Visitors to San Francisco today frequently comment on the multi-colored fleet of streetcars on Market Street. But it’s not the first time that’s happened.
On September 29, 1944, the Municipal Railway of San Francisco assumed ownership of the physical assets of the Market Street Railway Company. Streetcars, buses, cable cars, car barns, and powerhouses shifted from private to public ownership.
All 440 streetcars Muni acquired from Market Street Railway on that day had two things in common.
They were decrepit.
And their ends were painted bright white.
While safety came first, Muni also had to pay attention to color.
Muni and Market Street Railway had been fierce competitors ever since the private company took over from the United Railroads in 1921. Both looked for ways to distinguish themselves from the other. In 1926, Market Street Railway hit on the idea of making their dark green streetcars stand out from the gray Muni ‘battleships’ by painting the ends of their cars bright white and lighting them, a treatment they were able to patent.
The ‘White Front’ cars of Market Street Railway proved far more visible than their gray Muni counterparts, which tended to disappear into the fog.
When Muni took over Market Street Railway’s vehicles, the order wasn’t long in coming from 949 Presidio Avenue (Muni headquarters) to the paint shops of their old competitor: the White Fronts must go, and quickly, because the city could not pay royalties on the patented feature, which remained in the ownership of former MSRy president Samuel Kahn.
Blue and ‘gold’
At the time of the 1944 takeover, Muni was wrapping up the transition of its own livery from the battleship gray to blue and gold (actually yellow, as seen today on preserved car No. 130). Some with good memories at the time wondered whether Muni was taking a page from an earlier experiment by MSRy, which started painting newly constructed streetcars in a striking yellow with blue trim in 1925 (tied to the 75th anniversary of California statehood and the state colors of blue and gold).
Though this was widely viewed as a handsome design, Market Street Railway quickly abandoned the effort, probably because of cost, and reverted to its traditional green livery, adding the white ends starting in 1926.
Muni’s transition to a blue and yellow livery started in 1939, tied to the Treasure Island World’s Fair. The only Muni passenger streetcars not repainted into the blue and yellow were the ‘dinkies’ of the E-Union line, which ran through the war looking increasingly shabby in their original gray livery. (This was probably because Muni had been about to convert the line to trolley coach service when the war started, so the dinkies were considered to be living on borrowed time.)
Market Street Railway, on the other hand, painted very little during World War II, a combination of a worker shortage, its dire financial situation and its focus on trying to sell out to Muni. (Voters turned down the buyout five times before finally saying okay.) So on merger day, the MSRy fleet looked particularly shabby.
Now it was Muni’s turn to decide whether to repaint an entire fleet of green streetcars (MSRy’s) into blue and yellow. And again, cost played a big role. What Muni started doing was repainting just the ends, to avoid the patent royalties.
In his definitive history of MSRy, The White Front Cars, Charles Smallwood (who worked in maintenance for MSRy and later Muni) states, “literally overnight, there were no more white fronts in the city.” However, as our photo essay shows, at least a few never disappeared at all. San Francisco Transit Historian Emiliano Echeverria points out the MSRy patent “specified ‘white or any bright color,’ illuminated with the dash lights. All they had to do was pull the bulbs [from the dash lights] and poof the patent didn’t apply. They removed the dash light buckets anyway so they could have let the white front be.”
Muni frankly had bigger problems than paint. MSRy’s streetcars were in terrible mechanical shape, with very few spare parts available. Seventy-four of the 440 Muni inherited were outright inoperable. MSRy’s tracks, power supplies, and car barns were worn out as well. In May 1945, Muni’s top boss, Manager of Utilities E. G. Cahill, said, “The entire former Market Street Railway of San Francisco will have to be scrapped immediately after the war. In fact, if the war lasts too long it will scrap itself. It is obvious that equipment, every piece of which must be dragged off to the barns for repairs 15 times in five months, is in the last stages of decrepitude. It will be a miracle if this rambling wreck of a railway can be held together for the duration, regardless of the amount of money we spend on it.”
And yet, the maintenance teams did keep the railway running, patching failing track repeatedly, machining parts where none existed, and sending the cars out of the shop again and again.
And they kept slapping paint on the old MSRy cars. At first, it was a continuation of the blue and yellow Muni colors, largely on just the ends, making for some pretty ugly combinations. Some, though, like the 40-line interurbans running to San Mateo, were completely repainted in the blue and yellow and looked refreshed.
Then, in early 1946, Muni appeared to change color course, painting its car No. 47 into a lighter, brighter green than the somber hue MSRy had used, with cream sash and ends and striping in the old MSRy style. According to historian Fred Stindt in his book San Francisco’s Century of Streetcars, Muni asked the public whether they preferred the bright green or the old blue and yellow, and the public chose the green.
It should be noted that the vehicle paints of that day contained lead, which oxidized, soon leaving the vehicle looking drab (unless it was painstakingly polished). The Muni blue seemed particularly susceptible to this fading, so perhaps the public was just registering approval of fresh paint of any color. Or perhaps they were just used to seeing their streetcars green. In any event, Muni quickly painted eight more streetcars into this eye-catching bright green.
But that didn’t last. Soon, streetcars started appearing in a darker green, closer to MSRy’s traditional color, with an added flourish: cream ‘Wings’ extending from the door frames toward the center of the cars. Muni repainted all its original surviving streetcars into the Wings, plus 50 of the old MSRy cars. Green and cream was to remain Muni’s exclusive livery for 20 more years, worn on the hundreds of trolley coaches and motor coaches delivered at the end of the 1940s to replace all the surviving MSRy streetcar lines and several Muni streetcar lines as well. Most of Muni’s surviving streetcar fleet retained the green and cream colors until the arrival of the Boeing light rail vehicles in the early 1980s.
Philip Scherer took the photos below, rare captures of a scene that came and went very quickly.
It was indeed a colorful time on the streets of San Francisco.
For a more detailed history of this transition period in our city’s transit, click here.
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