Ding Dong Daddy: The real story

By Grant Ute, Friends of SF Railway Archive

Muni’s D-line had this scenic terminal in the Presidio, with a route that ran from the Ferry Building along Market, Geary, Van Ness, and Union Streets. It gained fame as the supposed route of a serial bigamist-streetcar conductor in the 1940s. Except that he actually worked the 22-Fillmore. Fred Matthews photo, Market Street Railway Archive

The scene

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.

In a contemplative mood, Francis Van Wie sits behind bars after his arrest on bigamy charges in 1945. San Francisco Public Library.

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.

The setting

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.)

The northern terminal of the 22-line, on Fillmore at Broadway, May 24, 1946. By this time, the “Ding Dong Daddy” was halfway through his prison term at San Quentin, and Muni had repainted some of the rickety streetcars on the lines it took over from Market Street Railway. Phillip Scherer photo, Market Street Railway Archive.

The moniker

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.)

Van Wie reported for duty to the Turk-Fillmore Division. Once onboard his run, he ‘went to work’. Market Street Railway Archive.

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).

22-Fillmore Car 855, still in Market Street Railway Co. ‘zip stripe’ livery shortly after the 1944 merger with Muni, rattles around the turn from Duboce to Fillmore. Some of Francis Van Wie’s wives lived very close to the 22-line, his ‘home turf’. Roy Covert photo, Philip V. Hoffman collection, Market Street Railway Archive.

The clincher

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.)

Another view of the Turk-Fillmore streetcar barn, looking north along Fillmore in its last days of operation in 1948. This site was razed, replaced by a market in the 1950s, which in turn was converted to a police station. Just out of frame to the right, though, the old brick Market Street Railway Co. powerhouse remains, still owned by the city, but derelict, and badly in need of seismic work before it can take on a new life of some sort. Al Thoman photo, Market Street Railway Archive..

The crime

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.

Southbound 22-Fillmore Car 869 waits for Washington-Mason Cable Car 525 to cross on its trip to Union Square. Al Thoman photo, Market Street Railway Archive.

The M.O.

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.”

In this staged press photo, ex–conductor Van Wie (in sedan) shakes the hand of one of his motormen, tellingly aboard a 22-Fillmore car. San Francisco Public Library.

The committee

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.)

O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Cable Car No. 62 passes by the Padre Hotel at 241 Jones Street (at Turk) where Van Wie was put up by financier Louis Lurie after his arrest, to await his trial. Jack Tillmany Collection.

The employer

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.”

The defense

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.”

Francis Van Wie (bald, in overcoat) stands at his 1945 San Francisco trial. To his immediate right is famed defense attorney Jake Erlich, and next to Erlich is District Attorney (and later California Governor) Edmund G. ‘Pat’ Brown. San Francisco Public Library.

The prosecution

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.

The stories

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.

The “Ding Dong Daddy of the D-car Line” enters San Quentin State Prison. San Francisco Public Library.

The judgment

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.

The return

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.

22-Fillmore car crosses Market before the 1944 Muni-MSRy merger. Philip V. Hoffman Collection, Market Street Railway Archive.

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.

Van Wie with his fiancée and Judge Kaufman. San Francisco Public Library.

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.

The end

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.

Grant Ute is an author of the book San Francisco’s Market Street Railway, available at our online store.

The legacy

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.

—Rick Laubscher

If this is one of your first visits to our website, welcome. We hope you’ve enjoyed this story. Help us continue to chronicle the history of how transit built today’s San Francisco by making a one-time donation of any size, or becoming a member and getting great stories in print every quarter, long before we’d consider posting them here.

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F-line 25th anniversary merch!

https://www.streetcar.org/product/f-market-anniversary-print/

With San Francisco’s historic streetcars still shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we can’t take an actual ride to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the permanent F-Market line, but we can get some virtual thrills with these two new merchandise items, designed by Chris Arvin. Above, a poster with Chris’s iconic, er, icons that playfully visualize some of Muni’s historic streetcar fleet. Below, a pin featuring a PCC in original Muni livery.

https://www.streetcar.org/product/f-market-anniversary-enamel-pin/

These and an ever growing number of products celebrating historic transit -most of which you can’t find anywhere else – are available in our online store. Don’t forget our exclusive 2021 “Museums in Motion” calendar (next year’s gotta be better, right?) and to get us from here to there, our “Information Gladly Given” masks!

