Black Barrier-Breakers in San Francisco Transit

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.

Omnibus Railroad horsecar on Montgomery Street

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 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.

Audley Cole

After three months, with support from the ILWU and the general manager of Muni, he 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.

Maya Angelou

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 likely operated the 7-Haight and 5-McAllister lines (today’s 5-Fulton). Market Street Railway is proposing that Streetcar 798, of the type she worked on, be dedicated to her memory when it is restored (hopefully, to start later this year).

We salute all those who have stood up to racism, sexism, and discrimination in San Francisco’s transit industry…for more than 150 years!

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London Buses in SF: 1952

London RTL-type double-deck bus on Market Street at Eighth, 1952

The librarian for the San Francisco Chronicle, Bill Van Niekerken, comes up with some dandy articles by digging through the newspaper’s voluminous archives. Somehow, we missed this great story and photos, showing three double-deck London Transport buses coming to, and driving through, San Francisco on a cross-country British tourism promotion in 1952. The photo above shows one of the RTL-type buses (predecessor to London Transport’s famed Routemasters) on Market Street at Eighth, sharing the street with three “Iron Monster” Muni streetcars. The Whitcomb Hotel is on the left behind the bus, with the Fox Theater farther up the street on the right.

The London buses have New York bus license plates, as well as their own UK registration. And their roll signs read “GREETINGS FROM BRITAIN” in the square sign box, with “TO SAN FRANCISCO” in the rectangular box below. Presumably, that lower box could be changed to show whatever city they were currently visiting.

Because California’s overhead road clearances didn’t always anticipate vehicles this tall, they brought along telescoping poles that they could use to test the clearance before driving through. The photo below shows a tight squeeze going under the Southern Pacific Railroad trestle on El Camino Real in Colma. This is a particularly interesting photo. The old tracks for the 40-line interurban streetcar to San Mateo are still in place, and well south of the San Francisco city limits, we see a Muni White Company motor coach trailing the double-decker. That’s something of a mystery. During this period, Muni operated the developer-funded 76-Broadmoor line, connecting a new subdivision in Daly City to Muni lines in the city, but it never went this far south. (Maybe it was an escort vehicle, causing three steps behind the royalty of the double-decker.) There’s still a rail crossing at this point: BART, which took over the old SP right-of-way.

London double-decker squeezing under the Southern Pacific railroad trestle in Colma.

Muni did try out a double-decker bus at one point much later on, a demonstrator that didn’t catch on. For higher capacity, they chose articulated buses instead, or what the British, with their gift for great phrases, call “bendy-buses”.

And of course, double-deck buses are commonplace sights in San Francisco today, most of them open top tour buses. Tourists: don’t forget to come to the San Francisco Railway Museum to buy that sweatshirt that you DID forget at home! 🙂

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Decorated Cable Cars, Now and Then

‘Tis the season to show off holiday spirit in all kinds of ways. The San Francisco Chronicle is both reporting and demonstrating that spirit with our most iconic transit vehicles, the cable cars. You can see the publication’s handiwork on Powell Cable Car 1 (pictured in the photo by Val Lupiz above, complete with Victorian-costumed guests), one of eight cable cars decorated this year in a growing campaign led by Val, Jeremy Whiteman, and Frank Zepeda (MSR members all), and supported by Market Street Railway.

Leading the Powell Car 1 decorating for the Chronicle: columnists Heather Knight and Peter Hartlaub, who teamed up earlier this year for the transit marathon they called “total Muni 2018”, meeting Val, Jeremy, and Frank in the process and getting drawn in to the web of cable car love!  As a result, Powell Car 1 features inventive decorations inside and out, including replicas of historic Chronicle front pages dating all the way back to 1865, 23 years before the Powell cable even existed! Heather wrote a great article about the decorating experience.

Not to be outdone, Peter Hartlaub, who regularly mines the Chronicle’s photo and story archives for gems of San Francisco history, came up with a “WHOA!” story, recounting a little-known Grinch moment in cable car history. Christmas season, 1951, Muni had just assumed control of the bankrupt California Street Cable Railroad Company and its California and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde lines. Muni celebrated by inviting including Macy’s, to decorate cars on those lines. The Grinch glitch? The city’s ownership was challenged in court, keeping the decorated cars in the barn, never to be seen by the public, and delaying their city-run operation into 1952. Well worth a read!)

We can tell from the photo above, by the Chronicle’s Art Frisch, that the decorated cable car is from the O’Farrell, Jones, & Hyde lines, though the car number is covered up. Could it be Car 42? That’s the only surviving O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line car in its original 1906 configuration and livery, the one our nonprofit rescued from a cattle ranch near Santa Maria 15 years ago and restored with Muni’s expert help. It now runs in special service on California Street and sometimes Hyde, on part of its original route).

Macy’s sponsoring an O’Farrell car makes sense, since the O’Farrell line passed right in front of Macy’s…but it’s also ironic, since Macy’s was one of the downtown merchants that successfully lobbied to make O’Farrell one way a few years later, dooming the cable car line to make more room for automobiles.  (Here’s the story about the dark end of the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line in 1954.)

