Happy Centennial to One “L” of a Streetcar Line

The first L-line streetcars to reach the Beach were the “dinkies” bought for the E-Union line across town, shuttling only between West Portal and the sand dunes of outer Taraval. MSR Archive

On April 12, 1919, the first L-Taraval streetcar hit the rails, overcoming obstacles to begin a century of service that continues today.

The Twin Peaks Tunnel had opened fourteen months before, bringing fast streetcar service from downtown to the nearly empty southwestern quadrant of the city. Initially, there was just one line, the K, but property owners in the areas above and west of the tunnel, who had paid for its construction, expected – and demanded – more. So, Muni negotiated with the private United Railroads to share the tracks of URR’s little used Parkside line on Taraval Street between 20thand 33rdAvenues. URR wanted the city to share the Twin Peaks Tunnel in return for sharing this track and Ocean Avenue track for the K, line but the city refused and paid cash for the rights instead. Muni then laid tracks from West Portal via Ulloa Street, 15thAvenue, and Taraval to connect to the Parkside line tracks, allowing the L to open as far west as 33rd Avenue.

There was little development west of Twin Peaks in April 1919. United Railroads, by far the dominant transit company compared to the 6-year old Muni, did run downtown from the area, but by slow surface streets (Ocean Avenue and Mission to the south, 20th Avenue and Haight to the north), making it faster for downtown workers to take ferries from Oakland than to take the long way around Twin Peaks by streetcar. At first, the L streetcars stopped at West Portal, where riders had to transfer to K-line streetcars to . go through the tunnel and along Market Street. Muni used its full-sized streetcars for the L-line shuttles at first, but as soon as smaller “dinky” single-truck cars were delivered for Muni’s hill-climbing Union Street line in 1922, a few of them were dispatched to the L, where they were big enough to handle the still-sparse ridership.

By early 1923, the L-line tracks reached Ocean Beach across the sand dunes and by the end of that year, the shuttle was replaced by service through the tunnel to the Ferry Loop, using full-size streetcars. The Twin Peaks Tunnel service significantly accelerated the development of blocks along the new, fast streetcar lines, while blocks deeper in the central Sunset District languished as sand dunes, with only the odd house here or there. In 1928, the Muni matched the L-line on the northern edge of the Sunset by building the Sunset Tunnel under Buena Vista Park and opening the N-Judah line.

In 1937, Muni took advantage of federal funding through the Works Progress Administration to extend the L line south from 46thAvenue and Taraval to Wawona Street, very close to the popular zoo and Fleishhacker swimming pool, heightening competition with the competitor’s 12-line on Sloat Boulevard.

When Muni got its first five modern streetcars in 1939, they often dispatched them on the L-line (shown here at 22nd Avenue and Taraval on April 24, 1940). These cars, known as “Magic Carpets” because of their smooth ride, were the precursors of the PCC streetcars that later took over all Muni service and still run on the E and F lines today. SFTMA Archive
By 1938, the L-line (yellow line near bottom) had brought full development to Taraval Street and surrounding blocks between 21st and 29th Avenues, as shown in this aerial photograph, while blocks to the north, further removed from the fast streetcar service, were slower to develop. Harrison Ryker photograph, David Rumsey Collection.

Muni took over its competitor (renamed Market Street Railway in 1921) during World War II. The 12-line on Sloat Boulevard was included in the purchase. It featured a private right-of-way in the middle of that broad roadway, and could have been used as a tool to spur higher-density residential development on that corridor, if only the Sloat tracks had been connected at St. Francis Circle to use the Twin Peaks Tunnel. (The giant Parkmerced development at the south end of 19th Avenue, and the nearby Stonestown shopping center, which both arose after the war, benefitted from Muni’s adjacent M-Ocean View line, which used the tunnel, but had been little used after it opened in 1925 and had even been shut down for a time for lack of ridership.)

