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.

MAKING A “B-LINE” TO DOWNTOWN — Muni “Iron Monster” Car 87 crosses Van Ness Avenue eastbound on the B-Geary line in 1956, passing the famous Tommy’s Joynt Hofbrau, which is offering “stuffed boneless squab chicken” inside, according to the banner. The top floors of the rickety Victorian structure would later be decapitated for safety reasons. Next door, the 1891 brick St. Mary’s Cathedral would burn in 1962 and be resurrected as a modernist concrete cathedral two blocks west. It was replaced by the television studios of KRON4, which in turn was torn down and replaced by a housing development in 2020. MSR Archive.

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 downtown, yet every attempt at a subway in the Geary corridor has fallen short. It’s a story of initial success for America’s first publicly owned transit system, a tale of betrayal by a mayor, tantalizing possibilities, and half-a-loaf solutions.

This is the story of Muni on Geary.

Muni’s roots were firmly planted on Geary. Its first ten streetcars headed west from the foot of Geary at 12:00 Noon, December 28, 1912, penetrating the Richmond District to reach its less-developed western section. Muni started with two lines on Geary: the A, which turned south at Tenth Avenue and ran to Golden Gate Park, and the B, which continued west to 33rd Avenue, and within a few months reached Ocean Beach by jogging south on 33rd, then running along Balboa, 45th, and Cabrillo. Muni’s tracks also reached the Ferry Building in 1913, making the B-line a true “Bay to Breakers” route.

FIRST RUN — Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph personally pilots the first streetcar on Geary Street, preserved Car 1, headed west crossing Jones Street, December 28, 1912. San Francisco Public Library.

But Muni didn’t stop there. Using its new tracks on Market and Geary, they created the C-line on California Street in 1915, branching off Geary at Second Avenue, running two blocks north, and then west to reach Lincoln Park at 33rd Avenue, taking over an expired United Railroads franchise. Muni had already opened its D-line a year earlier, turning north from Geary onto Van Ness Avenue, then west on Chestnut to reach the fairgrounds of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. After the fair, the D-line was rerouted to run on west from Van Ness on Union Street, with a couple of jogs to reach the Presidio.

Not only Muni’s first lines were on Geary; it’s nerve center was, too. Geary Car House, with Muni headquarters space later added on top, sat just about halfway between the Ferries and the Beach, at Geary and Presidio Avenue. The car house served more than just the four Geary lines. The cute “dinkies” of the E-Union line were tucked away downstairs on Presidio Avenue. A fleet of “battleships” or “boxcars” or “iron monsters”, as Muni’s original bulky streetcars were variously called over their lifespan, were housed under cover along the Geary frontage, also serving other lines as they opened, including the F-Stockton, J-Church, and N-Judah. Though a trolley coach division was added behind the car house in 1949, Muni’s top executives still worked, literally, right on top of streetcars.

NERVE CENTER – Geary car house in the early 1950s. “Iron monster” Car 53 has just pulled out for its day on the N-Judah line. MSR Archive.

The Richmond District was saturated with streetcar service. Besides Muni’s A, B, and C lines, its private competitor (known as Market Street Railway from 1921-1944) operated three lines that ran from the Ferry Building all the way to the ocean: the 5 on Fulton, and the 1 and 2 mostly on Clement. (Later in 1932, it built yet another line, the 31, on Balboa, the same year Muni killed off its little used A-line on 10th Avenue, which it had hoped to extend through Golden Gate Park to the Sunset District before being blocked by parks czar John McLaren.)

Despite all this competition, the centrality of Geary in the Richmond District, and its extra width from Geary Car House west, made the B Muni’s premier line. Geary was the Richmond’s prime shopping street, attracting customers from all over the city and beyond. East of the car house, Geary was narrow, making for a slower ride downtown.

As detailed below, two 1930s proposals to put the Geary streetcars in a subway downtown came to nothing, so the Geary lines kept operating as before with frequent and crowded service, riders boarding the big boxy streetcars at the rear, the conductor taking their five cent fare, the motorman concentrating on the safely operating the car.

ROOM TO RUN — Widening Geary in 1948 between Divisadero and Masonic. We’re looking west from Lyon Street at the new tracks and eastbound traffic lanes, while C-line Car 609 (ex-Market Street Railway 209) heads towards us on the old tracks. The big Sears store would later rise top left. SFMTA Archive.

