife lived at 426 Oak Street, two and one–half blocks from the Fillmore line.
Additionally, in January 26, 1945, the press reported that a younger woman, describing Van Wie as ‘that silly old fool’, disclosed that he leered at her through his bifocals daily that summer of 1944 when she climbed aboard his trolley and that he even asked for a date. This 28 year–old potential victim listed her address as at 650 Oak Street (again, between Fillmore and Webster, just steps from the 22-line).
Stanton Delaplane himself reported in the January 25, 1945 Chronicle that the Ding Dong Daddy “cashed in at the Fillmore car barn.” But while Delaplane and his editors had to know Van Wie’s actual assignment, Ding Dong Daddy of the 22-car Line wasn’t alliterative and didn’t scan either. So what the heck, make it the D-line. (To throw in a complete red herring, a 1952 Examiner item claimed that the Ding Dong Daddy of the D-car Line in reality plied the F-Stockton line, but this seems plain wrong, as the original F-line ran out of Geary, along with the D-line and several other Muni lines.)
Van Wie was too old to be drafted, but not too old to flirt—and then some! As the newspapers and D.A. Brown unraveled his story in early 1945, the number of women he married kept increasing from four to fourteen—all without a single divorce! Brown indicted him for bigamy, for which Van Wie faced a maximum of ten years in state prison if convicted.
While the papers treated it generally as a lighter counterpoint to the grim wartime news, all was not the jovial merriment the papers tended to emphasize. Most wives reported that within weeks, Van Wie became abusive—stayed out late or was gone for weeks at a time. Wife Number Three summed up what it was like for her. “Frank’s a card in the parlor, a gentleman on the street, and a beast in the home.” Another said that after two months he became insanely jealous, accusing her of stepping out with other men, and then beat her. She promptly ended the relationship.
Wives seemed to be rather unabashed in explaining how they fell for this lothario… most were middle–aged women. Several sat together at his trial and were photographed engaging in good– natured conversation with him— together! Indeed, many met him on the streetcar. Interestingly, the Ding Dong Daddy sought work on the rear platform, rather than the front, where he would have stood beneath a prominent ‘Do Not Talk to Motorman’ sign.
Wife Number Eight, Myrtle, explained how she met him in a January 22, 1945 Examiner story. “I was standing on the rear platform and he was the conductor… When the car lurched… I fell right into his arms and I ‘fell’ for him, too. It was love at first sight.”
Later that week, Van Wie matter–of–factly explained his wiles to Examiner reporter Norma Barzman: “You’re a woman. I could get you to marry me in a month… [Women] want to be told they’re loved more than anything else— and they want their own way.
“It’s simple. If I wanted to get you to marry me, I’d help you cook dinner some night and I’d make you feel how cozy and secure love can be…
“Older women are the ones who like to feel secure. They want to feel they’re building a home and just starting out like a sixteen year–old bride…I know how to make a woman feel as if she’s the only woman in the world—and I’m the only man.”
His proposal line? “Let’s build a life together.”
Van Wie relished his role as streetcar conductor. “If any of my occupations made women like me it was being a streetcar conductor. It was a position of authority and seemed to represent standing in the community… It was a very respectable job—and they thought they could be sure of getting my weekly pay check.”
This is where Lurie, Erlich, Swig and others (including Oakland Oaks baseball club owner Joseph Blumenfeld and Atherton Mayor James B. Howell) enter the story. Between Van Wie’s arrest and his trial, they formed a support committee that persuaded five bail bond brokers to chip in $200 each toward his bond. During the trial, Lurie even put him up in one of his holdings, in Room 707 of the Padre Hotel at 241 Jones Street, where, conveniently, the Daddy could hear the bells of both the Jones Street cable on the street below as well as those of the MSRy’s Balboa High Speeds on neighboring Turk and Eddy Streets.)
As embarrassing as the notoriety of this employee must have been to Muni, Utilities Manager E.G. Cahill’s comments reflect wartime employment tolerances and the challenges facing the railway in just providing service. “I can’t find anything in the City Charter against him having more than one wife. I believe the public cares more about getting streetcar service than whether a man has one or five wives.”
Van Wie’s attorney, James Toner, downplayed the Ding Dong Daddy as being a ‘sheep in wolf ’s clothing’, claiming that he was harmless, that “He meant no harm to his wives; that he was sentimental, and that he did not harm them or run away with money.”
