Car No. 130 Dedicated to Herb Caen

With considerable support from Market Street Railway, Muni has dedicated historic streetcar No. 130 to the late Herb Caen, the longtime Chronicle columnist widely known as “Mr. San Francisco.” Not so widely known was his strong affection for the City’s streetcars and his celebration of the F-line.

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The dedication took place at Fisherman’s Wharf on April 4, 2002, the day after what would have been Caen’s 86th birthday. This is the first time Muni has dedicated a streetcar to the memory of a San Franciscan. Caen died in 1997, a year after receiving journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, in recognition of his work as the most prolific newspaper columnist in American history.

Mayor Willie Brown came up with the idea of the streetcar dedication. Muni asked Market Street Railway for a recommendation of an appropriate car, and for help in putting together a tribute to Caen. Market Street Railway recommended Car No. 130, for several reasons. It was purchased by Muni to carry passengers to the 1915 World’s Fair, which Caen lightheartedly claimed as the site of his conception, when his parents visited from Sacramento. It’s painted in the blue and gold livery Muni adopted to celebrate the Treasure Island World’s Fairs of 1939 and 1940, a time when Caen first gained fame in the City. And it runs a route Caen chronicled hundreds of times over scores of years: The Embarcadero and Market Street.

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Rick Laubscher photo.

The tribute to Caen aboard Car No. 130 focuses on his commentary over the years on people and places along what is today the F-line route. Comprised of photographs and
column excerpts laid out in a striking design by Market Street Railway, the tribute runs 30 linear feet above the windows on both sides of the car’s center section.

The car itself almost didn’t make it to its own party. A motor problem has kept the car out of service for the better part of a year, vexing Muni’s heavy overhaul group, which tried and failed to fix it four times, the last failure coming the day before the ceremony. However, by cutting out another motor, ace maintainers Karl Johnson and Romer Manag were able to coax it to the Wharf on its two remaining motors, with venerable car No. 1 standing by just in case a tow was needed. (It wasn’t.)

At the dedication, Market Street Railway president Rick Laubscher recalled, “We knew we had Mayor Feinstein’s support for the return of the old streetcars [during the Historic Trolley Festivals], but we knew it was even more important to have Herb’s. If he felt it was a part of ‘real San Francisco,’ and not a tourist gimmick, we knew it would be a winner.” Then he read a Caen column from 1985: “the old trolley cars on Market continue to be the most entrancing transit that has operated around here in years. Fun to ride and watch, especially the ‘Iron Monster’ on a foggy day, emerging from the past, flashing into the present and then fading away, like all its noisy brothers and sisters…” Laubscher concluded by pointing to the car and telling the crowd, “This car is that ‘Iron Monster.’ And now it’s Herb’s.”

It’s hard to explain to those who didn’t experience Caen firsthand just how much his daily newspaper column shaped this City and its people.

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San Francisco Chronicle photo.

If you were mentioned regularly in his column, you were famous in this town. Just for that. When he moved from the Chronicle to the Examiner in 1950, and back in 1958, he immediately took more than 30,000 readers with him each way. Just like that.

His 16,000 columns totaled more than fourteen million words over the years. He coined some of those words himself, like “beatnik.” His six-day-a-week musings, easily the longest-running newspaper column in American history, were the talk of the entire Bay Area.