Geary riders got a possible taste of the future in 1948, when the City widened Geary on the hill between Divisadero and Masonic, taking much of the land from the former Calvary Cemetery. Concrete boarding islands at stops were an upgrade from dodging autos to board streetcars at these stops. There was talk at the time of widening Geary farther east, but this would require tearing down or moving homes and dislocating people.

MODERN MEDIAN—Passengers wait at a new boarding island on the widened Geary median at Baker Street. This faster operation that could have easily been extended to the subsequent Geary Expressway, later built through the Western Addition. Clark Frazier photo, MSR Archive.

Financial squeeze

Meanwhile, by 1951, the City Charter requirement that all streetcars operate with crews of two was putting big financial pressure on Muni’s remaining car lines. Buses only required one operator, and Muni had already converted all the streetcar lines it inherited from our namesake, Market Street Railway Company. Four of Muni’s own streetcar lines, the D, E, F, and H, had also been newly “busified.” And by 1952, buses had even replaced streetcars nights and Sundays on all seven surviving streetcar lines (except the Market Street and Twin Peaks Tunnel section of the L). Many riders, accustomed to the streetcars, were unhappy, but Muni management, citing labor costs, felt they had no choice.

WHICH LINE IS IT ANYWAY?—Muni scheduled a few odd runs on Geary. Above, preserved Car 130 (still in Muni’s vintage fleet today!) is signed for the J-Church, and is turning around at 33rd and Geary to head inbound, one of a few J runs that followed this practice. Since they always used double-end cars, these runs could have headed straight downtown from the car barn. Judging from the sun, it’s midafternoon, and the J car’s extra trip on the B may have been as a “school tripper” for students from George Washington High, just off to the right. Below, a few N-Judah runs went all the way to Playland-at-the-Beach when they pulled out, switching back on the spur track to avoid waiting at the loop, then heading inbound all the way to East Bay Terminal before actually heading out the N, providing extra service to meet the big demand on Geary. Clark Frazier photos, MSR Archive.

Politicians and the public in that era were not accustomed to subsidizing mass transit. Muni was expected to “pay its way” through farebox revenues, and until that time, it had. But more and more lines were slipping into operating deficits. In the 1952-53 fiscal year, for example, Muni figures showed that the streetcar lines collectively lost almost half a million dollars, while the new trolley bus routes (all of which supplanted streetcars) made an operating profit of almost two million dollars. Of the seven streetcar lines, only the B and C made an operating profit. (The K and L, on the other hand, were the biggest losers in the entire Muni system.) And the B-bus, which operated nights and Sundays, made a significantly higher profit per operating hour than the B and C streetcars it replaced.

PCCs on the B—briefly

TORPEDO TEASE—For a brief time, Muni ran some of its double-end modern cars in regular service on the B-Geary, but only on Saturdays. Here’s “torpedo” PCC 1006 on 33rd Avenue bound for Playland-at-the-Beach around 1952. Philip Hoffman photo, MSR Archive.

Muni had only fifteen modern streetcars at this point, all double-ended: five so-called “Magic Carpet” streamliners bought in 1939, which looked like PCCs but with different technology, and ten true double-end PCCs bought in 1948, using some of the 1947 bond issue proceeds. The Geary lines required 75 streetcars for service, and the fast-accelerating modern cars didn’t mesh well with the traditional ones, though for a time, the modern cars were dispatched to the B on Saturdays, providing a tease of what might someday happen.

MAGIC CARPET RIDE—Along with “torpedos” 1006-1015, Muni sometimes dispatched its five 1939 PCC-look-alike “Magic Carpet” cars on the B-Geary on Saturdays. Here’s No. 1005 ready to depart East Bay Terminal, signed for the B, but wait… the paint scheme shows that the car has been single-ended, which happened after modern cars were pulled from Geary Saturday service. So this is probably a fantrip. Clark Frazier photo, MSR Archive.

But using the last of the 1947 bond issue funds, Muni was able to buy 25 more PCCs, single-ended and numbered 1016-1040. (These turned out to be the last PCCs ever built in North America. Thanks in part to MSR’s advocacy, Car 1040 has been fully restored and is a star of Muni’s heritage streetcar fleet. Six more “Baby Tens”, as the class was known, were purchased by Market Street Railway from museums and private owners over the last quarter-century and returned to Muni, where they are stored for future restoration as needed.)

Muni hoped to run these “Baby Tens” with a single operator, but voters said no in late 1951, so they were set up as two–operator cars. At first these cars were assigned to Geary Division, but not to the B-Geary line. Rather, they worked the K, L, and N lines.

