Muni at war: crushloads & consolidation 1941-1945

As San Franciscans celebrated Thanksgiving in 1941, many were thankful that the economy was finally climbing out of the decade-long Depression that had savaged the city. The downtown area had hardly changed since three high rises had framed the boundaries of the district: the 26 story Pacific Telephone Building at 140 New Montgomery Street in 1925; the 32-story Russ Building, the city’s tallest, which opened at 235 Montgomery Street (the self-proclaimed ‘Wall Street of the West’) in 1927; and the 28-story William Taylor Hotel (now a Hastings Law School dorm) at 100 McAllister Street, in 1930. 

Rainy day looking east on Market Street from Fifth, 1943 or 1944.  Lots of umbrellas and streetcars
Rainy day looking east at Market and Fifth, 1943 or early 1944. At this point, the City’s streetcar system was sclerotic from overuse and deferred maintenance, stretched to its breaking point by World War II. MSR Archive

The city’s transit showed little change as well. Four streetcar tracks still ran the length of Market Street, the outer pair for the publicly owned Municipal Railway (Muni), the inside tracks used by its private competitor, Market Street Railway Co. (MSRy, our nonprofit’s namesake). There had been attempts to consolidate the two systems, but voters turned thumbs down every time. Other than five streamlined faux-PCC streetcars purchased in 1939, Muni’s streetcar fleet had not been augmented since 1927, though it had bought its first trolley buses (for a Howard Street line that replaced MSRy streetcars) and expanded its motor coach fleet to inaugurate some crosstown services.

As it turned out, Muni would need every single vehicle in its fleet to meet the tidal wave of riders that was soon to descend on it, even as its competitor left scores of its own streetcars sidelined.

Adapting to war

San Franciscans, like the rest of the nation, were jarred on that sleepy Sunday, December 7, by the shocking news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Some panicked, believing the fleet of the Rising Sun could be headed toward them. Indeed, Japanese submarines soon prowled the Pacific coast. So, preventive measures were taken, such as a net stretched across the Golden Gate to keep them out of the Bay, manning of the existing coastal gun emplacements, and a blackout along the western side of San Francisco. 

Muni’s H-line carried riders to and from Fort Mason from 1914 until 1948. The author’s parents both rode the H and met at Fort Mason during the war. here, car 88 (identical to preserved 130) passes the shelter (still there) at the stop for the post headquarters (also still there, now headquarters of the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area and its nonprofit partner, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy). Bob McVay Photo, Walter Rice Collection of MSR Archive

The blackout included streetcars. In an article republished in the Winter 1997 issue of our nonprofit’s member magazine, Inside Track, George U. Janes remembered a westward night ride on MSRy’s 31-Balboa ‘high speed’ line, roaring through the Avenues with lights ablaze until reaching Park-Presidio Boulevard.

The motorman reaches up and one by one snaps switches, and car lights…extinguish. The entire car is in total darkness. And so is the heavily traveled intersection. And so is Balboa Street all the way to the ocean. Everything out there blacked out and a thick fog to boot—the whole place is like a Hollywood movie set for a mystery film… The blacked-out 31 races through pitch-black intersections at full speed, bell clanging furiously. Nobody, least of all the motorman, can see a thing. ‘They haven’t allowed any additional running time,’ he remarks. ‘Good thing we are on rails.’

George U. Janes

It was a good thing all of San Francisco was on rails back then. Its streetcars, and the people who ran and maintained them, played an essential role in the war effort. 

Almost immediately after Pearl Harbor, Muni and MSRy began running preparedness drills at their storage and maintenance facilities to be ready for the worst. MSRy moved buses out of its barn at 24th and Utah Streets, figuring they’d be less susceptible to bomb damage in the open than in the building. 

Muni’s D- and E-lines served the bustling Presidio, providing a great view from their terminal opposite letterman army hospital. Bob McVay photo, Walter Rice Collection of MSR Archive

The blackouts soon gave way to longer-lasting and higher-impact war measures. Fuel and tire rationing was near the top of the list. Suddenly, the private automobile was a burden, not a blessing, for workers and families. And they turned to transit.

Muni already served most existing defense facilities in the city. The H-Potrero line ran right through Fort Mason, terminating at the Port of Embarkation for Pacific-bound troops. The F-Stockton line passed by Fort Mason’s eastern gate. Muni’s D-Van Ness and E-Union lines penetrated The Presidio to a terminal near Letterman Army Hospital, where war wounded would soon arrive for treatment. The headquarters of the western U.S. Army defense command were only a short walk away, adjoining the main parade ground.

But these weren’t the only military facilities in the city. The U.S. government went hunting for space to house officers and offices, and took over, among other buildings, the 100 McAllister building, just a block from the saturation streetcar service of Market Street. 

Top photo: Market Street Railway and Muni both provided ad space on the side of their streetcars for recruiting purposes. MSRy’s 14-Mission streetcar asks for volunteers to help the Coast Guard watch for enemies on the waterfront. MSR Archives. Bottom photo: The Muni K-line car, at Church and Market, promotes the Marines. (The white building was later torn down to build the Safeway parking lot.) Bob McVay photo, Walter Rice Collection, MSR Archive

On the city’s central waterfront, the shipyard at Pier 70 (where some of Muni’s original streetcars had been built) took on frantic levels of activity. Up to 10,000 men and women worked three shifts a day, ultimately building 72 vessels and repairing 2,500 others during the war. 

Southern Pacific freight tracks were used to restore streetcar service to the Bethlehem Shipyard at Pier 70 in 1944. The shipyard office, in the distance to the left of the overhead poles, is to be the primary showcase for Restoration Hardware, part of the massive restoration of the historic buildings on Pier 70. MSR Archive

Muni didn’t serve this edge of the city, but MSRy did. They had converted their Third Street streetcar lines to buses in September 1941 but luckily had retained the tracks and wires as far south as Mariposa street. They added streetcars back to the mix, ultimately reaching the huge Bethlehem Shipyard at Pier 70 (where some of Muni’s streetcars had been built) by using Southern Pacific freight trackage next to Illinois Street. Some of MSRy’s streetcars had their cross seating ripped out and replaced with longitudinal seating against the sides (like today’s F-line Milan trams) to allow more riders to be crammed on board. These were called ‘victory cars’.

