Controversy is swirling again around the future of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars, after a Chronicle column by Heather Knight last weekend that seemed to imply the three cable lines could be junked in 2023 unless San Francisco voters pony up lots more bucks for SFMTA/Muni to keep running them. (For the record, SFMTA denies the cable cars would be junked. We have the full behind-the-scenes story on this in the next Inside Track, our exclusive member magazine, due out within two weeks.)
The brewing brouhaha led the Chronicle’s cool culture critic, Peter Hartlaub, to dip into the Chron’s “vault” and emerge with some great photos and info. The actual story is behind a paywall online, but we’re sharing a few photos here and summarizing a rather remarkable revealing of the paper’s anti-cable attitude back then.
San Francisco history buffs know the basics of the story: In January 1947, Roger Lapham, a businessman elected mayor on a platform to modernize the postwar city, announced he planed to “junk the cable cars”. (Lapham’s target was the two city-owned Powell lines; the other cable lines were owned by the private California Street Cable Railway Co., which was struggling financially, and if the Powell lines were ripped out, it’s doubtful the city would have rescued them four years later as it did.)
Hartlaub points a big finger at his own paper for swallowing Lapham’s line, and declaring the Powell lines dead before any actual decision had been taken. The Chron wasn’t alone: the Chamber of Commerce and other business associations were quick to bury the little cars while they were still kicking. Yet in the article, headlined “A Shame Revealed”, Hartlaub makes a strong (and entertainingly written) case that his paper cheered on cable car haters.” He called the January 29, 1947 story pictured above “a piece of editorial sensationalism disguised as a news story”, and then noted, “In the days that followed, there were more fantastic tales of the super-bus, the decrepit state of the track and fantasies of runaway cars killing unsuspecting citizens. The Chronicle seemingly stacked the opinion pages with anti-cable-car letters.”
Of course, we know what happened next: at a time when women’s voices weren’t welcomed in San Francisco (or most anywhere else), Telegraph Hill resident Friedel Klussmann assembled a brigade of women and handed the mayor his metaphorical head by placing and passing a ballot measure in November 1947 to save the Powell cables.
Here’s the coda to this cable car concerto: before his public “junk ’em” announcement, Lapham had ordered Muni to buy buses to replace the Powell cars. Motor coaches then had limited power, but Muni purchased ten “Twin coaches” that featured two engines each, to provide extra hill-climbing power. But Muni couldn’t keep the two engines in sync, defeating the hill-climbing capabilities, and once the Powell cables were saved, yanked one of the engines out of each bus and sent them out on lightly-used routes until retiring them way early after just six years of use.
Just one of these historic buses survives. Our nonprofit acquired it from a museum that wasn’t using it a couple of decades ago, and gave it to Muni for their historic bus collection. Gradually, Muni is restoring the bus to operating condition. We plan a big unveiling when it’s ready.
But it won’t be running on Powell Street, thank God (and Friedel).
When street railway companies laid tracks in San Francisco streets, they were responsible for maintaining the area around the tracks. That’s part of the reason it was customary to lay a row of basalt pieces right next to the outer rails. The dense, heavy, gray stone is correctly called Belgian block or sett though often mistakenly called cobblestone. (Cobbles are more egg shaped.)
The Belgian block provides a buffer between the rails and the street paving. When streets are paved in asphalt right up to the track, even slight movements of the tracks over time can cause the asphalt to crack or bulge. Hot or freezing weather can exacerbate this tendency. Also, since street railways almost always were responsible for maintaining the street not only between the tracks, but outward for a fixed difference, the Belgian blocks can reduce maintenance.
In its early years, Muni always lined its tracks with Belgian block when installing new rails. Over the decades, as worn rails were replaced, the Belgian blocks disappeared, just as they did from the surface of many entire streets when they were repaved.
The last surviving stretch of Belgian block-lined streetcar track in San Francisco just disappeared. This was the two westernmost blocks of Taraval Street in the Sunset District, where tracks for the L-Taraval line were installed in 1923. These two blocks of track left regular service in 1937, when an extension opened south on 46th Avenue to reach the zoo. The spur track was then used only for emergencies, such as temporary storage of disabled equipment.