More than ever, our nonprofit depends on support from those who love the cable cars and historic streetcars to enable us to strengthen our advocacy to get them back on the streets of San Francisco as soon as it’s safe. Please consider even a small donation or membership. Thanks.

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F-line’s 25th anniversary

On September 1, 1995, a parade of vintage streetcars rumbled westward on Market Street, led by the wildly popular Boat Tram 228, to officially inaugurate the permanent F-Market streetcar line (extended in 2000 to become the F-Market & Wharves). 

Right from that opening day, the F-line, inspired by the success of the summer Trolley Festivals of the 1980s, opened, it was overwhelmed with riders, far outstripping Muni’s predictions. Many Upper Market residents preferred the clean, upholstered vintage PCC streetcars, with windows that opened to let in fresh air, to the stuffy subway beneath the street. Shoppers and workers found it not only more pleasant, but easier to transfer to from crossing Muni routes. And visitors by the thousands used it to truly enjoy getting around the city, especially after it reached the Ferry Building, Embarcadero, and Fisherman’s Wharf.

With more than seven million riders a year, the F became America’s most popular traditional streetcar line, even more than long-time champ, the St. Charles line in New Orleans. Muni, encouraged and helped by our nonprofit, tripled the size of the original vintage streetcar fleet, and still had trouble meeting demand.

Until Covid-19.

Now, on its 25th anniversary, the F-line’s future is uncertain. Shut down since March, Muni has set no reopening date, or even a time frame. Indeed, SFMTA boss Jeff Tumlin has hinted the F’s reopening might be contingent on voters passing new funding sources for Muni. That kind of measure couldn’t be on the ballot until June 2022 at the earliest.

Beyond its day-to-day popularity, the F-line has been a lifeline for stranded subway riders during “meltdowns” of the underground service, including this one in 2019.

We at Market Street Railway believe that the F is too important to the revival of the city’s economy to wait that long. Small businesses and visitor attractions from Castro to Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf are suffering mightily right now; some have already closed forever. Many more cannot withstand such an extended denial of attractive public transit service.

And the vintage streetcars can help in more locations than just the F-Market & Wharves line or the also-suspended E-Embarcadero line. Most people don’t know that one month after the F-line opened, the PCCs provided regular service on the J-Church line late nights for three years, while the subway shut down early to install a new train control system. The other subway lines riders were stuck with substitute buses, but J-Church riders could ride the vintage PCC streetcars straight downtown from Noe Valley via Church and Market Streets, with no transfers. They could do that again now if Muni chooses to, instead of forcing J-line riders to get off LRVs at Market and walk into the subway, as Muni now plans to do when they’re able to re-restart the subway after the first aborted attempt last week.

PCCs using the J-line can turn right onto Market from Church. Kevin Mueller photo.

The next issue of our member magazine, Inside Track, will be out later this month, with a full exploration of the challenges — and opportunities — ahead for the F-line, along with a history of the perpetually frustrating Market Street Subway, which has its own anniversary (the 40th!) this year. Sign up here to join Market Street Railway and get this great quarterly publication, not available otherwise.

With your support, we can strengthen our advocacy, which helped turn the F-line from vision to reality a quarter-century ago, to help get the vintage streetcars back in service as soon as its safe to do so.

For the rest of 2020, part of that advocacy will be a celebration of the first 25 years of the F-line with virtual events, including displays of the best F-line photos and a contest to choose people’s favorite streetcars from the fleet. All to remind San Franciscans what a gift the F-line has been to the city, so that we can open that gift again, soon.

For those who want a deeper dive into the history of the F-line, the magazine Railfan & Railroad has an extensive article, with great photos, in its September 2020 issue, authored by Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher. And the definitive reference work on the F-line, including great stories, photos, and inside information, is available in our online store: San Francisco’s F-line, by transit historian and former F-line operator Peter Ehrlich.