No streetcars ever reached Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard farther south, which mushroomed in size during the second half of the war, but the federal government provided extra buses to MSRy to boost its service there. 

Market Street Railway’s 22-Fillmore line carried crosstown riders to the Bethlehem Shipyard at Pier 70, but it also carried baseball fans to Seals Stadium during World War II, when gasoline and tire rationing kept automobiles in garages. In 1942, No. 877, complete with “Baseball Tonight” dash sign, crosses the famous four tracks on Market to join the two-block segment of four tracks on Church Street, where the 22-line and Muni’s J-Church line ran side-by-side. Will Whittaker photo, Philip V. Hoffman Collection, MSR Archive

Breaking barriers

Of course, both transit companies needed people to operate and maintain their vehicles, and many of those employees—all men, and almost all white at the time—were headed off to war. So, like other industries, they looked for new sources of labor.

Muni and MSRy both recruited women for ‘platform’ (motorman and conductor) jobs. Since those terms didn’t seem to fit women, some dubbed them ‘motorettes’ and ‘conductorettes’. But female operators faced challenges. Muni had two operators’ unions at the time. The streetcar union accepted women members—but only for ‘the duration of the war’. The bus union refused women altogether. 

Market Street Railway repainted its logo sites outside some carbarns with these pitches for employees. Richard Schlaich Collection, San Francisco Railway Archive

African-Americans had been migrating west in large numbers, seeking defense jobs. Some found employment on the city’s streetcars and buses, though not without encountering—and having to overcome—strong racism.

By her own account, a 19-year old woman named Marguerite Johnson, recently arrived from Arkansas, was the first African-American to work on San Francisco’s streetcars, hired by Market Street Railway. The account comes from the author and poet Maya Angelou, writing in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. 

Angelou is writing about herself, a George Washington High School student at the time, who lied about her age (she was actually 16) and gave a false name to win a streetcar job. All who want a clear and searing picture of wartime San Francisco should read those chapters in the book that cover it. 

This is the MSRy streetcar type, the 100-class (replicated by our volunteers at the San Francisco Railway Museum), that served the streetcar lines Maya Angelou described working on as a ‘conductorette’ during World War II. Here, no. 173 is leaving Golden Gate Park at Fulton Street near Ocean Beach on the 7-Haight line, around 1943. The dutch windmill, still there, is in the background. Jay Pendergast Collection, MSR Archive

Angelou writes of repeated trips to the “dingy, drab” MSRy office at 58 Sutter Street, pushing back against a series of excuses to not hire her. She tells of how her determination intensified when she boarded a streetcar and “the conductorette looked at me with the usual hard eyes of white contempt.” She finally triumphed in her quest:

I was swinging on the back of the rackety trolley, smiling sweetly and persuading my charges to ‘step forward in the car, please.’ For one whole semester…I clanged and cleared my way down Market Street, with its honky-tonk homes for homeless sailors, past the quiet retreat of Golden Gate Park and along closed undwelled-in-looking dwellings of the Sunset District.

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Surplus in time of need

While Angelou probably worked on numerous routes as a rookie conductor, her description in her book fits the 7-Haight line that ran along Lincoln Way at the southern edge of Golden Gate Park, passing what was an anomalous sight between Funston and 14th Avenues: a block filled with sleeping streetcars at a time when every streetcar was supposedly needed.

Market Street Railway’s ‘boneyard’ at Lincoln Way and Funston Avenue held scores of unused streetcars during World War II, prompting criticism of the private company. Somewhere among these stored cars is preserved 798, which sat out the war at the boneyard. This 1944 photo was actually taken by Muni’s photographer, George Fanning, two months before the special election that combined the two operations. SFMTA Archive

This was MSRy’s ‘boneyard’, where unused streetcars were stored. Scores of streetcars were lined up on the ladder tracks; many of them in good condition but set up to be run by only a single operator. They had been withdrawn from service when the courts had ruled against single-operator service in San Francisco in 1938, siding with organized labor. MSRy President Samuel Kahn said these streetcars remained sidelined because of labor shortages, and if one-operator cars were allowed again, more streetcars would return to the streets. The U.S. Office of Defense Transportation appealed for the change to single-operator service, but San Francisco voters rejected it in 1943 by a margin of better than four to one, a testament to the power of labor unions in the city, even during wartime.

To some extent, Kahn’s statement was disingenuous, as Angelou’s difficulty in getting a job attests. Yet she herself pointed out the bigger problem: “Openings were going begging that paid twice the money” of a platform job, she wrote. And it was true. Both MSRy and Muni had trouble holding onto employees tempted by higher paying defense jobs.

While Muni had the full faith and credit of the City and County of San Francisco behind it, MSRy was a private company in chronic financial trouble. While a 1943 investigation by the California State Railroad Commission castigated MSRy for not returning streetcars to service, deferring maintenance on its fleet and tracks, and not paying its employees enough, it was not clear what the company could do about it. City officials were putting on a full-court press to force a merger with Muni, hardly a conducive environment for investment. Voters weren’t cooperating, though, turning down measures to buy out MSRy in November 1942 and again in April 1943, leaving the private company in a kind of limbo.

The four tracks on Market extended all the way to Castro, but west of Valencia, MSRy’s inside tracks carried only the 8-line. In 1941, Muni offered to pay to combine the tracks on this portion of Market, and MSRy agreed, but the war postponed implementation for the duration. Here, we’re looking east on Market between Church and Dolores. Today, Safeway’s parking lot and the US Mint are to the left. San Francisco Public Library photo.

