Play Ball…the Muni way!

Today is Opening Day at home for the San Francisco Giants, the first time in 18 months they’ll play in front of fans at Oracle Park. Often, sporting events like this feature a live band, though we’re probably not far enough in our reopening for that. But we can look back to such days, not just for the Giants, but for another San Francisco institution: Muni.

You might call this a double-header: band and ball team all in one shot. We got this photo from member Mike Parkinson. It’s dated February 2, 1930, and we like to think it demonstrates team spirit. Check out the detail by clicking on the photo above and looking at the crops below.

First off, the obvious: all men, and all white as well — the City was indeed discriminatory in its hiring practices 90 years ago, as we’ve discussed here before. We wish we knew more details about the band and the ball club. Who did the team play, for example? Were there grudge matches against Rec & Park, which kept Muni streetcars from crossing Golden Gate Park? Was there a District Attorney’s team, and if so did they prosecute stolen bases? Did the band ever “mount up” on Work Car C-1 and tour the town as “Musicians in Motion”?

For this post, we’ll just focus on style. The ball players look natty in those dark unis with the white pinstripes. But wait, there’s more than one uniform type.

The player lower center has this cool diagonal script thing going on his jersey, plus the interlocked “SF” on his sleeve; quite a style step up from the arched block letters on the “base” jerseys. And what else do we spy?

Yes, indeed, the famed “O’Shaughnessy logo”, supposedly designed by legendary City Engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy to symbolize the first big-city transit system owned by the people themselves: Muni. By this time the logo was placed on all new equipment Muni bought but was not yet universal around the system. An “alternate jersey” three-quarters of a century before Major League Baseball embraced the idea.

The logo also appears on the band hats. It looks like these are enamel pins; very stylish. Coincidentally, we offer these enamel logo pins in our online store, though we never knew before now that there was an actual prototype for them. For that matter, we don’t know whether the band played at the team’s games, either. But it’s cool to see this pride in the workplace. (By the way, you can get your O’Shaughnessy fix in a number of ways with us.)

Good luck to the Giants this season, and equally good luck to Muni. They had an extremely challenging “season” last year, but through the determination and hard work of their team, both the front line “players” and the “coaches” (pun intended) that kept moving San Franciscans on essential missions, they have emerged as winners in our book. With the best yet to come: F-line historic streetcar service slated to resume next month, and cable cars later in the year!

Play ball!

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Powerhouse goes to the dogs (and cats)!

Image from Instagram, San Francisco Animal Care & Control.
Bryant and Alameda Street Powerhouse, 1904. John Henry Mentz photo, SFMTA Archive.

Another artifact of San Francisco’s transit history has gained new life for a worthy cause. The Market Street Railway Company powerhouse at Bryant and Alameda Streets in the Mission District, build in 1893 and expanded in 1902, opened on March 8 as the city’s new Animal Care & Control Center.

The $76 million project retained the building’s historic brick facade and industrial wood windows, but completely gutted the interior to provide state-of-the-art facilities, including a roof run for animals and an open courtyard to provide them (and the humans involved) with fresh air. The city agency takes in around 10,000 domestic and wild animals every year and operates an extensive adoption program for rescued dogs, cats, and other small animals.

Tank Car 0201 transports fuel oil along a spur track on Alameda Street to fill the big oil tank that fueled the original steam generators in the Bryant Street powerhouse, about 1903. This unique streetcar survived into the Muni era, finishing its career by spraying weed-killer on the M-Ocean View line right-of-way. John Henry Mentz photo, SFMTA Archive.

The Bryant Street Powerhouse originally used fuel oil to generate steam that powered the generators. When completed, it was one of the largest electrical generating facilities in the United States. Back on line quickly after the 1906 earthquake, it supplied the city’s surviving downtown buildings, as well as streetcar lines, with power for a time.

Engine Room at the Bryant Street powerhouse, November 9, 1906. SFMTA Archive

The powerhouse was fitted with updated equipment in 1911, which lasted for decades, but it became less central to the transit company’s operations as newer power facilities went up around town. Iconic newer buildings surrounded it: Seals Stadium just one half-block south and the Rainier (later Hamm’s) Brewery across Bryant Street.

Looking northeast from Bryant and Alameda Streets at the Powerhouse, 1942. Market Street Railway’s 25 and 27 lines ran along Bryant. A spur track runs east on Alameda serving an equipment yard a block away. Horace Chaffee photo, SFMTA Archive.

In 1944, Muni took over the building as part of its acquisition of private competitor, Market Street Railway. The power substation soldiered on with its obsolete equipment until 1980, when Muni installed a solid state rectifier in a new building next door where the oil tank pictured above was. (Muni continues to use that power substation.) The old Bryant Street powerhouse hosted Muni’s Overhead Lines Department for the following decades, the building becoming increasingly decrepit.