In 2003, when Muni rebuilt the Zoo loop (whose original track had lasted 66 years!), they started digging west from 46th, ripping out Belgian block and old track. The historic spur wasn’t supposed to be part of the zoo loop project, so we checked with the project manager, who told us the old rail on the spur was too rusty to weld to, so they were going to rip it out until they found good rail to weld to. We suggested since it was rarely used, good old-fashioned bolting and bonding might work instead, and the project manager, Fariba Mahmoudi, agreed, saving the historic track (and money).
But all of the Sunset’s streets are laid on sand, and the sand under the spur track later was judged to be insufficient to continue supporting modern LRVs, so the end of track was “red-tagged” — no more streetcars. Now, as part of the replacement of all the tracks on Taraval west of Sunset Boulevard, the spur tracks, more rust than rail after being in the salt air for 98 years, have finally given up the ghost. Yet even while the rails themselves finally deteriorated, the Belgian blocks remained set and solid 98 years after their installation.
The tracks are being replaced right now, but — good news — the crew is saving all the Belgian block and will lay it back down next to the new rail, to preserve the historic look of the rails.
Thanks to the SFMTA team for preserving the look of this historic stretch of Taraval track. We hope when full Muni service resumes we can inaugurate the new rail with a charter of Muni Car 1.
If you appreciate the things we do to preserve historic transit in San Francisco, please consider supporting us with a donation or membership. Thanks.
In recent decades, memorable African-American leaders have made history in San Francisco transit. There’s Curtis E. Green, Sr., the first Black general manager of a major US transit agency. H. Welton Flynn, first Black San Francisco City Commissioner, and leader of Muni’s governing boards for many years. Larry Martin, a powerful and persuasive head of Muni’s operators’ union.
For this year’s Black History Month, we’ll reach back further in time, to highlight three women and one man who broke barriers in transit.
Charlotte Brown and Mary Ellen Pleasant: In April 1863, Charlotte Brown boarded a horse-drawn streetcar run by the Omnibus Railroad Company. The operator told her she wasn’t allowed to ride because she was Black. She told him she had always ridden the streetcars and was very late to her appointment. When a white woman on board complained about her presence, the operator physically removed Charlotte from the car.
She brought Omnibus Railroad Co. to court – twice – and won. It was a huge victory, happening just after Black people were allowed to testify against whites in court. Another Civil Rights pioneer, the noted African-American entrepreneur Mary Ellen Pleasant, had the same experience in 1866, before the earlier suits were finally adjudicated. Pleasant successfully challenged streetcar segregation all the way to the California Supreme Court and won. These women changed California history, some 90 years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and changed national history.
Audley Cole: Audley Cole was the first Black operator ever hired by Muni, in 1941. He passed the civil service examination by leaving his race off the form. After he was hired, white operators refused to give him the training necessary to start work. Fourteen operators decided to be suspended rather than train him, and the operators’ union threatened a $100 fine against any operator who trained him. The one white man who tried to train him was beaten so severely he was hospitalized.
After three months, with support from the ILWU (the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union) and the general manager of Muni, Cole finally received training directly from the head of Muni’s training department. At Muni, he fought for fairer treatment for future Black employees. 3 years later, there were nearly 100 Black employees at Muni. “Civil service is dedicated to fair play,” said Cole. “It’s a job for which I have qualified and I want it. I’m going to get it.”
Maya Angelou: Now remembered as a famed author and poet, Maya Angelou’s first job – in 1943, when she was 16 – was as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She wanted the job initially, she said, because she “liked the uniforms.” When she tried to apply, no one at the Market Street Railway office would give her the job application.