Coming together

All the while, Muni kept rolling on. While much smaller than MSRy, it wasn’t saddled with many low-revenue routes it was required to operate as a condition of a franchise from the city. And while it sounds crazy today, the difference between Muni’s five cent fare and its competitor’s seven cents drew a lot of extra riders to Muni where the companies had parallel service. (It was, after all, a 40 percent difference in an era when a nickel bought a cup of coffee.) The diversion of riders, most prominent on the Market Street lines, hurt MSRy while increasing Muni’s profits. 

Muni marked its 30th anniversary on December 28, 1942 in a low-key way, given the fighting raging around the world and the sacrifices being made by Americans on the home front. Car 1 was fitted with banners marking the occasion, claiming the streetcar “would like to retire” but was “drafted for the duration”—not quite true, since Muni had no money, even before the war, to replace its first batch of streetcars. SFMTA Archive

To meet increased demand, Muni pressed its only class of underused streetcars, the Type-J ‘dinkies’ that served the hilly E-Union, into additional service on the F-Stockton line. Still, Muni’s fleet was pressed to the limit as more and more war production jobs were created. Spare streetcars were nearby at Funston Boneyard, but they were owned by the competition.

Muni’s preserved Car 1 split its wartime duties between the C-Geary-California line and Muni’s original F-Stockton line. Here, having been repainted in blue and gold a few months earlier, No. 1 lays over at the F-line terminal on Stockton at Market on Christmas day 1944, ready for another run through Chinatown and North Beach to Fort Mason and the Marina. Roy Graves photo, MSR Archive

But not for long. Finally, on May 16, 1944, San Francisco voters approved the acquisition of MSRy, on the premise that it would be paid for by Muni’s increased wartime profits. The nearly two-to-one vote came after a vigorous campaign by the new mayor, Roger Lapham, for consolidation of the systems.

Mayor Roger Lapham pilots the first Market Street Railway car out of the barn on the day the city took ownership. SFMTA Archive

The two systems officially became one at 5:00am on September 29, 1944, when Mayor Lapham piloted an old MSRy streetcar out of Muni’s Geary Division. It was a sign of things to come, because to balance the wartime loads, Muni soon pressed ex-MSRy cars into service on a couple of its original lines, including the C-Geary-California and H-Potrero.

But there wasn’t a lot to work with, as the city’s Manager of Utilities, E.G. Cahill, wrote in the May 1945 issue of Interurban News Letter.

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.

E. G. Cahill, San Francisco City and County Manager of Utilities, May 1945

Cahill was talking about facilities as well as equipment. Stretches of the MSRy track were barely useable. In fact, MSRy had convinced the federal Office of Defense Transportation to let them abandon the Guerrero Street track of the 10-line because it was so bad.

Soon after the 1944 merger, Muni began painting the ends of the streetcars it acquired with Market Street Railway to avoid paying royalties on the patented ‘White Front’ paint scheme. Here, ex-MSRy car 243, on the 1-California line, lays over at the Ferry Building loop alongside its former competitor, Muni car 107 (identical to preserved 130), assigned to the M-ocean View line, which had been converted to shuttle bus operation in 1939 due to lack of rider demand, but was turned into a through streetcar service using Twin Peaks tunnel as soon as the merger made extra streetcars available. Bob McVay photo, Walter Rice Collection, MSR Archive

Deferred maintenance, heavy wartime loads, and just plain age (much track in the system was 40 or more years old) combined to create more wear on the streetcars and rough rides for passengers.

Of course, employees of MSRy came over to the City with the system, requiring an extensive effort to integrate workers for seniority, consolidate different kinds of shops and rationalize the assignment of equipment to car barns. 

Every one of the big 1200-class of streetcars serving MSRy’s famed interurban 40-line to San Mateo was soon repainted into Muni’s blue and gold livery, as were a few other MSRy cars. In fact, all of the old MSRy streetcars had to get some paint, because the City Charter precluded payment of royalties for the patented ‘White Front’ paint scheme to the residual MSRy shell corporation. Accordingly, the old cars, their platforms sagging from age and wartime loads, were run through the paint shops to get their ends repainted, usually Muni blue and gold, quite a clash with the still-green sides.

Ex-MSRy streetcars began appearing on Muni’s C and H lines soon after the merger. Here, in a particularly garish combo paint scheme, car 933, built by MSRy’s craftsworkers in 1930, traverses what is now Fort Mason’s Great Meadow, approaching the H-line terminal on Laguna Street. The Muni blue and gold ends are particularly jarring against the ‘zip stripe’ sides, a design tried by MSRy in the late 1930s to make their old-fashioned streetcars look, well, zippy. Bob McVay photo, Walter Rice Collection of MSR Archive

Painting, patching, and persevering week after week, the now-combined workforce of Muni and MSRy kept the system functioning until V-J Day, August 14, 1945, when the War in the Pacific ended.

V-J day triggered a wild celebration on Market street, with Muni streetcars (including those it had acquired the previous year from Market street railway Co.) right in the middle of it. It was the finish line of a marathon for the transit system, with equipment and facilities near collapse. Steve Clark collection

The late Philip Hoffman, Market Street Railway’s long-time historian, remembered how he, as a 14-year old, joined the celebration that brought wall-to-wall crowds to Market Street. “I saw people climbing on the roof of streetcars and I thought, ‘This is my golden opportunity.’ So, I climbed on the roof of car 86 and rode down Market until finally the inspector at Van Ness told me to come down and I was 86’d off car 86.” 

For hours on August 14, 1945, traffic on Market was halted or slowed by revelers – many drunk – who clambered onto streetcar roofs. Compare the faces of riders inside the car with those on the roof. MSR Archive

That celebration also had a very dark side. Eleven people died, including a Muni employee, and many more were assaulted in revelry gone very wrong – despicable, riotous acts.

World War II was over. Muni had made it through, though its competitor didn’t. And San Francisco emerged a stronger city, beloved by hundreds of thousands of GIs who passed through headed to and from the Pacific Theater; many promising themselves they’ve move here someday.