As Muni’s first single–end streetcars, though, the “Baby Tens” had no way to turn around at Geary Car House. A track wye at Masonic and Geary that would have enabled that had been ripped out just three years earlier when Masonic Avenue was extended north from Geary to Euclid. So before going into service on one of the Market Street lines, these “Baby Tens” had to go all the way out to Ocean Beach on the B, take the terminal loop, and make a full trip inbound, signed “B-Geary/Bridge.” This gave some riders the belief that these fast, quiet cars were on their line to stay. A similar impression came from the double–ended PCCs that were occasionally assigned to Saturday runs on the B.

PEEKABOO — A “Baby Ten” PCC mixes in with the “Iron Monsters” at Geary Car House, January 1952, with holiday wreaths still in place. Fred Matthews photo, MSR Archive.

Not for long. By 1953, all 40 of Muni’s modern streetcars (35 PCCs and five “Magic Carpets”) were ensconced at Geneva Division, completely divorced from operation on Geary. Some speculate that this was part of a conscious plan to drive streetcars from Geary. But after the defeat of a bond issue in 1953 that might have resulted in more PCCs, Muni officials may have just concluded there was no near–term prospect of completely modernizing Geary streetcar service—the B and C required 75 cars between them. Besides, Muni’s existing modern cars were far more comfortable to ride through the tunnels than the drafty “Iron Monsters”, and faster too.

So Geary Car House was again home only to the old–style streetcars. Some of these cars were “only” 25 years old, and all had been kept in good shape. Muni installed doors on the formerly open ends of some of the old cars and upgraded them cosmetically as well. Muni management still hoped to win voter approval to operate its entire streetcar fleet with single–person crews, significantly cutting labor costs. But the carmen’s union was staunchly opposed to changing the status quo for the old cars. A compromise, finally approved by voters in 1954, allowed only newer–type streetcars to have single operators.

The PCCs were quickly converted to one–operator, and Muni began thinking about additional PCCs. But thinking didn’t translate into doing, as Muni did not have the capital to purchase any more modern streetcars at the time —or for that matter, new motor coaches either.

“Auto mania”

The early 1950s also saw “auto mania” reaching its peak in San Francisco. Many streets downtown were made one–way, including the pair that flanked Geary, Post and O’Farrell (dooming the inner end of the wonderful O’Farrell, Jones, and Hyde Street cable car line in the process). Big automobile garages were built for shoppers and commuters. Numerous proposed freeways slashed across planners’ maps. In this context, many thought the old–fashioned streetcars assigned to Geary looked more and more antiquated, almost like the cable cars on Powell.

“GREAT WIDE WAY” — Point Lobos Avenue was built as a wide boulevard west from Masonic Avenue and had its name changed to Geary Boulevard in 1911, as it was a direct extension of downtown’s Geary Street. Merchants on this part of Geary — we’re at 18th Avenue here — wanted the street widened further east as well in the 1950s — not to help the streetcars, which many of them undervalued, but to make a higher-capacity automobile connection with downtown. MSR Archive.

Certainly that belief was shared by many merchants on Geary Boulevard—the wide section of the thoroughfare running westward from Masonic Avenue through the Richmond. They were lobbying City Hall for a “Great Wide Way,” replacing streetcars with buses—and more parking for automobiles.

Planners who were eyeing the part of Geary between the Richmond and Downtown echoed this pro–auto sentiment. The Western Addition had been a vibrant community of Victorian homes before World War II. The section along Geary was populated mainly by Japanese–Americans. When World War II started, they were infamously hauled away to internment camps. African–American newcomers, who had come west to work in war industries, largely took their place in the neighborhood. By the mid–1950s, momentum was building to widen two-lane Geary between Gough and Divisadero, tearing down the old Victorians to gouge out a broad expressway that would get automobiles downtown more quickly.

But the streetcars were in the way. Certainly the tracks could be rebuilt—as they were in 1948 when Geary was widened between Masonic
and Divisadero. But, said the critics, it would be expensive, and why keep running those clunky old “trolley cars” anyway. (In the San Francisco of those days, “streetcar” had been the universally used term for the vehicles. Opponents began using “trolley cars” as an epithet to conjure up the slow and inefficient “Toonerville Trolley” of cartoon fame.)