She didn’t give up – she went back to the office every single day and sat in the waiting room. Eventually, a manager approached her and allowed her to apply. (She said she was 18, the minimum age). She became the first Black female streetcar operator in San Francisco. During that summer, she operated the 7-Haight line, which at that time ran from East Bay Terminal (at First and Mission) out Market, Haight, and then along Lincoln Way to reach the beach, crossing the park to terminate at Playland. Market Street Railway is proposing that Streetcar 798, of the type she worked on, be dedicated to her memory when it is restored.
As you can see, many of the first civil rights breakthroughs in public transit happened here in San Francisco. Yet few people know about them. We’re trying to change that through stories like this and other actions to ensure these barrier-breakers are properly remembered. We salute all those who have stood up to racism, sexism, and discrimination in San Francisco’s transit industry…for more than 150 years!
The Covid-19 pandemic caused Muni to convert all its rail lines to buses in 2020, with rail service fitfully resuming, in stages, in 2021. Quite a reversal for the transit agency born as the San Francisco Municipal Railway, whose service was dominated by streetcars for the first 35 years of its existence, and had never before been strictly a bus operation for longer than a weekend at a time. Here’s a story we put together in 2017 to celebrate the centennial of Muni’s first bus operation.
In September 1917 the Municipal Railway left the tracks for the first time, by running its first bus—a leased vehicle whose make and model is lost to history. Still, it was the beginning of a protracted turning point for Muni.
The city’s first buses
When San Francisco got its first transit motor bus, 50,000 streetcars across the US were unquestionably kings of urban American streets. Many of those streets were paved with rough cobblestones or Belgian block when they were paved at all. Cobbles were fine for horses, but rough on any wheeled vehicle, often leading drivers of the primitive automobiles and trucks of the day to try to share the smooth streetcar track area.
Muni’s first buses were small—just 19 seats—reflecting the technology limitations of the day. They were bought to complement streetcars, not compete with them. The first Muni bus route crossed Golden Gate Park from the end of the A-Geary line into the Sunset District. Muni’s guiding spirit, legendary City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy, wanted to extend the streetcar tracks through the park, but was handed a rare defeat at the hands of another legend of city government, Parks chief John McLaren.
Other early Muni bus routes ran out Taraval Street from the Twin Peaks Tunnel, until the L-line was built, and along Great Highway. They didn’t go anywhere near downtown; their job was to take San Franciscans to the streetcars that did.
Buses provide acheaper alternative
By the mid-1920s, larger engines and better suspensions made buses practical on more city streets. Still, the bus was an afterthought. Muni’s private competitor, Market Street Railway Co., which bought its first three buses in 1926, used them to connect developing neighborhoods to its main streetcar lines, starting with the 14-Mission.
A bus could be operated by a single driver, while San Francisco’s streetcars required two, a motorman and conductor. In the mid-1930s, Market Street Railway tried to convert some of its streetcar lines to use streetcars with just one crewmember, but a court overturned the move, which had been strongly opposed by labor unions. In response, Market Street Railway began converting some of its unprofitable, less patronized streetcar lines to buses. By 1941, the 19-Polk, the Third Street lines and three South of Market lines had been ‘bustituted,’ along with the Castro cable line, and in 1942, the Sacramento-Clay cable car line as well.
As a public agency, Muni faced less pressure to replace streetcars with buses at this time, and by the end of 1937, twenty years after running its first bus, Muni still only owned nineteen of them. That more than doubled by the end of 1941, with 43 motor buses running on eleven routes, almost all still serving as feeders for the streetcars.
Tires and wires: Early trolley buses
By the mid-1930s, motor buses could go anywhere in San Francisco there were streets—if they weren’t too steep). But electric trolley buses could climb virtually any hill; could use the same power generated for streetcars, and didn’t need tracks in the street. Market Street Railway converted its 33-Ashbury line through the Mission and over Twin Peaks into the Haight-Ashbury to trolley buses in 1935, followed by Muni with its first line, the R-Howard-South Van Ness in 1941. Muni planned to convert the E-Union streetcar line to trolley buses as well, but World War II intervened.