But though San Francisco never received an enemy bomb or shell, there was still wreckage in sight on V-J Day: its streetcar system.

COMING SOON: Rails to Rubber, Muni 1947-1962

  • By Rick Laubscher

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The people’s road: Muni 1912-1941

FIRST OF ITS KIND—A new era in American urban transit began on December 28, 1912, with the opening of the Municipal Railway of San Francisco on Geary Street, the first publicly owned big city line in the u.S. Some 50,000 San Franciscans turned out to cheer for their ‘Muni’, as it soon came to be called. SFMTA Archive

NOTE: This is the second installment of our history of the San Francisco Municipal Railway, covering Muni’s first three decades of operation. Click here to learn how America’s first big city publicly-owned transit system came to be.

“The People’s Road.” The simple phrase Mayor James Rolph, Jr. used to describe the San Francisco Municipal Railway on its opening day carried more emotion and power than today’s observers might think. For while it’s hard to believe today, there was a time when every big city in America was served only by privately owned transit companies, focused first on profit. They were often owned by utility conglomerates that also supplied electricity. And, in some cases, they were corrupt, doing what they needed to—legal or not—to protect their government-issued franchises.

San Franciscans were the first to change that. It started with a new city charter in 1900, calling for eventual public ownership of all utilities, including transit.

Muni’s first operation, on Geary Street, carried four lines—the A, B, C, and D—for various distances. Here, a C-line car poses headed west at Geary and Divisadero in 1923. This historic part of Geary was cleared in the 1960s for “redevelopment”. Market Street Railway Archive

Making that dream come true was another matter. The city targeted the Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad—a cable car line running from Kearny Street to the Richmond District—as the first municipal line, as its city-granted operating franchise was due to expire in 1903. But voters turned down a bond issue to convert it to streetcar operation, not once, but three times before finally passing it in 1909. One factor in the change of voters’ attitudes were the transgressions of privately owned United Railroads, which had been involved in bribery and a protracted strike during the preceding few years.

United Railroads predictably tried to block the city’s bond sale, but failed, and in June 1911 construction of overhead wires began above the Geary cable car line. The cable cars stopped running on May 5, 1912, and in an unbelievably fast conversion, the entire cable car trackage was ripped out and replaced by new streetcar track in time to inaugurate the new Municipal Railway on December 28, 1912. It was the very first publicly owned big city transit line in America.

The Masonic Temple, then as now anchoring the foot of Van ness Avenue, looms over Muni streetcar no. 10, crossing Market onto 11th Street, bound for Army and Potrero on the H-line, in the late 1910s. Market Street Railway Archive

Fifty thousand San Franciscans joined to cheer on that day as ten new streetcars headed west out Geary from Kearny Street. Mayor Rolph told the throng, “It is in reality the people’s road, built by the people and with the people’s money…we must extend it wherever possible until it becomes a great municipal system…a mighty system of streetcar lines which will someday encompass the entire city.” The mayor then donned a motorman’s cap and personally took the controls of the first car, preserved Muni Car No. 1, and piloted it out Geary, jammed with dignitaries and (literal) hangers-on

A fair brings focus

Mayor Rolph didn’t rest on his laurels. California had led America into the Progressive Era, a time of strong belief in government’s ability to better the lives of its citizens through public investment. Accordingly, the new ‘Muni’ railway expanded aggressively. The upcoming 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in what’s now the Marina District provided a strong early focus, since the fair site was underserved by transit. 

By building several new lines and acquiring another, a network of Muni streetcars was in place in time to serve the world’s fair, with direct service from the Ferry Building, Downtown, North Beach and the Potrero District, with connections from other points around town. 

The City opened the Stockton Tunnel under Nob Hill in 1914, primarily for the streetcars of Muni’s original F-line, which was initially designed to connect the Union Square retail district to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition at Harbor View (what’s now the Marina District). This was part of a frenzy of expansion after Muni opened its first lines on Geary. Horace Chaffee photo, SFMTA Archive

Muni streetcars used the new Stockton Tunnel to connect Market Street and Union Square to Chinatown in a few minutes. They also served Fort Mason and the Presidio and reached all the way from the Ferry Building to Ocean Beach on the B-Geary line. Construction also began on a Muni streetcar line out Church Street, but United Railroads objected to sharing its 22-line tracks between Market and 16th on Church, delaying Muni service there until 1917.

But the biggest project was yet to come. Under the leadership of City Engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy, the city dug the world’s longest streetcar tunnel, two and a quarter miles long, from Castro and Market Streets to an expanse of scrub and sand dunes west of Twin Peaks. The four million dollar project was funded by assessments on the largely empty property it would benefit.

The east portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel, shown here in 1935, was very simple in design to facilitate a future connection with a streetcar subway under Market Street, not built until the 1970s. The inside tracks belonged to Market Street Railway’s 8-line, which ended a block south on Castro and 18th, connecting to a cable car that climbed over to noe Valley. Market Street Railway Archive.

Shortly after the Twin Peaks Tunnel opened on February 3, 1918, homes began springing up in this barren district, suddenly accessible to downtown offices and stores. United Railroads was interested in using the new tunnel, too, but the Board of Supervisors, which then directly governed Muni, nixed the idea by a narrow margin. Muni eventually ran three streetcar lines through the Twin Peaks Tunnel. 

Because of San Francisco’s unusual downtown street grids, the spine of any transit system had to be Market Street. But United Railroads already had streetcar tracks on Market all the way from the Ferry Building to Castro and was not anxious to share them. So the city built its own tracks flanking those of the private company. The four sets of streetcar tracks on this broad boulevard were nearly unique in America, and the rumble of the heavy streetcars as they moved along Market gave birth to the term, ‘Roar of the Four’.

Muni’s first bus line crossed Golden Gate Park after streetcars were blocked from doing so. At Tenth and Fulton Streets with an A-line streetcar, 1918. San Francisco Municipal Railway Archives.