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Two transit pandemics

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

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

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

War and flu

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

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

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

Masks on!

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

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

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

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

Transit suffers

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

Meanwhile…

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

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

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

Masks off!

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

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

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

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

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

The toll

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

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

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

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

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When Heritage Weekend got a gift from us

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

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Unhappy 147th birthday, cable cars

In the wee hours of August 2, 1873, Andrew Hallidie gripped the first street cable car in history over a precipice on Clay Street. Hallidie, a Scots immigrant who had extensive expertise in “wire rope” technology to move buckets of ore above ground in the state’s mining district, had applied his knowledge to pull people in little cars up hills that horses couldn’t climb. His franchise for the line had technically expired at midnight on August 1, but there were… — Read More

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When the oldest streetcar was new

How old is the oldest electric streetcar in Muni’s historic fleet? So old that it regularly crossed paths with cable cars on Market Street. When “dinkies” (small, single truck streetcars) like preserved Car 578 were new, they were also novel, in that cable cars dominated San Francisco transit and had the exclusive rights to Market Street. The electric cars only saw Market when they crossed it. While they looked like cable cars, they were twice as fast and very high… — Read More

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Our 2021 Calendar is Here!

We’d advise ordering this beauty quickly, including any gifts you want to give; we produced fewer than last year because of the uncertainty of when our San Francisco Railway Museum will reopen, so for now it’s only available online. Here’s the link to our store, if you don’t need any convincing (and why would you, with 13 eye-popping color photos of Muni’s historic streetcars and cable cars in action on the streets of San Francisco!) (Tip: you can get it… — Read More

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When will the cable cars and streetcars return?

The short answer is: we don’t know; it’s up to the virus and what we all do together to shorten its grip on our society. But Muni can be ready for that day, and we’re encouraging them to do so. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the other day that cable car operations would likely not resume “until a coronavirus vaccine is widely available”, which health experts think could likely take a least a year, and possibly much longer, to create,… — Read More

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Pedal to the metal: “Finding room to run”

We all know that old saying, “They don’t make them like THAT anymore”. With the late Art Curtis, that’s the truth. In his 37-year career with Muni, Art solved all kinds of operational problems as Chief Inspector, but as a “young buck” (his term) operator, he created his share of mischief, too. We’ll be sharing a couple of stories here told by Art himself. This one comes from a 2009 issue of our member magazine, Inside Track. (Join us to… — Read More

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Pride 1983

Like everyone in San Francisco, we miss the LGBTQ Pride Parade up Market Street this year. At least we can share a look back, framed with pleasure. During the first year of the Trolley Festivals, 1983, we got the idea of asking if streetcars could be included in the parade. Yes, indeed came the answer. So the Blackpool boat tram and Muni Car 1 took their place in line and tooled up Market Street. The choice of destination for the… — Read More

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Art Curtis, 1940-2020

Art Curtis passed away on June 20, 2020 at 11:11am. He fought a coura- geous fight with brain cancer, diagnosed in 2018. Art was given three months to live, but willed himself to reach his 80th birthday, and did on June 8! His niece, Kathleen Morelock, informed Art’s many friends of his passing, and shared a dream Art’s sister Kathie had the night before: “Uncle Art came to the bedroom door…took her hand, and they flew together throughout our beautiful… — Read More

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What’s New is Old

All Muni rail service has been halted since March with selected replacement by buses. Metro lines are now slated to reopen in mid-August, though no date has yet been set for resumption of historic streetcar and cable car service. But Muni Metro will be different when it returns, at least at first. In a bold step, Jeff Tumlin, boss of Muni’s parent SFMTA, and Muni head Julie Kirschbaum are re-imagining Muni Metro for the first time since it opened in… — Read More

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When politics & dirty tricks savaged our cable cars

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, May 16, 1954, several hundred San Franciscans gathered at California and Hyde Streets. They weren’t late-night shopping at Trader Joe’s, but rather were protesting what was then happening to the previous occupants of that property–cable cars. Well after midnight, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 51 crested Russian Hill and approached the old carbarn and powerhouse, headed for history. The car, built in 1906 (and still in service today on California Street), was… — Read More

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