HOLLOWED GROUND—The Geary Expressway included a two-block long underpass to separate automobiles from traffic on Fillmore Street. The ramp starts just to the left of this 1956 photo, looking east on the old Geary Street at Webster Street. The buildings on the left were all demolished for the Expressway, replaced in 1968 by Japan Center, as shown below in a 2019 Google StreetView shot. Clark Frazier photo, MSR Archive.

Subway dreams

One last factor in the mix: rapid transit. Rider demand was very high: except for Market Street, Geary was the busiest transit corridor in the City. While the western half of Geary was wide, the eastern half was narrow and congested. Muni’s first 43 streetcars were built narrower than usual, specifically for operation on Geary (though most were quickly switched to the original F-line on equally narrow Stockton Street when it opened).

The passenger volumes on the Geary lines were such that in 1931 City Engineer M. M. O’Shaughnessy proposed putting the streetcars in a subway under O’Farrell at least to Larkin Street. A consultant’s report in 1935 was even more ambitious, calling for a streetcar subway under Geary from Market all the way to Steiner Street. Both failed to gain approval. The second proposal, which included a Market Street subway as well, was resoundingly defeated by voters. Had the Geary subway been built—at a then–projected cost of $13 million—it might have forestalled the automobile expressway. But it was the depths of the Depression, and voters didn’t have the appetite for it.

THE BIG SQUEEZE—When Geary Street was two-way downtown, it was a squeeze for Muni’s full-width “Iron Monsters”. This problem was recognized as soon as the line opened in 1912, and repeated proposals for a subway beneath Geary followed. Here, C-line car 212 growls up the hill from Van Ness Avenue to Franklin Street in 1956. John Harder collection, MSR Archive.

By the mid–1950s, planning for what became the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) included a heavy–rail subway under Geary carrying regional trains from the East Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge and into Marin County. This raised the possibility of real rapid transit under Geary as far west as Park-Presidio Boulevard. But that initial proposal was a long way from reality.

The future of transit on Geary became an issue in the mayoral election of 1955. The winner, George Christopher, had pledged to keep streetcars on Geary at least until rapid transit could be built. About this time, a civic committee led by hotelier Ben Swig came up with a creative financing idea for Muni—lease vehicles instead of buying them. After a struggle, they found one bus builder (Mack) willing to go that route. But streetcars were something else. Many properties around the country were converting to buses, and there were PCCs in great condition available for sale in Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul, among other places—though not (at that time) for lease.

Goodbye, B

The combination of pressures—auto mania, the high labor cost of two–operator streetcars, the desire of planners to bulldoze the Western Addi-tion, and the promise of a subway—changed Christopher’s mind after he took office. Muni’s oldest streetcar corridor was doomed. Just before 1956 ended, so did the B and C lines. Railfans and many residents mourned to no avail. Geary was now served by the 38-line, operated by the new, leased, Mack diesel buses.

RAILS TO RUBBER — One of the sturdy Mack motor coaches that took over from streetcars on Geary in 1956, shown here westbound at Arguello Boulevard around 1968. Tom Gray photo, Cameron Beach Collection, MSR Archive.

Too little, too late

At just this juncture, Muni finally found some PCC streetcars it could afford. St. Louis Public Service, which was undergoing its own bus conversion, agreed to lease Muni 66 (ultimately 70) 1946–vintage PCCs. This gave Muni (barely) enough one–operator streetcars to retire all the remaining two–operator “boxcars” on the remaining five lines by 1958. But it wasn’t enough to save streetcars on Geary.

Soon after, “auto mania” subsided in San Francisco. Outraged by the ugly Embarcadero Freeway, which started going up just as the B was disappearing, and by proposals to cut freeways through Golden Gate Park, San Francisco’s “freeway revolt,” the first of its kind in the nation, lashed back at the “asphalt jungle”. However, with the increasingly powerful Redevelopment Agency as the spearhead, the Geary Expressway did get built in the early 1960s, at a cost of hundreds of homes and thousands of disrupted lives.

LAST FANTRIP—Above, the last PCC ever built in North America, Car 1040 carries a group of railfans onto Geary from Market for one last run on the B-line, December 30, 1956, one day after passenger service ended. Forty-four years and two days earlier, Car 1 inaugurated the very first Muni line just 100 feet west of this spot. Below, Car 1040 reaches the end of the line at Playland. If one-operator cars like Car 1040 could have been acquired in sufficient numbers and assigned to Geary in the early 1950s, the B-line might have been saved. But it wasn’t to be… Clark Frazier photos, MSR Archive.