World War II tested American mass transit to the limit. Streetcars and buses all over the country were packed with riders who couldn’t use their automobiles because of gasoline and rubber rationing. Almost no new transit vehicles were built because their makers were building war vehicles. By war’s end, most streetcars and their tracks were worn out. With peace restored, families bought automobiles as never before, forsaking transit. Many privately owned streetcar companies around the country were scooped up by a partnership of bus, tire, and fuel companies and converted to buses.
In San Francisco, the transition from streetcars to buses played out differently. The city itself bought out the private Market Street Railway Co. in 1944 and combined it with Muni. Soon after, a city consultant prepared a post-war plan that would have retained strong streetcar lines such as the K, L, M, and N, and lines on Mission, Geary, Stockton, Sutter, and Haight streets.
But with fare revenue rapidly plummeting along with ridership, labor costs became an overriding issue. Single-operator buses began substituting for two-person streetcars on some lines evenings and weekends. A 1947 plan, tied to a bond issue, emphasized single-operator trolley buses instead. It passed and changed the face of the city.
The big switch
The end of the 1940s saw buses pass up streetcars as the main public transit vehicles in San Francisco. In mid-1946, Muni owned 600 streetcars and just 225 buses. By early 1952, buses numbered more than 800 (about equally split between motor and trolley buses), while active streetcars were down to about 200. Two dozen streetcar lines had been converted to bus operation. The rising cost of two-person streetcar crews, increased automobile traffic competing for street space, and worn out streetcar infrastructure all contributed to this changeover.
A fleet of White motor coaches, gasoline powered and very smelly to ride, provided bridge service during the conversion from streetcars to electric trolley coaches. The new trolley coach fleet was mostly Marmon-Harrington buses in three different sizes, augmented by sleek-looking Twin Coaches and hulking, hard-to-drive St. Louis Car Company buses.
By 1951, only 19% of Muni’s streetcar service was covering its operating costs, compared to more than a third of the bus service—especially distressing because buses were stuck with all the lowest ridership routes. Muni responded by minimizing streetcar service on nights and weekends, running only the N-Judah and a shuttle service on Market through the Twin Peaks Tunnel to West Portal, with the rest of the streetcar routes operated by buses during those lower-ridership periods.
Finally, voters repealed the requirement for two crewmembers on modern streetcars in 1954, and within four years, only ‘PCC’ streamliners, the type seen on the E- and F-lines today, remained in regular service. Five streetcar lines, the J, K, L, M, and N, were saved, mostly because they used tunnels or rights-of-way difficult or too expensive to convert to bus use, but the busiest streetcar line, the B-Geary, which had no such protection, fell at the end of 1956, becoming the 38, still Muni’s busiest line overall.
Most of the big change to buses was completed by 1952, except for Geary, which got buses in 1956. San Francisco’s mix of buses and streetcars stayed pretty steady for the next four decades.
Several generations of motor coaches and trolley coaches have carried San Franciscans since then. Macks dominated the motor coach fleet from 1956-1969, followed by GMC ‘New Look’ coaches (which Muni was the last major property to buy new, in 1969). The ‘Fishbowls,’ as the GMCs were called, were augmented by smaller AM General buses (nicknamed ‘Gremlins’ after the small American Motors automobile of the area). The first fleet of articulated coaches (or ‘bendy buses,’ as the British call them) were delivered to Muni by MAN in 1984. Since then, most motor coaches have come from Neoplan or Flyer Industries. Flyer supplied a new generation of trolley coaches in 1975, replaced by Czech-designed ETI trolley buses starting in 2001. Various other bus manufacturers supplied smaller numbers of coaches over the past 50 years; these fleet details are beyond the scope of this story.
Rapid Transit came to San Francisco in 1973 with the opening of the BART Transbay Tube. By 1982, Muni’s five surviving streetcar lines moved into the Muni Metro subway under Market Street, and after successful summer demonstrations in the 1980s, vintage streetcars returned to the surface of Market permanently in 1995. In fact, the F-line and later the E-line run routes once served by buses: the 8-Market trolley bus on Market and the 32-Embarcadero along the waterfront. Then, in 2005, modern streetcars (called ‘light rail vehicles’ by some) replaced buses on one of San Francisco’s longest thoroughfares, Third Street, 66 years after buses replaced streetcars.