Buses make their debut

Before World War I, motorbuses were rare in America, though they already dominated transit systems in such cities as London (where the double-deckers of the day went to war in Europe carrying troops and medical supplies). Muni’s first bus line was, in a way, a sign of surrender. City Engineer M. M. O’Shaughnessy planned to extend Muni’s first streetcar line from 10th and Fulton across Golden Gate Park to serve the southern Sunset District. But this mighty builder met his match in another titan of San Francisco municipal history, John McLaren, superintendent of Golden Gate Park, who said no to more overhead wires in the park (United Railroads’ 7-line tracks and wires already skirted the western edge of the park). After a bruising intramural battle, McLaren triumphed, leaving Muni to substitute a bus instead.

After Muni’s L-Taraval streetcar line made it to Ocean Beach in 1923, the 2-Ocean bus line connected riders to the outer end of the B-Geary line on the other side of Golden Gate Park. Wide-open spaces at 48th and Taraval on May 15, 1925 with a White Motor 25-seat bus, probably newly delivered No. 012, not yet equipped with Muni logo. SFMTA Archive

Several other bus lines followed in less populated areas of the city, either to connect Muni streetcar lines or serve as extensions of them. Unlike the downtown streetcar lines, these lost money from the beginning due to low ridership. Some were subsidized, like a line that opened in 1926 from the Peninsula train depot, then at Third and Townsend Streets, to Fisherman’s Wharf along the Embarcadero. The port, then a state agency, underwrote the service to move workers along the busy docks when the business of the waterfront was shipping.

A streetcar city

But in the 1920s and 1930s, buses were a sideshow in San Francisco transit. Streetcars ruled the streets, especially Market Street, where a typical evening rush hour saw almost 900 streetcars traverse the triple loop to terminate at the Ferry Building, for a time the second busiest transit terminal in the world (after London’s Charing Cross). Car loaders from the competing operations, Muni, and the Market Street Railway Company (which had taken over United Railroads in 1921) called like carnival barkers to attract passengers, the Muni men often yelling “ALL the way out Mah-ket” in the San Francisco accent of the era.

This detailed cartoon, by Al Tolf in the old San Francisco News, captures the detail of the incredible Ferry Building streetcar operation shared by Muni and Market Street Railway in its heyday. MSR Archive

In 1928, Muni opened another streetcar tunnel, under Buena Vista Park, connecting Market Street to Ocean Beach primarily via Judah Street. The Sunset Tunnel, like the Twin Peaks Tunnel, was built by assessing property owners along the route. The alignment was not a slam-dunk. Merchants near Castro and Market fought unsuccessfully to have the new tunnel branch off from the Twin Peaks Tunnel just inside its east portal, hoping to deposit lots more riders on their doorstep.

Given how many streetcars switched onto and off of Market, there are relatively few photos of accidents. This one, at Market and McAllister, was a doozy, with the switch onto the 5-line somehow throwing after the front wheels of the 7-Haight car had passed through, derailing the Market Street Railway car, blocking the Muni tracks and drawing a crowd. Philip Hoffman collection, MSR Archive

The opening of the Sunset Tunnel marked the last new Muni streetcar line for more than a half-century. The year before, San Franciscans defeated a proposed $4.6 million bond issue that would have built a new Muni streetcar line on Balboa Street (ultimately constructed by Market Street Railway in 1932), another line from Castro and Market along Eureka and Hoffman Streets to 29th Street (never built), and an extension of Church Street service to Geneva Avenue via San Jose Avenue (finally opened in 1991). Ominously, Muni’s finances were fraying as well.

The Ferry Building’s transit heyday ended with the opening of the Bay Bridge and the subsequent completion of the bridge railway, carrying interurban trains from the East Bay to First and Mission Streets. Here, a Muni D-line streetcar and a Market Street Railway 5-line car cross Mission on First, about to climb the streetcar ramp to the terminal, which was demolished in the past year. Walter Vielbaum Collection.

The basic fare, five cents, hadn’t changed since 1912. With transfers, riders could cross the city on a nickel. But, of course, labor costs had increased, more so for the two-operator streetcars than the single-operator buses. If the line was busy enough, like Muni’s Geary lines, a profit could still be delivered. 

But along streetcar routes that ran through almost empty land, like the area that’s now Stonestown, San Francisco State, and Parkmerced, the red ink was already flowing. The same was true for most of the bus lines, even with their lower labor costs, because passengers were few, and the route often existed as a public service pushed by elected officials to serve constituents. By comparison, the private Market Street Railway had fixed routes with service levels dictated by demand, not political pressure.

Depression and deficits

The 1930s were difficult times for transit providers in San Francisco. The Depression cut work-related ridership and tight finances discouraged discretionary travel for many families. Muni ridership declined 19 percent between 1929 and 1933. Market Street Railway lost 22 percent of riders in the same period, even though it had regained the public confidence lost by its predecessor, United Railroads, and won a 25-year extension of its operating franchises in 1930, with the proviso that the City could buy them out by vote of the people at any time. (A 1925 buyout proposal had failed by a margin of 7-1 at the polls; the price was considered way too high. A similar attempt would fall flat in 1938.) 

Click to enlarge.

Muni responded to the ridership drop with a raft of economy measures, including shutting down some bus lines, eliminating every other streetcar stop in outlying areas and encouraging motormen to reduce the amount of electricity used to operate their streetcars. Losses continued to mount, but with Muni now part of the city’s new Public Utilities Commission, which also included profit-making water and electricity operations, there was enough financial flexibility to retain the five-cent fare. 

Meanwhile, Market Street Railway, up against the wall financially, won an injunction against a city ordinance requiring two-person crews on streetcars and, starting in 1935, converted eighteen of its streetcar lines (though not its busy Market and Mission Street routes) to single-operator cars. Higher courts reinstated the two-person streetcar requirement in 1938, which coincided with a fare increase from five to seven cents by Market Street Railway. Even at the higher fare, the private company could not afford to staff vehicles with two operators on more lightly traveled routes, resulting in the conversion of some such lines to buses beginning in 1939.