Perhaps if the freeway revolt had occurred a few years sooner, perhaps if one–operator streetcars had been approved a few years sooner, perhaps if leased PCCs had been available a few years sooner… perhaps if these things had happened, the B might have survived as a streetcar line. But they didn’t happen. The view of the powerful interests that ruled San Francisco at the time was that streetcars were out of step with modern times. And so streetcars only survived where it was too difficult to replace them with buses: the tunnel lines (K, L, M, and N), and the J-Church, where neighbors rallied in defense of their preferred transit mode.

FAREWELL — the last regular passenger run of the B-Geary prepares to leave Playland, December 29, 1956. Jack Tillmany photo, MSR Archive.

What might yet be

Still, many hoped the 38-line bus would prove to be an interim operation. That original BART-proposed subway under Geary to reach and cross the Golden Gate Bridge died when Marin County pulled out of the district, but Muni then proposed its own heavy-rail subway under Post and Geary as far west as 40th Avenue as part of a rapid transit package put to San Francisco voters in 1966. Yet again, though, the voters said “no.”

VOTERS SAID NO — Muni’s 1966 proposal for a heavy-rail subway under Geary. MSR Archive.

Muni seriously proposed a Geary subway and light–rail line again in 1989 as part of a sales tax increase ballot measure. The measure (which also funded construction of the permanent F-line) called for detailed evaluation of two potential rail corridors — Geary and Third Street — but funding to build only one. Voters approved the measure, and the Muni planners of the day were counting on Geary being chosen to go forward, because the demand was so much greater.

But while Third Street businesses and residents lobbied hard for rail along the city’s east side, the reception by Geary businesses and residents was tepid at best, with significant opposition from the same Geary merchants who had lobbied decades earlier for the “Great Wide Way”. Third Street won out, and the Geary subway dream was deferred again.

Most recently, in 2003, possible rail service on Geary was again dangled before voters — sort of — in the form of Proposition K, a renewal of the earlier sales tax measure. It called for creation of “fast, frequent, and reliable bus rapid transit service, with exclusive transit lanes and dedicated stations, on Geary Boulevard (designed and built to rail-ready standards)”. But to planners, that didn’t mean installing tracks while the street was torn up (as Seattle did when it built a subway initially operated by trolley buses), or even installing underground conduit for future electrification. Without those things, converting to streetcar use would require ripping out all the pavement, sending the “rapid” buses back to the curb lane for the duration of the conversion process, which as we have learned on the current Van Ness BRT project, is anything but “rapid”.

Geary BRT –Approved design for Geary Bus Rapid Transit, looking west at 16th Avenue. San Francisco County Transportation Authority graphic.

On top of that, increasing cost estimates have forced numerous compromises and cutbacks in the Geary BRT project, such that the separated center-lane area is less than half of what was envisioned, stretching only from Stanyan Street to 27th Avenue, a distance of 1.75 miles, or about one-third of the 38-line’s route along the “Great Wide Way” of Geary Boulevard between 48th Avenue and Gough Street. The remainder of the route will operate in curb lanes, as now, though with some operating improvements for the buses. This seems to some knowledgeable observers like “half a loaf”, far less than should be warranted by the daily ridership on Geary, which at more than 50,000 people remains far and away Muni’s busiest line.

When you add the future funding and patronage uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to this compromised BRT project, resumed rail service on Geary might seem completely out of reach. But wait: BART is now studying a second Transbay Tube to meet what was fast-increasing demand. On the San Francisco side, support has been growing to run the BART line under — Geary!

Hope springs eternal.

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What might have been

Editor’s note: A version of this story, by the late Cameron Beach and MSR President Rick Laubscher, appeared in a 2003 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.

Van Ness Avenue hosted Muni streetcars until 1950. Bob McVay photo, Walter Rice Collection, MSR Archive.

Many streetcar fans believe it was all a plot by fiendish bus builders, tire makers, and fuel providers, forming an illegal conspiracy to rob America of its beloved streetcars after World War II. That conspiracy is why we have so few lines left in San Francisco, they say.

In that time period, so–called “rubber tire interests” did indeed form a company called National City Lines that went around the country buying up private streetcar companies and converting them to bus operation. The buses, tires, and fuel usually came from the companies that owned National City. One such property, in fact, was the East Bay’s Key System. But, even at the national level, this conspiracy theory leaves out lots of realities. Private transit operators failing financially, with no capital to replace worn–out streetcars and track. The baby boom, spurring the development of suburbs well beyond the reach of existing streetcar lines. The flat–out preference of most who could afford it for the automobile, especially after the sacrifices made during the war.

