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 on its roof. At the turntable, he climbed down, crossed the street, and took up residence up on the toy floor (the fourth, if I remember right), just below the stairs to the roof rides. My mom brought me downtown (on a streetcar, of course) to see this spectacle a few times, and I firmly came to believe that the Emporium Santa had to be the real Santa (as opposed to Macy’s Santa) because he arrived on a cable car.

The photo above is before my time. Based on the license plate of the car at right, it is somewhere between 1948 and 1950. You can see that the procession contained more than just Santa. There’s a clown peering out from the rear platform and a horseback rider with the world’s biggest sombrero (Feliz Navidad!).

The shot below comes from the late 1950s. Looks somewhat scaled down from earlier years. The roof just looks like a cable car roof instead of the Beach Blanket Babylon hat we see above. No visible clown, no sombrero guy. But hey, it’s all about Santa anyway, right?

By the way, this shot would be impossible to replicate today. This first block of Powell Street, between Market and Ellis, had its historic street lamps removed and replaced by ugly square modern lights as part of the Market Street rebuilding in the 1970s. Trees were planted on both sides of the tracks that are now nearing the end of their useful life and thrust the whole block into shadow. One goal Market Street Railway has in 2018: include this block of Powell Street into the project currently being planned to revitalize Powell from Ellis to Geary. We would like to see all of lower Powell Street return to its historic look from 1910 to 1970, incorporating wider sidewalks for pedestrians and placing the cable cars and historic street lamps at center stage.

Oh, a trivia point: Santa always used the same cable car: Car 504, with a specially-strengthened roof to support Santa and the loudspeakers and decorations. That car was retired in the mid-1990s, but in true San Francisco fashion, it has taken on a new and useful life. Muni leased it to the San Francisco Giants, where it can now be seen from everywhere in the ballpark, sitting proudly on the centerfield concourse, renumbered 44 to honor Willie McCovey. (Powell car 24, still in operation, was dedicated to Willie Mays last year).

The Emporium, of course, is long gone, though its 1896 Market Street facade and its iconic dome, slightly relocated, are features of the modern Westfield San Francisco Center that now occupies the south side of Market across from the Powell Street cable car turntable. But decorated cable cars are still a feature of the season in San Francisco, thanks to efforts led by cable car gripman and Market Street Railway member Val Lupiz. Here’s a wonderful montage of 2017’s decorated cable cars that Val shared. (Click to enlarge.)

May we add one more thing? Our mission is preserving historic transit in San Francisco. We’d very much appreciate it if you could take a moment and make a year-end tax-deductible donation of as little as five dollars by clicking here, or by joining Market Street Railway as a member by clicking here.

Happy holidays from Market Street Railway!

No Comments on Santa Claus Was Coming to Town
Share

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 1932 snowfall. Thanks to Hans-Christian Kasper for sharing it to our Facebook group.

1 Comment on Snow in San Francisco 85 years ago today
Share

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 the very steep hill on 24th from its terminal at Rhode Island Street on Potrero Hill, crossed the Muni’s H-line tracks on Potrero Avenue, and is bound for South Van Ness, where it will turn right and continue on that street and Howard to reach the south terminal at the Ferry Building.

On the corner to the right, we see the St. Francis ice cream and candy store — still there! — and beyond it, the Roosevelt theater marquee. The Roosevelt wasn’t a tribute to a president, it was opened by a Dutchman named Roosevelt in 1922, who also owned other businesses on the block, including the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor, which reopened early this year after a hiatus.

And by the way, this is not just any old streetcar. This is one of five “Rail Sedans” that Muni’s then-competitor (and our namesake) Market Street Railway bought secondhand from the East St. Louis & Suburban Railway in 1936. These cars, built in 1927 by St. Louis Car Company, were far more modern looking than anything else Market Street Railway ever owned. They were purchased when the company began converting lightly-ridden lines to be served by single-operator cars that saved labor costs. According to the definitive history of the Market Street Railway, The White Front Cars of San Francisco by Charles Smallwood, the five rail sedans spent their entire San Francisco career exclusively on the 35-line. The company felt if they spread these cars around to other routes, riders on those routes might demand more of them, and there were no more available.

The mandatory “Eclipse Fender” on the front of these cars in San Francisco detracted from the even more modern look they enjoyed in their original home, equipped with chromed spring bumpers (see photo from Smallwood’s book below).