District Attorney Brown presented a different portrait, citing evidence that Van Wie had abandoned one wife with a baby—who was later adopted. (Van Wie denied this—claiming it couldn’t be his child as he was sterile.) Brown portrayed him as a youthful horse thief and later, a man who absconded with union funds (a very serious charge in pro–Labor San Francisco). Finally, Brown dropped the bombshell that Wife Number Five, Mabel, was really his daughter by his first wife. Van Wie finally claimed that she was indeed the daughter of Wife Number One, but that he was not her biological father.
San Franciscans have always been mesmerized by a good storyteller, and Francis Van Wie was a consummate liar. One wife recounted how he would turn up wearing an army uniform after being missing for a while. As his excuses unraveled publicly, the FBI bureau chief ’s ears perked up when he heard one wife say that in 1942 he told her that he was actually an FBI agent, dropping the first names of the local bureau chief and referring to the agency’s director as ‘J. Edgar.’ He explained his long absences to her by the excuse that he was involved in secret undercover work examining the attack on Pearl Harbor. Van Wie saw no bounds to his cover, claiming to one wife that his investigator role required him to pose as a married man to other women.
By early February, things were looking bad for the Daddy in court. He entered an unsuccessful insanity plea (which the jury deliberated on for 55 minutes before denying on the second ballot). He was convicted of Bigamy, and sentenced to ten years, entering San Quentin State Prison on April 12, 1945, the day Franklin D. Roosevelt died. He quickly disappeared from the news…for awhile.
Within a year, Van Wie’s trial judge was petitioned for his release on parole. He was described as an ‘elderly man’ and his case was seen as lending a ‘great moral lesson to our youth’. Two years to the day later, Frances Van Wie was paroled, with a special condition that he was not to wed for five years without the approval of his parole officer. As he had lost his job at Muni, on release he worked first as a peach picker, then as a janitor in Oakland at Machek’s Waffle and Cocktail Lounge at 22nd and Telegraph, where he undoubtedly witnessed the last days of Oakland streetcar service.
Fantastic though it may sound, Van Wie surfaced again in late 1949 when he approached none other than his trial judge (Kaufman) with a request to be married. After the stunned judge ascertained that he was free to marry since he had cleared all his prior marriages through annulments or divorces, he insisted that Van Wie bring the fiancée into the court. There, he ‘strongly advised her against marrying him’. When she insisted, he relented and married them.
In 1952, Van Wie popped up in the press again, working at the El Rey Burlesque Theatre at 35th and San Pablo Avenues in Oakland. Here he starred in an act entitled My True Love Story wherein he and the accomplished performers all wore conductor’s hats.
The last time we found coverage of the Ding Dong Daddy in the San Francisco press was May 8, 1958, when an article noted that Francis Van Wie, then 73, married his eighteenth wife in Southern California. He soon dropped out of sight and died in the town of Lake Elsinore, Riverside County, in 1973.
After World War II ended, financially strapped Muni did everything it could to free itself from the labor costs of conductors, converting lines to single–operator buses whenever possible (the 22-line changed over in 1948, the D-line in 1950), and trying to pass law changes and acquire newer streetcars that didn’t require two–person crews. In 1958, the last regular run of a two–person streetcar pulled into the car barn…until the first Trolley Festival 25 years later.
Francis Van Wie’s fifteen minutes of fame had an odd afterlife. Ask almost any San Franciscan from that time about the Ding Dong Daddy and they will remember a surprising amount of detail from an event that took place 60 years ago. Google the Daddy and you’ll find some odd references, including one artist who did a Ding Dong Daddy tribute, confusing the Dumas song with the Van Wie case, and making Van Wie a cable car conductor.
Speaking of songs, perhaps the oddest legacy of all is another song by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies from the 1990s. “Ding Dong Daddy of the D-car Line” makes him a train conductor. It is perhaps fitting that this contemporary song should get it wrong, since we now know the original press coverage was also wrong.
Also, while the press reported testimony from multiple wives that Van Wie was physically and mentally abusive, the coverage carried a ‘boys will be boys’ undertone, not surprising from a newsroom culture completely dominated by men.
But, though it all happened a long time ago when societal mores were far different, there is an eerie resonance captured by the modern song. Tune in any of the crime and court–covering cable television stations today, and it won’t be long until you see some oddball story that in one way or another echoes Ding Dong Daddy.
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Doug Wright, Chair of Market Street Railway’s Board of Directors and a noted urban planner who helped transform San Francisco’s waterfront by leading the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway and replacing it with an acclaimed ground-level boulevard, died July 30, 2014 at Marin General Hospital. He was 68. His death resulted from a stroke.