Time was running out for the M-Ocean View streetcar when this shot was taken at St. Francis Circle in 1939. Within weeks, this shuttle line was discontinued, but the track and wires were left in place and service resumed in 1944, running all the way to the Ferry Building. Subsequent development along southern 19th Avenue have made the M one of Muni’s busiest lines today. San Francisco Public Library Photo.

Muni never tried to reduce streetcar crews to one person in that era, nor did they match Market Street Railway’s fare increase. Though a boost from five to seven cents seems trivial today, those two pennies represented a 40 percent fare increase, and it affected the transit riding choices of many families stretched to the limit by the Depression. For example, some riders would forsake the Market Street Railway cars on Sutter or Eddy for the Muni cars on Geary, even if it meant walking another block or so on each end of the trip.

Muni took its fare-based fight against Market Street Railway to new turf as well, taking over one of the company’s expired (and unprofitable) streetcar franchises on Howard Street and South Van Ness Avenue and replacing it with a new trolley coach line in 1941, which could legally be operated by a one-person crew. This new line pilfered some business from the two-person, seven-cent-fare streetcars Market Street Railway ran on Mission Street. (Market Street Railway had started its own trolley coach line in 1935, converting the 33-line streetcar that ran on 18th Street and over Twin Peaks to take advantage of the single-operator opportunity.)

First modern streetcars

Trolley coaches aside, Muni’s electric fleet was aging. The vast majority of its streetcars were at least a quarter century old by 1939. They shared a common boxy look with open platforms that made them drafty and cold when fog draped the city. Owners of many remaining private streetcar systems around the country had come together earlier in the decade to form a Presidents Conference Committee (PCC) that designed a sleek, streamlined streetcar they hoped would compete with buses and the increasingly popular private automobile, and, importantly, could be safely operated with a single-person crew, like a bus. The first PCC streetcars appeared in Brooklyn, Baltimore, Boston, and Pittsburgh in 1936; other cities soon followed, including Los Angeles and San Diego in California.

Muni’s first modern streetcars, purchased in 1939, drew stares wherever they ran. Here, no. 1002 is on display at the original F-line terminal on Stockton at Market. The modern cars never actually ran in service on the old F-line, spending most of their time on the L-Taraval in the early years. San Francisco Municipal Railway Archives.

Muni, however, had little funding available and poor prospects of winning approval from voters for more. (A proposed $49 million bond issue to build streetcar subways under Market, Mission, and Geary Streets garnered only 41 percent of the vote in 1937, far short of the two-thirds requirement.) Muni scraped together enough for five modern streetcars, but the city charter prohibited payment of patent royalties, which covered several innovations in the control systems of PCCs. 

So, instead, Muni ordered PCC-style bodies with a mish-mash of different non-patented components (such as hand controllers instead of foot pedals) from different suppliers. While not authentic PCCs, these so-called ‘Magic Carpet’ streetcars, delivered in a stunning blue-and-gold livery instead of Muni’s traditional battleship gray, gave San Franciscans their first taste of modern streetcars, even though they were operated by two-person crews.

When tough economic times hit in the 1930s, Market Street Railway tried converting many of its two-operator streetcar lines to a single operator. Trying to squeeze the private company and preserve jobs, the city promoted a ballot measure requiring two-operator streetcars “for all time.” The measure passed, but was finally repealed in 1954 after almost killing Muni’s surviving streetcar lines. John G. Graham Collection, San Francisco Public Library.

(Market Street Railway would have loved to acquire streamlined streetcars too, but only got as far as blueprints before economic realities set in. That dream finally came true in 2012, sort of, with the debut of rebuilt PCC 1011 for the F-line fleet in the streamlined Market Street Railway livery, a tribute to the private company.)

On the cusp of change

By late 1941, the stage was set for change in San Francisco transit. Muni had ordered more trolley coaches, intending to convert its Union Street streetcar line from the small two-operator ‘dinkies’ to the one-operator electric buses. Similarly seeking to cut labor and maintenance costs, Market Street Railway had converted its cable car line on Castro Street to buses and was planning to do the same with its Sacramento-Clay line. For the same reasons, motor buses had replaced most streetcars on Market Street Railway’s 19-Polk and the busy Third and Kearny lines. Talk of consolidating the two systems and modernizing them was on the rise again in the city by the Bay.

But on December 7, 1941, the world of San Francisco transit, like the world as a whole, was dramatically changed by an event halfway across the Pacific.

Coming soon: Muni at War

  • by Rick Laubscher
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How Muni was born

BORROWED TIME—Its franchise already past its expiration date, a Geary cable train (dummy and trailer) rolls west past Union Square in 1905. The steel-framed building at 166 Geary, then under construction, survived the earthquake and fire the following year, and is still there.

NOTE: This is the first of five articles chronicling the history of the San Francisco Municipal Railway. Others are being posted in the following weeks.

Public mass transit is something government does, right? Today, yes, but it used to be the opposite. Private companies provided that service for a profit and government stayed out of it.

Until the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) arrived on the scene on December 28, 1912. Muni was America’s first big city transit service “built by the people”. How it came to be is a story filled with politics, corruption, and progressivism, because we’re talking about San Francisco!