Muni’s Overhead Lines Department replacing power feeder cables emanating from the Bryant Street powerhouse, November 5, 1951. The Marmon-Herrington trolley coach on the 47 Potrero line is identical to Coach 776, preserved by our nonprofit for Muni. Marshall Moxom photo, SFMTA Archive.

By the mid-2010s, the building had long been stripped of its magnificent electrical equipment. Modern solid-state substations, like Muni’s next-door replacement, were far more compact. (The Bryant facility covers an entire city block.) It provided a poor working environment for the Overhead Lines Department and was really a white elephant for Muni.

The antiquated power equipment was still in use in 1979. SFMTA Archive.

The agencies involved addressed the problem by exchanging one white elephant for another, swapping the Bryant Street building for the existing Animal Control & Care facility, nearby on 15th Street. That 1931 warehouse facility lacked adequate space for the animals, staff, and volunteers and did not meet current seismic and safety codes. The Overhead Lines Department has been relocated to another facility in the Bayview District; no plans for the old animal care facility have been announced.

Above, open courtyard inside the old Bryant Street powerhouse, with room for animals to exercise. Below, the entrance to the new facility. Courtesy photos.

The successful reuse of the Bryant Street Powerhouse, coupled with the recent opening of the Excelsior District community and arts center in the old Geneva Avenue Powerhouse, leaves only one major power facility from the old Market Street Railway days unrestored and unused: the Turk and Fillmore Powerhouse, an iconic landmark in its neighborhood, still sadly neglected. We’ll write about it in the future.

And since you’ve read down this far, here’s another cute photo from SF Animal Care’s Instagram account to see you off. That’s what a lot of you were scrolling down for, right?

You’re welcome!

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Chronicle, 1947: cable cars ‘surely dead’

Photo from the Chronicle in 1947 showing one of Muni’s ten new “hill-climbing Twin Coaches”, bought to replace the Powell cable cars, inexplicably posed next to a California Street cable car, which Muni didn’t own at that time and wasn’t threatened. (Muni later bought 90 trolley coaches from Twin in this body style, which were familiar sights around town for a quarter-century.)

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.)

January 29, 1947 front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, with its premature obituary for the cable cars. Click image to enlarge.

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.

Hartlaub’s Chronicle article includes this wonderful photo taken at Jackson and Octavia Streets, indicating it appeared in the newspaper November 10, 1947. But that doesn’t jibe with the headlight style and lettering on the cable car, which suggest some time between 1953 and 1956. In any case, it’s ironic for this photo in Pacific Heights to illustrate the Chronicle story, since the wonderful Washington-Jackson line was ripped out after Cable Car War II in 1954 cut the system in half. Just for fun, here’s the same intersection today. This block of Octavia is still brick. The apartment building is little changed. The white mansion, built in 1913 for “Big Alma” Spreckels, is now owned by novelist Danielle Steele and sports a giant privacy hedge all the way round. But no more Washington-Jackson cable car.

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).

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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 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.

Audley Cole

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.

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 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!

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What might have been: Geary

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

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The Castro’s rich transit history

Cable cars on Castro? An ‘elevated’ railway at Harvey Milk Plaza? Four streetcar tracks on Market? It’s all part of the transit history in a San Francisco neighborhood that has truly seen it all over the years. What the heck is a steam dummy? That’s one, right there, on Market at Castro in the 1880s, looking north from where the Chevron station is now. The little box on the right, called the dummy, holds a steam engine and the operator.… — Read More

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Cool backdrops let you Zoom into history

The Zoom app, an obscure business conferencing tool just a few months ago, is suddenly the star and salvation of the shut-down world, with millions of people jumping on to videochat with friends and family. Zoom offers the option of putting an electronic backdrop behind you, and offers some stock scenics. But you can also upload your own, which gave the archives and communications staffs at SFMTA a great idea. We love it! There are samples above and below. Here’s… — Read More

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Two Great Streetcar Stories

Muni’s historic streetcars, and the people who love them, keep gaining media attention, both in their hometown, and far afield. For your Thanksgiving weekend reading pleasure, we’re sharing two stories from the San Francisco Chronicle, and its associated website, sfgate.com. Both stories show how the historic streetcars continue to attract new generations of fans, thanks in part to Market Street Railway’s continuing efforts aimed at exactly that goal. It’s a core part of our mission to keep the past present… — Read More

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Showing Transit Pride

Check out this article in the San Francisco Examiner by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez about this Pride Month initiative taken on a personal basis by our board member, Chris Arvin. Chris’ design work is on display on our website in the engaging streetcar icons featured on the live streetcar map designed by fellow board member Kat Siegal. We offer stickers of those icons at our San Francisco Railway Museum and online store. A wide variety of Pride-related items, including tee shirts… — Read More

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One “L” of a Streetcar Line

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… — Read More

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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… — Read More

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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. Mayor Agnos was aided in all this by his deputy mayor for transportation, the late Doug Wright… — Read More

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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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