These Rail Sedans only lasted three years in service in San Francisco, sent to the sidelines when the courts declared the single-operator arrangement illegal. Within two years, Market Street Railway had given up its franchise for the 35-Howard. Muni converted the portions on Howard and South Van Ness to its first trolley coach line (the R, later the 41) in 1941. The 24th Street portion later became Muni’s 35-line bus, and is now the 48-line bus. Sadly, all the rail sedans were scrapped in 1941. They’d sure look great in service on the F and E lines today!

This great photo comes to us from the Facebook Group San Francisco Remembered, where it was just made the group photo. Thanks for letting us share.

No Comments on Positively (Twenty-)Fourth Street
Share

Van Ness and McAllister, Nov. 1, 1917

This photo from the SFMTA Archive was taken exactly 100 years before the date of this post, on November 1, 1917. No streetcars in the picture, but we do see important infrastructure: the poles that hold up the wires that bring power to the streetcars.

We’re at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street, looking northeast across Van Ness. City Hall, then new, sits on the southeast corner of this intersection. Across Van Ness, we see an apartment building with ground floor retail that’s still there. If you click the photo, at left center at the corner of Redwood Street, you can see a shop offering vulcanizing services (presumably for tires). Van Ness is so wide, and so devoid of traffic, that automobile drivers felt free to park perpendicular to the curb — or parallel, whatever they wanted.

On the left, we see a metal pole with a metal cap belonging to the privately owned United Railroads, used for the 5-McAllister line that ran essentially the same route as today’s 5-Fulton bus.

On the right, a concrete pole belonging to the Municipal Railway, then less than five years old. Van Ness, one of the city’s widest streets, hosted the H-Potrero streetcar line on this stretch of the street (replaced in 1949 by the 47-Potrero trolley bus).

Muni generally preferred concrete poles for their streetcar lines. They used streetcar rail for reinforcement. The poles on Van Ness were installed in 1914 without streetlights. Those were bolted on in the late 1930s, as Van Ness was readied for an increased flow of automobile traffic from the new Golden Gate Bridge.

Bringing the light pole story up to date, the metal poles came to Muni with the rest of the private company’s infrastructure in 1944, when the city took over. The metal poles on lines that were converted to trolley coach, many are still in use.

As for the concrete poles, they have badly deteriorated, as would be expected after a century. In planning the new Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, SFMTA (Muni’s parent) proposed replacing the old concrete poles with modernistic metal ones. They felt this was necessary not only because many of the old poles were structurally unsound, but also because the poles needed to be taller because the trolley bus wires were being moved from the curb lanes to the center right-of-way.

But at the last minute, after repeated public outreach and hearings, a group of influential people in Pacific Heights demanded that the old poles and lights be retained or replicated. After negotiations, they settled for getting rid of the modern lights and substituting some old-timey looking lights that have no history in San Francisco.

But hey, those concrete poles lasted a century. The one is this picture is still there (although the metal pole on McAllister has been replaced, probably when the State of California was built a quarter-century ago on the spot occupied by the bar in the photo offering Golden State Beer for a nickel).

And oh, by the way, traffic on much of Van Ness was diverted today to clear two lanes for sewer replacement, one component of the BRT project.

Thanks as always to SFMTA for preserving the photographic history of transit in San Francisco.

2 Comments on Van Ness and McAllister, Nov. 1, 1917
Share

10/15/17 — Twice!

Here are two photos at the same location. One taken 100 years ago today, the other taken…today. On October 15, 1917, United Railroads photographer John Henry Mentz shot the black-and-white photo at the top, looking north from 18th Street on what was then called Kentucky Street. Soon, Kentucky would have its name changed to match the street it connected with several blocks north at China Basin — Third Street. (To the south of Islais Creek, Railroad Avenue would get Third… — Read More

1 Comment on 10/15/17 — Twice!
Share

Merger Day, 73 years ago

September 29, 1944 — the privately-owned Market Street Railway Company turned over all its assets, including more than 500 streetcars, to the publicly-owned San Francisco Municipal Railway, following approval of San Francisco voters to buy the private company. Mayor Roger Lapham personally piloted the first ex-Market Street Railway Company streetcar as newspaper photographers clicked shots. Three years later, Lapham tried to kill off the Powell Street cable cars, included in the purchase of Market Street Railway. A grassroots citizens’ movement,… — Read More