Some of these national factors did impact Bay Area transit. Other factors that shaped San Francisco’s streetcar story were unique.

The Stockton Tunnel was built in 1914 as part of Muni’s original F-line, which ran until 1951. Here’s Car , identical to preserved Car 1, headed for Chinatown shortly before the 30-Stockton trolley bus took over this route. Fred Matthews photo, MSR Archive.

San Francisco’s two major transit systems merged in 1944, when, after numerous failed attempts, voters finally approved a bond issue to allow publicly owned Muni to buy out the larger, private Market Street Railway Company (referred to here as “MSRy” to distinguish it from our organization, “MSR”). The strains of heavy wartime demand were apparent on the cars and tracks of both systems, especially MSRy, which had endured hard financial times well before the war and was not making any significant capital investments in its infrastructure.

As the war neared its end, the City’s transit system was falling apart. Muni owned only five modern streetcars, bought in 1939, out of a combined fleet of almost 500. Most of those cars were completely worn out, as was much of the track and overhead wire they ran on.

The Newton plan

The heavy lines show the streetcar lines that would have been retained under an ambitious 1945 plan by consultant Leonard Newton. Not shown is the 40- interurban line to San Mateo, which Newton also recommended keeping. Click to enlarge.

Muni management knew it needed to modernize once the war ended, so in early 1945, it commissioned a plan for postwar operation from consulting engineer Leonard Newton, a former vice president of MSRy. He understood the poor condition of the cars and track and recommended converting more than half the existing streetcar lines to trolley coach or motor coach operation, including the J-Church and M-Ocean View. However, he did advocate retaining thirteen streetcar routes and reequipping them with modern “PCC” type streamline streetcars (as now run on the F-line). These included eight Muni lines: the B, C, and D, which used Geary, the K, L, and N, which all used tunnels too small for buses, the F-Stockton and the H-Van Ness. Also included were six ex–Market Street Railway lines: 3-Jackson, 4-Sutter, 7-Haight (rerouted via the Sunset Tunnel), 14-Mission, the inner section of the 17-Haight/Parkside line, and the 40 interurban line to San Mateo. All in all, Newton recommended buying 313 new PCC streetcars, which would have been a huge order.

However, while Newton’s report laid out the costs of buying the new vehicles and reconstructing the track, it did not include operating costs, a critical omission. As he predicted in his plan, the end of gasoline rationing sent many Muni riders back to their automobiles again. Even with a fare increase, Muni’s finances were rapidly deteriorating at a time when transit systems were still expected to make a profit.

Two–person crews

San Francisco required crews of two on streetcars and cable cars, though only one on buses. With the merger, Muni now had two powerful operator’s unions to deal with: its own and the one that still represented ex–MSRy motormen and conductors. Both unions were staunchly opposed to reducing crew size, which would have required a City Charter amendment approved by the voters in any event. So Newton repeatedly stated in his report that the new PCCs would be modified for operation by two–person crews, even though a major reason the transit industry designed the PCC in the first place, some ten years earlier, was to cut labor costs in half by only requiring a single operator per car.

Muni’s “torpedoes” never were assigned to regular service on lines where modern equipment might have helped preserve streetcar service, but they did run some routes as charters, giving a taste of “what might have been.” MSR Director Emeritus Walt Vielbaum went along on some of these special charters, and took these great shots. Here, Car 1006 leaves the Stockton Tunnel on the last day of streetcar operation on the F in January 1951. Note the outbound White model 798 gasoline bus with the F designation in the rear window. Courtesy Walt Vielbaum.

Two years after Newton’s plan came out, the City worked up another plan in conjunction with a $20 million bond issue to modernize Muni. By this time, the proposed vehicle mix had tilted sharply toward buses. The labor cost differential clearly played a major part. The bond issue passed, but the money was almost all spent on hundreds of new trolley coaches and motor coaches used to convert former streetcar lines. Had there been enough money right after the war to buy a full fleet of PCC cars, at least for the core streetcar lines, the public might have embraced their comfort and speed and insisted on retention of more streetcar lines. However, with two–man PCC streetcars costing double the operating cost of a one–driver bus of similar capacity, there was no management incentive to buy large numbers of new streetcars.