As Deputy Mayor for Transportation under Mayor Art Agnos, Wright was director of the Embarcadero transportation program, responsible for planning, designing, and financing the integrated boulevard, pedestrian and bicycle promenade, light rail, and streetcar project stretching from Fishermans’ Wharf to the site of the Giants ballpark and the Caltrain Depot on King Street. The initial plan for the boulevard left the double-deck freeway, which blocked off the Ferry Building from the city, in place, respecting voter’s wishes. But after the Loma Prieta Earthquake badly damaged the freeway in October 1989, Wright led successful efforts to demolish it, enabling the complete transformation of San Francisco’s northeast waterfront.
“I could never have made that decision to tear down the freeway without Doug Wright by my side, convincing me that it was the best thing to do for the people of San Francisco,”said former Mayor Art Agnos.
Wright’s work in San Francisco was only a part of his nationwide influence in replacing planned and partly built urban freeways with sustainable transportation systems that created more livable cities.
Douglas G. Wright was born April 28, 1946 in Des Moines, Iowa. After graduating from that city’s Roosevelt High School, he attended the University of Iowa, earning a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in 1968 and a Master of Arts in Urban and Regional Planning in 1970.
From 1970 to 1973 he served as a city planner in Cleveland, Ohio before moving to Portland, Oregon, where he served from 1973 to 1979 as City Planning Director and Chief Transportation Planner under Mayor Neil Goldschmidt.
In Portland, Wright led the replacement of the Harbor Drive freeway along the Willamette River with a park. He also led the city’s successful effort to transfer federal funding from a freeway proposed by Robert Moses to a new light rail system, a first-of-its-kind event that became a model that numerous American cities have since followed. Wright even helped Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY) draft the successful Congressional legislation that enabled such federal funding transfers.
In 1979, Wright became Associate Deputy Secretary of Transportation in the Carter Administration, under Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt. In this role, he represented Goldschmidt in cities across America that were grappling with outdated freeway plans. Wright’s command of transportation, development, and political knowledge created a practical, achievable framework that showed leaders of these cities a path to a more livable urban environment, while still retaining mobility. Numerous cities used Wright’s counsel and the legislation he had help create to “trade in” federal freeway funding for transit and appropriately scaled roadway projects.
In 1981, Wright joined the administration of San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein as Director, Planning and Development and Assistant General Manager of the Public Utilities Commission. In this latter role, he served as General Manager Rudy Nothenberg’s designee on the San Francisco Planning Commission.
In 1988, Wright became Mayor Agnos’ Deputy Mayor for Transportation, a position he held until 1991, when he opened his own consultancy, Douglas Wright Consulting. In his consulting role, he initiated and helped manage the development of a Muni bus turnaround at Steuart and Mission Streets into the Hotel Vitale, a project that brings its parent agency, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, well over a million dollars a year in revenue and will ultimately result in city ownership of the hotel. Extending his achievements in San Francisco and Portland, Wright played a key role as a consultant in the City of Seattle’s decision to tear down its elevated double-deck waterfront freeway on the waterfront, known as the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
At the time of his death, Wright was consulting for BART and on transportation and development projects for the cities of Oakland and Sacramento. He had become Board Chair of Market Street Railway in January and was working on several important initiatives, including extension of historic streetcar service from Fisherman’s Wharf to Aquatic Park and Fort Mason Center.
“Doug was one of the most complete people I have ever met,” said Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher. He was a deeply knowledgeable, passionate yet practical advocate who achieved great professional success. At the same time, he nurtured a full, rich family life and achieved a rare level of work-life balance. All who knew him will greatly miss him, no one more than his colleagues at Market Street Railway.”
Wright was a long-serving member of the board of directors of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy as well as Market Street Railway. He was also a devoted Giants fan. After nearly 20 years of treks to Candlestick Park, Doug cheered on the Giants at more than 340 games at AT&T Park.
He is survived by his wife Lillian Hames, 61, with whom he shared 24 love-filled years of marriage; by his daughter Alison, 31, with whom he has hiked countless National Parks; by his daughter Alexandra, 23, who he has proudly cheered on in softball, Little League baseball games, and in life; and by his brother Denny Wright, 63, of Oregon City, Oregon.
A memorial service for Doug is planned on August 28 at 2 p.m. at Cavallo Point, Fort Baker. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations in Doug’s memory may be made to Market Street Railway or to the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.
Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher will present “How Transit Built San Francisco” at the Excelsior Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, 4400 Mission Street (between Ocean Avenue and Silver Avenue), Tuesday, July 29 at 7 p.m.