No Comments on Merger Day, 73 years ago
Share

Happy Centennial, J-Church

  On August 11, 1917, Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph presided over the opening of Muni’s J-Church line. This line brought Muni service the Noe Valley and Dolores Heights areas, in competition with United Railroads’ privately owned streetcar lines on Guerrero Street and on 24th Street. Over the past century, most types of Muni cars ran the J-line regularly, especially the B-types (including preserved Cars 130 and 162. PCCs began exclusively serving the J-line in 1958, followed by Boeing LRVs… — Read More

No Comments on Happy Centennial, J-Church
Share

Magic Carpet Ride

San Francisco’s first streamlined streetcars arrived in 1939. The outsides looked like the modern “PCC” streetcars popping up in many North American cities at the time, but San Francisco’s were different inside, because the City Charter of the day forbade the payment of patent royalties for some reason, and many components of the PCC were patented. So Muni ordered five cars that looked like this, numbered 1001-1005, with a mix of trucks, motors, and other components. All, though, had a… — Read More

2 Comments on Magic Carpet Ride
Share

What Would You Have Saved From the Old Boneyard?

The new issue of our member newsletter, Inside Track, should reach your mailboxes any day now. It contains a story about our efforts to save the best PCC streetcars at Muni’s current “boneyard”, on Marin Street near Islais Creek, as Muni moves to convert the space into a bus testing yard. (No, we’re not going to post that story here, at least not yet; our members feel getting first knowledge of important developments regarding the historic streetcar fleet is a perk of… — Read More

9 Comments on What Would You Have Saved From the Old Boneyard?
Share

Waiting for Muni, About 1940

  Here’s an unusual shot, photographer unknown (at least to us). We’re at Market and McAllister, looking west. It appears to be about 1940.  When our main drag had four streetcar tracks side by side, there were very few spots where there was enough room to build actual boarding islands like you see on Market now. Instead, there were just raised dots to mark what were optimistically called “safety zones”. But here we have a real concrete island with its… — Read More

3 Comments on Waiting for Muni, About 1940
Share

Patriotic Celebration, 1909

Lots of streetcars but even more American flags on and around the Ferry Building on a bright afternoon in October 1909, 1:29 p.m. We don’t know the exact date or who took the photo; if someone knows, fill us in with a comment. Lots to see in this shot. Double-click on the photo to enlarge it and take a tour. Permanent buildings are in place after the 1906 earthquake, some with electric signs (waffles, anyone?). The Southern Pacific is advertising… — Read More

No Comments on Patriotic Celebration, 1909
Share

Vintage Pride: 1983

By the time historic streetcars returned to San Francisco’s streets for the first Historic Trolley Festival in the Summer of 1983, the annual LGBT Pride Parade was already a summertime fixture on Market Street. Even then, the parade was such a major event that streetcar service was suspended for its duration. But that first year of the Trolley Festival, two of the Trolley Festival cars showed their own pride by joining in. Here we look through the 1934 Blackpool, England… — Read More

No Comments on Vintage Pride: 1983
Share

Geneva Car Barn & Powerhouse Gets Funding

The long-running dream of transforming the 1901 Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse into vibrant community space got a $3 million boost, making it far more likely to become reality. As reported in Hoodline, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Commission, which bought the building in 2004 from Muni, appropriated the $3 million at its June 15 meeting, bringing total approved funding for the project to $11 million. The project involves two structures that sit next to each other, both originally… — Read More

1 Comment on Geneva Car Barn & Powerhouse Gets Funding
Share

Shoppers’ Shuttle

In the early 1950s, as tens of thousands of San Francisco families decamped for the new surrounding suburbs, merchants grew more and more anxious about getting customers into their stores. Muni’s response: a “Shoppers’ Shuttle” — actually two of them, one serving Market Street/Union Square and one the “Miracle Mile of Mission” between about 16th Street and Army Street (now Cesar Chavez Street). When they started up in 1953 and 1954, the shuttles only charged a nickel (as opposed to the then-regular fare of… — Read More

1 Comment on Shoppers’ Shuttle
Share

Happy 125th to San Francisco Electric Streetcars

On April 28, 1892, the first electric streetcar ran in San Francisco on a line that started just a few feet from our San Francisco Railway Museum on Steuart Street. The first practical electric streetcar system in the world was created by Frank J. Sprague in Richmond, Virginia, in 1888, so San Francisco was — then as now — an early adopter. (But then and now, it was also a NIMBY town because civic opposition to overhead wires kept streetcars off… — Read More

1 Comment on Happy 125th to San Francisco Electric Streetcars
Share