What the public saw instead at the end of the 1940s was a fleet of new trolley coaches and motor coaches with upholstered seats and effective heaters running on smoothly repaved streets, replacing noisy, drafty, old streetcars with hard seats often bouncing along on bad track.

A few new streetcars

Muni did manage to find enough money from another source to buy ten modern streetcars, its first true PCCs, in 1948. These cars, numbered 1006-1015, were double–ended and set up for two–person crews. (Thanks in large part to persistent advocacy by MSR, seven of these cars, which later came to be known as “torpedoes” for their shape, were preserved, then fully restored, and are in Muni’s vintage streetcar fleet today.)

Here’s No. 1006 on the H-line, inbound on Van Ness Avenue at Jackson, on a 1951 fan trip. Washington-Jackson cable car No. 509, bedecked with a Red Cross blood bank promotion, is headed toward Pacific Heights. This wonderful cable line was destroyed a few years later when the cable car system was severely cut back. Courtesy Walt Vielbaum.

Added to the five 1939 “Magic Carpet” cars, which were almost identical in appearance, Muni now had fifteen modern cars. Had they been deployed strategically on a line where it was not final whether streetcars would stay or go, they might have made a difference. Instead, however, in that critical period from 1948-1951, the modern cars were concentrated on two tunnel lines, the L and N, neither of which was in danger of conversion. In fact, the original destination signs of the 1948 double-enders indicate that decisions had already effectively been made. Though the D-Van Ness, F-Stockton, and H-Potrero all were recommended for continued streetcar service in the Newton Plan, and lasted into 1950 or 1951, none of those routes appears on the original 1948 roll signs of the “torpedoes”.

Some elements of the Newton plan had, by this time, been put into effect. The F-Stockton line (today’s 30-line trolley bus), which ran from the Marina through North Beach and Chinatown, reaching downtown through the Stockton tunnel, was connected to old MSRy tracks at Fourth and Market
to reach the Southern Pacific train depot, then at Third and Townsend Streets, but still using the original narrow 1912 Muni A-type” streetcars (including at times, preserved Car 1). The H-Van Ness line, which ran from Fort Mason south on Van Ness, 11th Street and Potrero Avenue to Army Street, was tied in there to the old Market Street Railway 25-line on San Bruno Avenue to reach all the way to Visitacion Valley.

Streetcars slip away on the F and H

In the various plans coming forth right after the war, the F and H lines were generally marked for retention; thus the investment in the extensions. But most of the original H-line route, on Van Ness and Potrero, was also US 101, and the State Division of Highways had a big say in what happened on those streets. With plans being made for heavy residential development in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge, it seemed certain that automobile demands on Van Ness would increase rapidly. Some grumbled that streetcars stopping frequently in the “fast” lane of the broad street would hold up automobiles. Running the modern streetcars on Van Ness might have counteracted this pressure somewhat, but there was resistance in Muni to using its newest cars on the beat up track on the outer end of the ex–MSRy route along San Bruno Avenue.

This shot, from a 1948 charter, shows Car 1015 headed downtown on the former MSRy 1-line on California Street at Presidio Avenue, about to jog over to Sutter. It’s passing a California Street Cable Railway car changing ends opposite the Jewish Community Center. There had been talk early of saving two Sutter lines (the 3 and 4) as streetcars, but the 1-line was always slated for bus conversion. Courtesy Walt Vielbaum.

The F-Stockton posed a different problem. Muni’s new streetcars were wide, but the F-line used Muni’s oldest “A-type” cars because they were also its narrowest, and could more easily squeeze past the delivery trucks on the commercial streets that made up most of the route. Trolley coaches, not stuck on rails, could at least swing around traffic that got in their way, and on Stockton Street, especially in Chinatown, that came to be seen as an appealing alternative, especially when F-line riders were still using 1912–vintage streetcars.

Streetcars saved on the J and M

The Muni had enough trolley coaches to convert the F-Stockton because it had been foiled in its plans to create the 46-Church trolley coach line. The J-line streetcar ran (and still runs) on a scenic private right–of–way to negotiate steep Dolores Heights, but it didn’t have any tunnels such as were protecting other lines’ streetcars. J-line ridership was lower than either the F or H and trolley coaches could easily handle the grades involved. But J-line riders in Noe Valley—and politicians who lived nearby—raised a fuss, and the streetcars were saved, making the replacement trolley coaches available for other conversions. Surprisingly to many riders today, the M-Ocean View was slated for bus conversion as well. Built in 1925, it ran through wide–open spaces on 19th Avenue that proved slower than expected to develop. But right after the war, the development of the Parkmerced apartment complex next to the M-line made planners think twice about dumping it. So did a 1948 plan by engineering firm DeLeuw Cather that recommended the M-line right of way as a rapid transit line (a proposal made again in conjunction with BART in the 1960s). The stunning aspect of that plan, however, was a grid of freeways beyond even what the State later proposed (and which caused the historic “freeway revolt” of the late 1950s and 1960s). The car was queen in this plan; surface transit the ugly stepchild.