“Magic Carpet” Car 1001 has just turned from Ulloa Street into the Twin Peaks Tunnel on its L-line run around 1950, meeting an old-fashioned “Iron Monster” on the M-line. Both streetcars required two operators at that time by city ordinance, although the Magic Carpets were designed to be operable by a single operator, and were converted when voters allowed one-operator streetcars in 1954, likely saving the remaining streetcar lines. Robert McVay photo, Walter Rice Collection, MSR Archive

One factor that weighed against Muni keeping more streetcar lines in that period was rising labor costs. San Francisco voters had mandated two operators for each streetcar, although only one for a bus. This caused Muni to substitute buses for the outer ends of the K and L lines on nights and Sundays in the early 1950s, and studies were done to see if it was feasible to convert the Twin Peaks Tunnel to bus operation. (It wasn’t: too narrow.) Approval of single-operator streetcars in 1954 ended this existential threat to the L-line, and it has been an enduring part of Muni’s streetcar network ever since, converting to light rail vehicles in the early 1980s when the Twin Peaks Tunnel was connected to the new Muni Metro subway under Market Street.

PCC Streetcar 1039 leaves the L-line zoo terminal at 46th Avenue and Wawona Street shortly before modern LRVs took over the L-line in the early 1980s. The delay in opening the Market Street Subway meant the PCCs had to soldier on longer than intended, getting quite beat up. This particular car is one that Market Street Railway bought back from a museum, returning it to Muni, where it is stored for future restoration. George Locke photo, MSR Archive

More recently, Muni has moved to improve safety on Taraval Street by building boarding islands for L-line trains, and has shortened L-line trips by reducing the number of stops on Taraval.

Today, the Parkside District is a vibrant, diverse neighborhood made possible, and still kept moving, by the L-Taraval. Muni is planning various centennial events, which we will keep you informed of here. SFMTA’s Jeremy Menzies has dug into the archives for a great story, and the Examiner has a nice tribute to the L-line here.

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Thank a Muni Operator Today

Today is Transit Drivers’ Appreciation Day. It’s a hard job, and it has gotten harder over the past decade with the increase in traffic on our streets. Muni has painted more “red carpet” lanes for their vehicles’ (and taxis’) exclusive use, but many automobile drivers ignore them.

If you have a favorite SFMTA operator, one you think provides good service and makes your day a little easier, fill out a commendation form. It just takes a couple of minutes. Or when you exit a Muni vehicle today (or any day), just share a simple “thanks”.

As for the photo above, we borrowed it (with permission) from Muni’s Twitter Feed. That’s Mike Delia on an F-line PCC at the Castro and 17th Street terminal. Hat’s off to Mike and all other Muni operators who provide safe service to their 720,000 daily riders.

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Hear Mayor Art Agnos’ Inside Stories of Embarcadero Transformation March 21

Nothing has improved San Francisco more in the past 30 years than the transformation of its waterfront boulevard, The Embarcadero. The city’s mayor at the time, Art Agnos, bucked some strong special interests to achieve the removal of the double-deck Embarcadero Freeway in front of the Ferry Building, replacing it with a surface roadway, pedestrian promenade, and — of course — streetcar tracks.

Earthquake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway, 1990

Mayor Agnos was aided in all this by his deputy mayor for transportation, the late Doug Wright (who was serving as Market Street Railway’s board chair at the time of his death in 2014). Art Agnos will share inside stories of how he and Doug got all those things done — including making sure the tracks were laid for the future E-line — at the next edition of Inside Track Live at our San Francisco Railway Museum, 77 Steuart Street (across from the Ferry Building) on Thursday, March 21, from 6 to 7 p.m.

Today’s Ferry Plaza

Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher, who was active in advocating for the waterfront improvements, will converse with Mayor Agnos and moderate questions from the audience.

The Embarcadero is part of Art Agnos’ legacy

This special event is free for Market Street Railway members. We request that nonmembers donate $5 at the door to support our mission of preserving historic transit in San Francisco. Attendance is limited to 50 people. Please join us!

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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

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… — Read More

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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… — Read More

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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… — Read More

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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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