We at Market Street Railway are very proud to support the cable car celebrations. Beyond the decorating (which includes Powell Car 12 above, wearing the famed “White Front” 1930s livery of our namesake), we collected contributions to support this year’s holiday luncheon for seniors, co-sponsored by cable car operators and Transport Workers Local 250A (photo below).  

Come on downtown to see and ride the decorated cable cars this year, and don’t forget Car 56 on the California line, shown below in this magical nighttime photo by Traci Cox.  

Finally, along the F-line, look for Milan tram 1818, decorated in festive style by our volunteers, who also put wreaths on all the E- and F-line streetcars. (Yep, another great Traci Cox photo.)

If the holiday spirit moves you, please consider a tax-deductible year-end donation in any amount to our nonprofit. We get no government money; it’s your donations and memberships that make it all possible, along with everything else we do to support San Francisco’s cable cars and historic streetcars. Thanks and Happy Holidays, in the spirit of our namesake, Muni’s lively competitor before 1944!.

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Friday Fun and Fantasy

 

It’s amazing how Muni’s historic streetcar operation has garnered fans and created fantasies all over the world. The wonderful “fictional image” by artist Garry Luck above is an example. It came to our attention today as part of a post and comments in a Facebook group called Blackpool’s Transport Past. It’s a modification of an artist’s conception of a decapitated version of Blackpool, England “Coronation” Tram 663. (The name refers to their construction date, 1953, the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II). Below is another artist’s conception by Mr. Luck, which we have learned after first posting this, depicts the red livery of Prague.

 

The original Facebook poster of the photo, Philip Higgs, headed the preservation group Lancastrian Transport Trust, which acquired several cars from Blackpool Transport when that venerable operator greatly reduced its heritage fleet after acquiring modern trams (to their great credit, Blackpool Transport has reversed course and now offers vibrant heritage tram services much of the year).

Higgs writes in his post that in 2012, his group “was forced to reduce the size of its preserved vehicle collection and prior to Coronation 663 passing to a private owner for continued preservation, discussions took place with a USA based tramway operator to produce a semi open top car”.  Group member Alun Wylde then posted the green and cream photo as a comment, noting “Whilst the open top ruins the car, the Muni livery of green and cream wings quite suits it”.

We at Market Street Railway do not know who the “USA based tramway operator” was who had discussions about this Coronation tram. We don’t believe it was Muni. Mr. Higgs did not mention this concept to us two years later during our negotiations with him to purchase an actual original open-top boat tram (Car 233) from his group for preservation by Muni. Happily, Tram 663 was eventually transferred to the Blackpool Transport Trust, the nonprofit support group for Blackpool Transport, and is said to now be under restoration to its original appearance in England for eventual return to Blackpool’s rails. Here’s the story on that.

Here’s how the Coronations appear, as built. The glass skylight windows are cool, but if memory serves they can make the interior hot, even in seaside Blackpool. And the automatic controllers of these cars, known by the acronym VAMBAC, were notoriously unreliable in service.

As our regular reader/members know, acquiring a vintage streetcar and getting it roadworthy and maintainable in a modern US street operating environment is a protracted process.

In fact, we do not even start making a serious acquisition attempt until we have ascertained that Muni leadership will accept the streetcar and commit to its restoration and upkeep as resources allow (knowing that this sometimes takes many years). Once we have that assurance, we seek funding to cover acquisition and transport costs.

We specifically sought a second open-top boat tram because the first one we acquired for Muni in 1984, Car 228, has proven to be the most popular vehicle in Muni’s streetcar fleet whenever it appears on the street. Having a second genuine boat tram will ultimately allow reliable chartering and special operation of this car type regularly.

We were and are gratified that the Thoresen Foundation, responded positively to our outreach for funding for 233 with a generous grant and that FedEx helped underwrite shipping. (We detail this process because one commenter on the Blackpool group mused that we go off chasing streetcars whenever a “wealthy foundation” has an interest in a particular one. Uh, no.)

Boat Tram 233 has had all its electrical modifications completed, but now awaits truck work for regular operation. (It’s worth remembering that when transit agencies choose individual cars to retire from service, they naturally pick the ones that need work to stay in their own fleet.)  Muni has to fit in the work on 233 around regular maintenance and other historic car processes, so for now, the boat tram we acquired for Muni in 1984, No. 228, handles most appearances (although both were out for Heritage Weekend in September for the first time since 233’s initial display appearance in 2014, pictured below, 233 on the left).

We plan to work with Muni in the coming months to advocate for a schedule with more appearances during the good-weather months for the boats, which are the “people’s choice” as most popular cars in the historic fleet whenever they appear.

Meantime, that Wings fantasy livery…well, well…  🙂

 

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What a Weekend!