FAST TIMES AT JONES & GEARY—Here are two photos taken just eleven months apart, looking northeast at Jones and Geary Streets. In both photos we can see the cable car tracks of the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line crossing Geary. The blurred images of the vehicles suggest action, rather than staged photos, making this a remarkable coincidence. Above, Geary cable car No.5 roars westward toward its terminal at Fifth Avenue and Fulton Street on February 1, 1912. The overhead wire for Muni’s forthcoming streetcars is already in place. The advertising hoardings along the sidewalk indicate it’s January 1912. Below, on December 28 of that same year, Mayor Rolph pilots Muni Car 1 across the same intersection on brand new streetcar track, the car literally packed with hangers-on. This photo was in the files of the San Francisco Public Library with no identification when we came across it some 20 years ago, and recognized it for what it is: the only known photo of a Muni streetcar in actual operation following the opening day celebration at Kearny and Geary: Day 1, Run 1, Car 1. Top: John Henry Mentz photo, SFMTA Archive; bottom: San Francisco Public Library

Charter sets a goal

In the late 19th century, privately owned transit companies were one of the biggest industries in the United States. They operated by renting the right from city governments to build tracks on specific streets in a city and carry paying passengers on rail vehicles (first horsecars, then cable cars, then electric streetcars as technology quickly evolved). In densely populated cities such as San Francisco, this led to cutthroat competition between companies with rights on parallel streets (and left remnants still in place today, with the closely-spaced service still prevalent in a few parts of our City). It also encouraged corruption, as we will see. By the end of the century, many progressive leaders in the City were determined to find a better way.

In 1900, San Francisco voters approved a new City Charter, which among other progressive features called for eventual city government ownership of all public utilities. There was widespread dissatisfaction with privately owned transit in the City, largely consolidated in 1902 under Chicago ownership as United Railroads. Part of this dissatisfaction was the company’s refusal to invest the required money to convert the slow cable car system on Market to faster electric streetcars, using the underground power system then operating successfully in Manhattan and in Washington. The company wanted overhead wires, which were already in use on the lines on side streets they had converted to streetcar use, but which were staunchly opposed by those who felt Market Street should be wire-free. (A tangle of overhead power and telephone lines had only recently been undergrounded along Market.)

A lengthy cable line, running from Market and Geary westward to Fifth Avenue in the Richmond District, had eluded the grasp of the United Railroads octopus. Its city-granted franchise to operate had an expiration date of November 6, 1903. Following the Charter’s mandate, city leaders swept into action, commissioning the city engineer, C.E. Grunsky, in 1901 to prepare plans and estimate costs to use the Geary Street cable tracks, which were in excellent condition, for an electric streetcar line, with power supplied by the underground conduit system, with the cable channel acting as the conduit. This would have been inexpensive and avoided overhead wires.

PRIME REAL ESTATE—A Geary cable train passes the exact spot where successor Muni streetcars would make their first run nine years later, at Kearny Street in 1903. Not part of the United Railroads, with its franchise expiring, the line ran through prime retail and residential areas. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, larger second-hand Market Street cable cars took over on Geary from the smaller cable trains. SFMTA Archive

But city voters failed to give the necessary two-thirds majority to a bond issue to pay for the conversion in 1902. A second try, in 1903, also failed at the ballot box. At this point, Mayor James D. Phelan joined with interests related to the powerful Claus Spreckels (who owned the Call Building across the street from the Geary cable line’s turntable) to create something called the “Municipal Street Railways of San Francisco”. This private company was structured so that the city could buy it at any time by simply paying the capital costs expended to that point, plus interest. Their goal was to implement streetcar lines using the underground conduit system for power. They filed their corporate papers with the State of California on April 17, 1906.

Quake shakes things up

The next day, the earth shook and the sky burned (to steal the title of William Bronson’s great history of the earthquake and fire). The transit system was a shambles, with cable lines especially hard hit. The Phelan-Spreckels company was soon forgotten. United Railroads managed to get the Fillmore crosstown streetcar line (today’s 22) back in service within a week, and won permission to string wires “temporarily” on Market so electric streetcars could quickly take over, since the cable machinery had been wrecked. (They soon made this permanent by bribing the entire Board of Supervisors.) A city budget item to have the city take over and rehabilitate the Geary cable line was diverted to rebuild streets and public buildings, but the line did get castoff Market Street cable cars, far larger than the small dummy and trailer sets previously used on Geary.

QUICK WORK—It’s August 10, 1912, and the old cable car tracks on Geary are being ripped out at Grant Avenue. The overhead streetcar wire is already in place. Less than five months to go before Muni’s opening day. Horace Chaffee photo, SFMTA Archive

City leaders tried again to win voter approval for a municipal streetcar line on Geary in June 1909. Voters again rejected it, but this time it was very close, so it was put back on the ballot on a special election on December 30, 1909. This time, the fourth attempt, voters said yes.

Muni becomes reality

But some bankers said no to the Municipal Railway bonds, seeing this novel public operation as risky. Many of the bonds were sold instead to local investors, and by June 1911, the City was ready to begin construction. 

CROSSING POWELL—Besides replacing the Geary cable car track, all the crossings of other rail lines had to be replaced as well. On July 27, 1912, crews are installing the new crossing at Powell Street. This scene has barely changed in 109 years. Both the St. Francis Hotel and the building in the background at Post and Geary are still there. John Henry Mentz photo, SFMTA Archive

City-employed laborers planted poles and strung overhead wire while the Geary cable cars ran beneath. Other crews built new streetcar track from Fifth Avenue to 33rd, with a spur along Tenth Avenue to reach Golden Gate Park. Then, on May 5, 1912, it was time to begin the final phase. The Geary cable fell silent as celebrants banged pots and honked horns to end its era. The old trackway was soon engulfed with contractors with work gangs and steam-powered heavy equipment, ripping out the formidable cable yolks concreted into the street and laying down streetcar tracks. A separate contract to W.L. Holman was to supply 43 new “California-type” streetcars, with open end sections and a closed center section for smoking.

The street work went astonishingly fast (especially by today’s standards), with 6.5 miles of track between Kearny Street and Fifth Avenue completely replaced in seven months, not counting the new carbarn ladder tracks at Geary and Presidio Avenue. The cars were more problematic. Holman, an experienced cable car builder (who had recently finished constructing a new fleet of cable cars for the California Street Cable Railroad Company, to replace those incinerated in 1906), faltered in fulfilling the order, ultimately only delivering ten cars by December 1912, and twenty overall. The rest of the order was built by Union Iron Works, from which Holman had gotten the steel for the cars it built. (The shop building where these streetcars were built has just been renovated into tech-oriented office space as part of the magnificent restoration and repurposing of the Union Iron Works (later Bethlehem Steel) site at Pier 70 on the Central Waterfront.)

