Black Barrier-Breakers in San Francisco Transit

In recent decades, memorable African-American leaders have made history in San Francisco transit. There’s Curtis E. Green, Sr., the first black general manager of a major US transit agency. H. Welton Flynn, first black San Francisco City Commissioner, and leader of Muni’s governing boards for many years. Larry Martin, a powerful and persuasive head of Muni’s operators’ union.

For this year’s Black History Month, we’ll reach back further in time, to highlight three women and one man who broke barriers in transit.

Charlotte Brown and Mary Ellen Pleasant: In April 1863, Charlotte Brown boarded a horse-drawn streetcar run by the Omnibus Railroad Company. The operator told her she wasn’t allowed to ride because she was Black. She told him she had always ridden the streetcars and was very late to her appointment. When a white woman on board complained about her presence, the operator physically removed Charlotte from the car.

Omnibus Railroad horsecar on Montgomery Street

She brought Omnibus Railroad Co. to court – twice – and won. It was a huge victory, happening just after black people were allowed to testify against whites in court. Another Civil Rights pioneer, the noted African-American entrepreneur Mary Ellen Pleasant, had the same experience in 1866, before the earlier suits were finally adjudicated. Pleasant successfully challenged streetcar segregation all the way to the California Supreme Court and won. These women changed California history, some 90 years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and changed national history.

Audley Cole: Audley was the first black operator ever hired by Muni, in 1941. He passed the civil service examination by leaving his race off the form. After he was hired, white operators refused to give him the training necessary to start work. Fourteen operators decided to be suspended rather than train him, and the operators’ union threatened a $100 fine against any operator who trained him. The one white man who tried to train him was beaten so severely he was hospitalized.

Audley Cole

After three months, with support from the ILWU and the general manager of Muni, he finally received training directly from the head of Muni’s training department. At Muni, he fought for fairer treatment for future black employees. 3 years later, there were nearly 100 black employees at Muni. “Civil service is dedicated to fair play,” said Cole. “It’s a job for which I have qualified and I want it. I’m going to get it.”

Maya Angelou: Now remembered as a famed author and poet, Maya Angelou’s first job – in 1943, when she was 16 – was as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She wanted the job initially, she said, because she “liked the uniforms.” When she tried to apply, no one at the Market Street Railway office would give her the job application.

Maya Angelou

She didn’t give up – she went back to the office every single day and sat in the waiting room. Eventually, a manager approached her and allowed her to apply. (She said she was 18, the minimum age). She became the first Black female streetcar operator in San Francisco. During that summer, she likely operated the 7-Haight and 5-McAllister lines (today’s 5-Fulton). Market Street Railway is proposing that Streetcar 798, of the type she worked on, be dedicated to her memory when it is restored (hopefully, to start later this year).

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

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London Buses in SF: 1952

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Muni: 106 and Counting

On December 28, 1912, Mayor James Rolph, Jr. took one of the first five cent pieces minted in San Francisco, put it into a farebox, pulled on his operator’s cap, and personally piloted it out Geary Street.

It was the first run, on the first day, with the first streetcar owned by the public in a large American city. It was the birth of Muni.

Today, Muni is celebrating with a post highlighting some of the great photos of their history in their archive. Take a look!

Oh, about that photo above. It was in the San Francisco Public Library, but had no label. No one knew when it was taken or what it represented. We did the research and pointed it out. It’s on Geary, headed west at Jones Street, and yes, that’s Mayor Rolph at the controller.

Happy Birthday, Muni!

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See ‘Lost Landscapes’ Dec. 4 and 5

 

Our friend Rick Prelinger, creator of the Internet Archive, has been making special programs of vintage films of San Francisco for over a decade now. Rick has collected a wonderful mix of home movies, commercial film outtakes, travelogues, and other celluloid representations of our city, and invites the audience to shout out their reactions. It’s the ultimate interactive show!

This year’s event is extra special, because Rick has made the best restoration yet of the famed “Trip Down Market Street” film made by the Miles Brothers just before the 1906 Earthquake and Fire changed San Francisco forever. This is the film featured in a Morley Safer “60 Minutes” story a few years back, including interviews with Rick Prelinger, film historian David Kiehn of the Essenay Film Museum in Niles, and MSR President Rick Laubscher, who created a narrated version of the film, available to view or purchase at our San Francisco Railway Museum.

Rick Prelinger will debut the original (silent) version of this beautifully restored film at the Lost Landscapes events on December 4 and 5 at the Castro Theater, along with many other great clips of San Francisco’s history. This is always a wonderful event and at this writing, tickets are still available here.