As you can see on our recap at the top of the main page, Muni Heritage Weekend was a real humdinger. What was especially great was the large number of families that came out to enjoy the vintage vehicles. SFMTA had some specific events to attract kids including cable car bell ringing practice with 10-time champion Carl Payne, design your own streetcar, and more. But the vehicles themselves are what the families loved. Here are some photos that show it.… — Read More

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“Coming to Town” Talk to Help Open Salesforce Transit Center August 11

  Lots of buzz about the new $2.1 Salesforce Transit Center holding its grand opening Saturday, August 11. For example, this story in the Examiner, worth a read for the historic context. Or this one, about the incredible park atop the terminal. Or this one, about the loonnng delay in getting train service (commuter and high-speed to LA) into the terminal  in the afternoon. But in this post, we’re inviting everyone to the new center’s bus deck at 1 pm… — Read More

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“The bell is charming; the horn works”

  The headline above is a great quote from a great story in Curbed SF about a dad and his two kids riding every Muni line terminal to terminal this summer. This installment includes the F-line where they rode the newest PCC to return to service following rebuilding, Car 1050 (pictured above in yet another calendar-worthy photo from Traci Cox). The author, Mc Allen, describes rolling along The Embarcadero on the “retro delight” PCC, “exceptionally maintained as rolling museums”. Along… — Read More

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Celebrating Dashiell Hammett’s 120th Birthday

Dashiell Hammett was born May 27, 1894. He essentially created the modern detective novel. His most famous fictional character was Sam Spade. To celebrate Hammett’s 120th birthday, and the enduring greatness of the Spade character, we’re providing a link to a Feature article that appeared nine years ago in our member newsletter, Inside Track. It tells the story of how Hammett wove his own rail riding experiences in San Francisco (both streetcars and cable cars) in to his novels. Check… — Read More

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Tipple Your Way Along the F-line

The Twin Peaks bar is right at the F-line Castro terminal. Photo (c) Elrond Lawrence. We’re not in the business of promoting booze, but San Francisco is, after all, a great drinking town, and if you’re going to do that, you need a designated driver. How about letting an F-line operator fill that role, by patronizing establishments along the route? Our friends at Thrillist have put together a list of bars and restaurants all along the F-line with dandy libations… — Read More

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Walgreen’s Invents New Transit Vehicle

Underneath the very intersection of historic transit in San Francisco, in the basement of the old Emporium (now a food court named — wait for it — the Food Emporium), is a shiny new Walgreen’s. Kind of a mini-Walgreen’s, actually. There are a couple of bigger ones within a block or two (are drug stores multiplying like Starbucks?) Anyway, just so you don’t think you’re dealing with some kind of national chain or anything, they’ve got a sign saying they’ve… — Read More

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New Field Guide to SF’s Historic Streetcars & Cable Cars

Market Street Railway is proud to announce the release of our new field guide to San Francisco’s historic streetcars and cable cars: ON TRACK. Written by Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher, this 128-page guide tells you the story of each vintage rail vehicle in Muni’s fleet, gives you riding tips, lists the historic sites you’ll pass on each route, and shares insider secrets for great walks that link to your historic ride. It’s full color and there are great… — Read More

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On the Good Ship Lollipop

Today, we bid a fond farewell to Shirley Temple Black, actress and diplomat, who passed away last night at her Peninsula home. She was 85. Shirley Temple is generally considered the most famous child star ever. In dozens of films during the 1930s, she lifted moviegoers’ spirits and touched their hearts with her upbeat persona and infectious dimpled smile. Some of her songs, such as “Good Ship Lollipop,” were hummed or whistled by people everywhere. In the depths of the… — Read More

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Our E-line Vision Gaining Attention

In the wake of several successful weekends of vintage streetcar service the length of The Embarcadero on the E-line, the Curbed website posted a story on our vision for an extended E-line service today. That, in turn, spawned a post on SFist. Curbed drew on the document we’ve been distributing around town, which you can download here. Recently restored E-line PCC streetcar No. 1008 switches off the F-line tracks onto the connector track that will take it the rest of… — Read More

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On the Line: Hard Water

We start a new feature today: fun places you can reach on Muni’s historic streetcar or cable car lines. Our first entry is Hard Water, the hot new whisky bar cum southern cooking temple that’s the brainchild of Charles Phan, proprietor of the famous Slanted Door. The whisky wall at Hard Water. Although Hard Water is just one F-line stop away from the Ferry Building’s Slanted Door, it’s a world away from Phan’s celebrated take on Vietnamese cuisine. The location… — Read More

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Learn How the F-line Started, At Our Museum

Thirty years ago this week, the first San Francisco Historic Trolley Festival kicked off, with then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein personally piloting historic Muni Car No. 1 from 17th Street and Market to East Bay Terminal. The festival was so successful, the mayor asked that it be repeated…and the F-line rapidly progressed from a dream to full-time reality. We recount that seminal event in a new exhibit at our San Francisco Railway Museum. And now there’s more opportunity to see it, because… — Read More

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