HURRY UP—We’re just four months from startup, and the Geary Carhouse is just getting started. But then again, none of Muni’s first ten streetcars had been delivered by this date, August 30, 1912, either. Amazingly (especially considering the grading, visible at right, was done by horses and scrapers), they made it. Horace Chaffee photo, SFMTA Archive

Finally, on December 28, 1912, that memorable moment we’ve recounted many times: as 50,000 San Franciscans cheered, Mayor James Rolph, Jr., boarded Municipal Railway Car Number 1, deposited one of the first nickels ever produced at the San Francisco Mint, and announced to the crowd, “It is in reality the people’s road, built by the people and with the people’s money. The first cable road in the country was built in San Francisco, and now the first municipal railway of the country is built in San Francisco. Our operation of this road will be closely watched by the whole country. It must prove a success! … I want everyone to feel that it is but the nucleus of a mighty system of streetcar lines which will someday encompass the entire city.”

Rolph instantly followed up by promoting a $3.5 million bond issue to expand Muni, campaigning hard for it and winning voter approval in 1913. Initial Muni expansion included digging the Stockton Street Tunnel to bring streetcars from downtown to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and penetrating the Mission District with the H-line on Potrero Avenue and Van Ness, and the J-Church. Then the biggest project of all, the Twin Peaks Tunnel, carrying the K and L lines into the Ingleside and Parkside Districts.

Before its tenth birthday, Muni was operating eleven full-time streetcar lines, adding two more (the M and N) later in the 1920s. But realizing Rolph’s dream of a city-wide Municipal Railway would have to wait and wait until, after six attempts overwhelmingly defeated by the electorate over an 18-year period, voters finally approved the buy-out of United Railroads’ successor, Market Street Railway Company on May 16, 1944, with the merged system debuting on September 29 of that year.

FAIR COMPETITION—It’s less than three years from Muni’s first run, and already the “People’s Railroad” is winning hearts of San Franciscans, with big expansion projects in time to serve the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in what’s now the Marina District. A happy crushload of fairgoers departs this special D-line car at the exposition’s Chestnut Street gate. Horace Chaffee photo, SFMTA archive

From the perspective of voter approval, you could say that for getting Muni started, “fourth time’s a charm.” For making it city-wide, “seventh time’s a charm.”

  • By Rick Laubscher

We are indebted to the definitive history of Muni, The People’s Railway, by Anthony Perles, published in 1980 and now, sadly, out of print, but often available on eBay.

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Happy 109th Birthday, Muni!

Mayor James Rolph, Jr. personally pilots Car No. 1 past Jones Street on Geary, December 28, 1912. San Francisco Public LIbrary photo.

As the photo makes plain, that was one wild first ride on Muni. Emblematic, we think, of the past 20 months, with constant adjustments made to Muni’s network during the pandemic to meet unprecedented challenges.

On this 109th anniversary of that first ride, we salute all those at SFMTA who have kept service operating. And we join them in hoping for a smoother ride in 2022 and beyond.

Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that on this date in 1912, 50,000 San Franciscans (not a typo) came out to cheer “the People’s Road” as Mayor Rolph called it: the first publicly-owned big city transit system in America. And it’s worth celebrating the fact that Muni’s very first streetcar (at the front of the line in the photo, on Geary between Grant and Stockton) is still in Muni’s fleet, fully restored for the Railway’s 2012 centennial.

Want to learn more about Muni’s history, decade by decade? We’ll publish several articles as 2022 begins, one every week, to fill you in. So watch this space!

Happy New Year to everyone at SFMTA/Muni, and to our members, donors and friends around the world. IMPORTANT NOTE: Through December 31, donations you make to our nonprofit are matched dollar for dollar (up to $8.000 total) thanks to generous challenge grants from members of our board of directors and leadership. Donate here!

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Forty frustrating years underground

The idea of a transit subway under Market Street goes back to the first years of the 20th century, but it took more than 70 fitful years to become reality. That’s a complex and fascinating story we tell in this companion post, which explains the compromises that harmed Muni’s subway operation from the get-go. The subway that finally got built has two levels between the Ferry Building and Van Ness Avenue, with regional BART trains running beneath Muni light rail… — Read More

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Muni to consider PCC streetcars for future J-line service

PCC streetcar 1015 on the J-Church right of way at 21st Street

At its December 7 meeting, the SFMTA Board of Directors unanimously passed a resolution directing Muni management to evaluate using PCC streetcars to provide single-ride service long-term on the J-Church line. The action was part of a broader measure that instructs management to return J-line light rail vehicles to the Muni Metro Subway as soon as possible. The action does not mean that the J-line will get vintage streetcar service anytime soon (other than the historic cars that use the… — Read More

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Maya Angelou, streetcar conductor: the full story

Before she was a famous author and poet, Maya Angelou was a streetcar conductor in San Francisco when she was just 15 years old – breaking down barriers to do so. This story looks closely at her achievement.

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THIS is why we brought the Boat Trams to San Francisco

Giddy riders. Laughing kids. Happy crew members. Public transit that takes people where they want to go with flair and fun. THIS is why Market Street Railway worked hard to bring two Blackpool, England open-top “Boat Trams” to San Francisco and gift them to the City’s transit agency, Muni, 30 years apart. But no need to talk about it when you can see rider satisfaction in action, on Sunday, October 10, 2021 during the City’s annual Fleet Week celebration, featuring… — Read More

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Come take a cruise (or say G’Day)

The Blackpool Boat Tram and the Melbourne tram both cruised The Embarcadero to the delight of riders and onlookers on their initial day of Fleet Week service, Thursday, October 8. They’ll be out every day through Monday, October 11, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. between our San Francisco Railway Museum (across from the Ferry Building) and Pier 39. Our museum will be open Friday, Saturday, and (just added) Sunday from 11-5. Need additional incentive to come down? The boat and Melbourne… — Read More

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