Proceeds benefit the Internet Archive, a great project. You’ll thank yourself for seeing this.

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Steam Streetcar on Market Street, 1864

Yep, you read that right. Before Market Street had electric streetcars, cable cars, or horse-powered streetcars, it had a STEAM-powered streetcar. In fact, this was the first rail transit on Market Street, started up in 1860. This photo, which we had not seen before, just surfaced on a Facebook group, without a source reference. It shows Market Street during the Civil War (the date given is 1864, and that seems at least very close). We’re looking west, toward Twin Peaks.… — Read More

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

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

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Happy 145th Anniversary, Cable Cars!

August 2, 1873 — In the wee small hours of a misty San Francisco night (they didn’t call the month “Fogust” back then, but it was), a new type of transit was about to be inaugurated. An endless wire rope clattered beneath Clay Street. An odd open vehicle sat on the rails at the top of the hill. Standing by was Andrew Smith Hallidie, a Scot who had experience using wire rope in the mining business, and was part of… — Read More

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A Gripping Evening with Val Lupiz

Val Lupiz, expert gripman and San Francisco historian, was hosted on July 18 by MSR Board member Paul Lucas in the second installment of Market Street Railway’s quarterly series Inside Track-Live! A packed house at our San Francisco Railway Museum was treated to hearing how Val started as a rail-obsessed kid, to being the only gripman to operate historic Cable Car 42 in multiple Muni Heritage Festivals. Val’s stories ranged from heartwarming— helping passengers with marriage proposals— to uproarious— how… — Read More

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Meet Cable Car Historian Val Lupiz July 18

San Francisco has a tradition of unique personalities who share a deep love of this special place. Nothing is more special in our special cities than the cable cars, and no one has a deeper love for our rolling National Historic Landmark than Val Lupiz. Val just celebrated his 19th anniversary as a cable car gripman, so he knows today’s system inside out. He also knows cable car history better than almost anyone else. That photo, above, is Val’s creation:… — Read More

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New Heritage Cable Car Livery Selected

Thanks to a rare photo posted by cable car gripman and historian Val Lupiz, Market Street Railway has selected its next heritage cable car livery. We’re calling it the “blank slate” livery. Ten of the Powell Street cable cars are painted in heritage liveries — the paint schemes Powell cable cars actually wore at different points in their 130 year history.  But no heritage liveries have yet been applied to California Street cable cars as yet because, except for one… — Read More

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“Trackless Trolleys”?

The Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub, who does some productive digging around in the paper’s archives, has come up with a very good story on the conversion of many San Francisco streetcar lines to trolley coaches in the late 1940s. Above, one of several great photos from the story. Taken on the first day of electric bus service on Market Street, July 5, 1949, it shows a Twin Coach on the 5-McAllister followed by a mix of Marmon-Herringtons and Twins, outbound at… — Read More

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Tunnel Vision

Note: This is a edited version of a story by MSR President Rick Laubscher from the most recent issue of our Member magazine, Inside Track. We generally don’t share exclusive member content on our blog, but are making an exception in this case for the tunnel’s centennial. You can join Market Street Railway and get this magazine with great stories four times a year.  (By the way, if you’re reading this on our main page, we recommend you click on the title… — Read More

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Santa Claus Was Coming to Town

One of the joys of the San Francisco holiday season 50 or 60 years ago was the arrival of Santa Claus. Not down the chimney on Christmas Eve, but weeks earlier, down Powell Street on a cable car. Along with thousands of San Franciscans of a certain age, I (Rick Laubscher, Market Street Railway president) remember it well. For many years after World War II, the Emporium chartered a cable car each year, decorated it, and carried Santa Claus downtown… — Read More

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Snow in San Francisco 85 years ago today

Yep. It happened on December 11, 1932 — one of the few snowfalls in the city proper that actually stuck to the ground, if only for a little while. According to the site “California History,” The City recorded its coldest temperature ever, 27 degrees fahrenheit, on this day. This photo from Charlie Smallwood’s definitive history of the Market Street Railway, The White Front Cars of San Francisco, shows Car 206 on the 1-line at Sutro Division, 32nd and Clement Streets, during a… — Read More

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Positively (Twenty-)Fourth Street

Okay, the headline reference is anachronistic, because this shot goes WAY back beyond Dylan. So evocative, though, we couldn’t resist the reference. Few are still around who remember streetcars on 24th Street, now the cultural center of the City’s Latino community and known to many as Calle 24. But here we are in 1938 (based on the streetcar and the automobile license plate) looking east on 24th at York Street, staring at a 35-Howard line streetcar. It has just descended… — Read More

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