Today, Muni is midway through a multi-year process of replacing its rubber-tire fleet with a standard design, manufactured by New Flyer Industries. Both the hybrid motor coaches and trolley coaches share the same sleek body design, the first time that’s been true across the Muni rubber tire fleet. Both types of bus are being delivered in 40-foot (standard) and 60-foot (articulated) lengths.
It all adds up to one of the lowest emission transit fleets in North America, including 200 zero-emission streetcars/light rail vehicles (both modern and vintage), plus more than 400 zero-emission electric trolley buses, in addition to hundreds of hybrid diesel-electric motor buses.
Both buses and streetcars are essential to moving both residents and visitors around San Francisco, and along with the world-famous cable cars, provide the pulse along the arteries of the City by the Bay.
Though not this exact bus. In a time when many of its well-established lines, including the F-Market historic streetcars (which carried more than 20,000 riders a day) are still suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Muni is adding an entirely new route. No, wait. What they’re doing is reviving the well-known bus line known as the 15-Third, and setting it up kind of like a T-Express, to provide faster service downtown from the Hunters Point neighborhood and points along Third… — Read More
December 28, 1912. Fifty thousand San Franciscans gathered at Market and Geary Streets. Was it a presidential visit? No, it was the transit equivalent of a late visit from Santa. It was a new streetcar line. But symbolically it was a lot more than that. For the ten locally-built gray and maroon streetcars that began running up and down the A-Geary line that day had letterboards on the side emblazoned in gold leaf “MUNICIPAL RAILWAY.” They were the first publicly… — Read More
The last of 16 streamlined PCC streetcars completely rebuilt for Muni by Brookville Equipment Company was delivered to its owner today. Car 1007 was built for Muni by St. Louis Car Company in 1948 and ran daily until it was retired in 1982. Our nonprofit successfully lobbied for it and the other surviving cars in the original class of ten cars to be preserved by Muni when it scrapped or sold many of its other 100+ PCCs. Our advocacy was… — Read More
Our online store is the place to get transit-related San Francisco gifts you can’t find anywhere else. And with our physical museum across from the Ferry Building closed by the pandemic, the online store is the ONLY place to find these unique items. Take a look at the wonderful array of gifts for everyone on your list. Big or small, we have it all, from apparel and books to cute little stocking stuffers! Don’t hesitate – we have a limited… — Read More
Market Street, in color, in 1932, when essentially all film was black and white. And not just static, like the photo above, but in full and glorious rumble. Click the video below and prepare to get lost in the past for the next four minutes. This trip up Market Street between the Ferry and Grant Avenue was original actual black and white motion picture footage that our friend Rick Prelinger, founder of Prelinger Archives, turned us onto several years ago.… — Read More
Constructing a new form of transportation for San Francisco, workers uncovered an old one the other day. Contractors building the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project scraped away asphalt to find the vertical curve of the original California Street cable car line bending westward and upward towards Franklin Street. Below, that same block, with a cable car descending the hill on this same track, before the Cal line was savagely cut in half on December 30, 1956 (a dark… — Read More
Editors Note: An early version of this article appeared in a past issue of Inside Track, our member magazine with exclusive stories and inside information about Muni’s historic streetcars and cable cars. Click here to become a member and receive it. Geary was Muni’s first “backbone”. It is still easily its busiest corridor, operated now with buses longer than it was with streetcars. By any transit measure, its ridership justifies rail service on Geary, including a subway through at least… — Read More
There’s a familiar sound at the Powell and Market cable car turntable, at least some of the time. Thanks to the initiative of the Union Square Business Improvement District and the support of SFMTA chief Jeffrey Tumlin, a Powell cable car will be on the ‘table every Tuesday , Thursday, and Saturday for at least several weeks, probably through the holiday season. Covid-19 restrictions have put the cables out of service indefinitely, but at least this is a way to… — Read More