Rick will include slides that depict the development of transit in the city and how it shaped development of our neighborhoods over the decades. Some of the content is drawn from his new book, “On Track: A Field Guide to San Francisco Historic Streetcars and Cable Cars,” published by Heyday.
The talk is free. Autographed copies of the book will be available at the event. They’re also available at our San Francisco Railway Museum, or here in our online store.
A combination of events has left the F-line without streetcar service on one of the biggest visitor weekends of the year, July 25-26. You’ll only see buses on the F-line all weekend. The historic streetcars’ overnight base was moved last month to Muni Metro East, just off Third Street and the T-line, to allow rails to be replaced near their long-time home at Cameron Beach Yard across town. This means that the historic streetcars now enter and leave F-line service… — Read More
We’ve got a great combo opportunity coming up on Sunday, August 24. It’s a charter on PCC streetcar No. 1050 that starts at 1:00 p.m. at our San Francisco Railway Museum. We’ll cruise down The Embarcadero past AT&T Park, past all the new development on Third Street in Mission Bay and Dogpatch, then loop through Muni Metro East, the current home of the historic streetcar fleet and not usually open to the public. Then we’ll head all the way back… — Read More
Some of you may have noticed problems with our website, particularly objects appearing where they shouldn’t and the like. Our website is built on a platform that was okay years ago, but is now obsolete and not supported by its creator. All kinds of creaks and aches appear, as with lots of things that have gotten old. You occasionally get unexplained surprises, like this morning, when our automatic email notification service (for those of you who subscribe to our blog)… — Read More
Muni’s 32 streamlined PCC streetcars will move their home base from Cameron Beach Yard to Muni Metro East (MME) at Illinois and Cesar Chavez Streets this Friday, June 20, and will operate out of MME starting Saturday. The ten Milan trams have been operating out of MME for almost two years. Milan trams stored together with LRVs at Muni Metro East shortly after their move there, August 2012. Peter Ehrlich photo. The move is tied to major track replacement at… — Read More
Muni is currently facing a systemwide operator shortage, according to this article in today’s San Francisco Examiner. This situation is not new, but it appears to be getting worse. It affects all modes of Muni vehicles, including the historic streetcars. And based on anecdotal evidence we’ve received, it’s not just the quantity of people applying to be operators, it’s the quality as well. We were told by authoritative sources that recently a higher percentage of prospective F-line operators have been… — Read More
Muni announced this morning that it has 90 percent of its scheduled service on the street and declared the “sickout” by operators to be over. The cable cars are running again today after a three day absence. The F-line is running its full route from Castro to the Wharf after being limited to the waterfront portion of the route due to lack of operators. Here’s the Chronicle’s blog coverage of the last day’s developments. You can see a live map… — Read More
As the “sickout” by Muni operators hits its third day, participation is dropping and more Muni buses and light rail vehicles are getting out onto the streets. However, Muni is still not attempting to operate any of the cable car lines and, as of 8:45 a.m. at least, F-line service is restricted to the waterfront, operating between the Wharf and the Ferry Building, with riders asked to use the Muni Metro subway along Market Street. It appears from our live… — Read More
Despite widespread rider outrage and a warning from management, a large number of Muni operators called in sick again today in protest against a contract offer they rejected in a vote last Friday. Under city law, the contract matter now enters binding arbitration, but the unhappy operators aren’t waiting for that to show their displeasure. Muni management last night sent a memo to operators telling them they would not be paid for their alleged “sick days” without a valid doctor’s… — Read More
A quick post to say Muni operators are stating a “sickout” in protest of their proposed contract today (Monday, June 2). As of 8:45 a.m., there are exactly TWO streetcars out on the F-line, plus two buses, at an hour when there are usually 20 vehicles on the line. Check our live F-line map for up to the minute information. It’s no better on other Muni lines; in fact, reports are that Muni management is not even trying to run… — Read More
It has become as predictable as summer fog on Great Highway. If you’re planning a project in the red-hot mid-Market neighborhood, or reporting on it in the media, you’ve simply got to have one of those colorful F-line historic streetcars in the frame. The New York *Times* is the latest bigfoot to jump on this, with this main photo (left, click to enlarge) on a long but very worthwhile story describing how the tech-driven mid-Market revival is focused on adaptive… — Read More
Maya Angelou has passed away, at the age of 86. As an adult, she gained global fame as a writer. Well before that, as as a teen-ager, she broke barriers right here in San Francisco, when she was hired by our namesake, Market Street Railway, as the first female African-American streetcar conductor in the city. She first told this story in “I Know Why the the Caged Bird Sings,” many years ago. She didn’t name the line she worked, but… — Read More