Brand new Muni double-end PCC 1015 at the rustic terminal of the D and E lines inside the Presidio on a 1948 fantrip. Early postwar plans called for Union Street to be dual-mode. The E-line streetcars had been slated for conversion to trolley bus even before the war, but Muni couldn’t get the vehicles. But the D-line, which shared Union with the E, then followed Van Ness and Geary downtown, was recommended in the Newton plan to stay a streetcar operation. Trolley buses and streetcars shared Union for a short time until the D became the 45-line bus. Courtesy Walt Vielbaum.

Looking back, there were many factors combining to truncate San Francisco’s streetcar system after World War II. But the requirement for two crew members, even on modern streetcars, clearly played a dominant role. In a 1949 report on the Muni to the Board of Supervisors, consulting engineer Arthur Jenkins noted,“Almost every city in the country that still continues to operate streetcar service uses one–man cars with the notable exception of San Francisco.” He went on to state “it has been generally true throughout the industry that use of one–man cars has not been adopted primarily as a means of increasing profits to owners, but as a means of remaining in business at all.”

But rail restoration dreams have never died, and there have been successes, most notably with the T-line from Visitacion Valley to downtown, which opened in 2007, running mostly along the old 16-line MSRy route along Third Street. Its original downtown alignment was to continue under Third and Kearny Streets to reach downtown and Chinatown (as the 16-line did on the surface). Instead, it was shifted westward to run under Fourth and Stockton Streets, like the final alignment of Muni’s old F-Stockton line. (The T-line is still running on a temporary alignment through the Market Street Subway pending the completion of that Central Subway, now predicted by the end of 2021.)

Other rail dreams have not been realized, though. Restoring rail service to Van Ness Avenue, for example, either in a subway or on the surface, gave way to a drawn-out bus rapid transit project, still under construction in late 2020. The biggest rail restoration dream of all, along Geary, also seems dead, as that corridor moves fitfully toward bus rapid transit as well. Our next post will look at the 1950s fight to the death over the Geary streetcar lines, and examine the attempts to bring rail back there.

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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

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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 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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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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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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Streetcars in the Sunset

When one thinks of San Francisco’s Sunset District, the image of fog, cold salty winds, and sand dunes comes to mind. People have aptly developed their perceptions of this part of San Francisco. While it might be sunny and warm in the Mission District, the Sunset often shivers under a blanket of fog with a biting wind off the ocean and a temperature fifteen degrees lower. The Sunset, west of Twin Peaks and south of Golden Gate Park, is geographically… — 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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107 Years Ago Today

On December 28, 1912, ten shiny gray streetcars with brick-red roofs lined up on Geary Street, from Kearny Street to Grant Avenue. The first, Numbered 1 in gold leaf outlined in black, opened its black scissor gate. Up stepped the Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco, James Rolph, Jr. From his pocket, he took a Liberty Head nickel, with a large “V” on the back (people knew back then that was the roman numeral for “five”). He… — Read More

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Happy Centennial of a Big Global Streetcar Event

Today is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board (M&MTB), whose history is wonderfully summarized in the quoted sections below, which were originally posted on Facebook by the group Australian Rail Maps, which also provided the historic photo from 1991 above. The M&MTB built both of Muni’s W-class trams: W2 496 in 1929, and SW6 916 in 1946. (Muni also has W2 586, built in 1930, complete and in storage.) W-class trams are generally… — Read More

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Flashback to 1906 on June 26

In the latest installment of Market Street Railway’s series of history talks, called Inside Track Live, you’ll be able to see the famous 1906 Miles Brothers film, “A Trip Down Market Street”, as you’ve never seen it before. On Wednesday, June 26 at 6 p.m., at our San Francisco Railway Museum, MSR President Rick Laubscher will present the highest-quality transfer of this precious film ever made, showing a 12-minute ride from Eighth Street to the Ferry along Market Street, shot… — Read More

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