Patriarch Streetcar Turns 125

578S 2nd and Mission, 1904, SFMTA Archives
Car 578 at 2nd and Mission, 1904. SFMTA Archive

According to our historian, the redoubtable Emiliano Echeverria, 125 years ago, August 10, 1896 (give or take a day), a new streetcar was delivered for service in San Francisco. Streetcars themselves had only become a viable transit technology eight years before in Richmond, Virginia. San Francisco had opened its first streetcar line only four years earlier, in 1892, but transit companies led by Market Street Railway Company were busy already, replacing some cable car lines with streetcars and building new lines with the electric vehicles.

The first streetcars that appeared in San Francisco looked a lot like cable cars, except for the trolley pole on the roof that conducted electricity from the overhead wire. That wasn’t surprising. The standard cable car design of the time, the “California Car” (named after the California Street cable car design still used today), was popular with riders, with open end sections and a closed center section. And many of the early San Francisco streetcars were built by cable car builders.

That new streetcar delivered in August 1896 still operates today. Built by Hammond, which later built today’s fleet of California Street cable cars, No. 578 is the oldest passenger transit vehicle in America still on the operating roster of a public transit agency. It survived because it was turned into a work car after the 1906 earthquake and was kept around in that capacity before being restored by Muni’s crafts workers for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the earthquake in 1956. It was then going to be put on static display at a proposed railroad museum across from the Hyde Street Pier, but when that fell through, it went back to Muni for a time and was then loaned to the Western Railway Museum in Solano County.

The Historic Trolley Festivals of the 1980s, spearheaded by leaders of Market Street Railway, saw Car 578 brought home to carry passengers occasionally on its home city’s rails. Known affectionately by its many fans as the “Dinky” for its compact size, Car 578 has been wildly popular during the annual Muni Heritage Weekends (pictured below) that ran for eight years before the pandemic and we hope will resume in 2022.

We’re going to run a special feature to celebrate Car 578‘s 125th birthday in the next issue of our member newsletter, Inside Track, with many more historic photos of this patriarch of San Francisco’s streetcar fleet. Join Market Street Railway now so you don’t miss it!

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Happy 125th Birthday, Car 578!!

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Celebrating F-line enablers this Pride Month

There would be no F-line today without the concerted effort of a group of advocates and enablers in the early 1980s. Many of them were openly gay. No better time to celebrate their achievements than Pride Month.

That list simply has to start with Maurice Klebolt, a force of nature. Klebolt, who came to San Francisco from Chicago, ran a one-man travel agency, served as a part-time Muni operator, and cultivated elected officials on a single issue: operating historic streetcars on Market Street after regular streetcar service on the J, K, L, M, and N lines went underground with the opening of the Muni Metro Subway in the early 1980s. Others talked about it and began to plan for it, but Klebolt believed in actually DOING something instead. And did he ever. This story from the San Francisco Chronicle captures his activism perfectly.

Maurice Klebolt (left) with the Hamburg streetcar he brought to San Francisco, flanked by then-Muni General Manager Harold Geissenheimer in about 1984. MSR Archive

Klebolt and then-downtown business executive Rick Laubscher, who mobilized that community through the Chamber of Commerce, teamed up in something of a “Mr. Outside, Mr. Inside” pairing to win acceptance of a proof of concept in the form of a summer “Historic Trolley Festival” in 1983, which was renewed for a total of five seasons and built public support for the permanent F-line in 1995 and its extension to Fisherman’s Wharf in 2000.

Klebolt brought numerous international vintage streetcars to San Francisco for Muni’s fleet, and led the charge to grow the new, seven-member nonprofit known as Market Street Railway into a vibrant membership organization by personally shaking down – er, soliciting – everyone he know (and many he didn’t) for what were then $10 memberships. that remains in Muni’s fleet (and remains in need of restoration). Maury’s untimely death in 1988 at just 58 left a real void, but the success of the Trolley Festivals had put a permanent F-line squarely on City Hall’s agenda. Read our tribute to him here, with more hard-to-believe (but true) tales, including his personal version of Cold War-era glasnost.

“Streetcar Named Desire for Peace”, Moscow/Orel Car 106, brought to San Francisco by Maurice Klebolt, participated in a 1992 parade honoring San Francisco’s centennial of streetcars. MSR Archive

While Klebolt may have been the most visible openly gay man associated with the creation of the F-line, several others played very significant roles. The solid and enduring support of then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein was essential to the Trolley Festivals and permanent F-line, but the implementation of her wishes was carried out by her top transportation staff member, Alan Lubliner. Alan’s attention to detail and follow-through kept the project progressing, even when some inside Muni and other city agencies didn’t see the urgency of action. Alan went on to a very successful career in New York with the transportation consulting firm Parsons-Brinkerhoff (now WSP).

The city’s nonprofit partner in facilitating the first two Trolley Festivals was the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce (Market Street Railway took on that role starting in the third year). Lee Knight led the internal Chamber team that made dozens of arrangements on a faster schedule than the City’s procedures would allow. Lee later joined Muni’s then-parent, the city’s Public Utilities Commission as planning manager, before his life was tragically cut short by AIDS.

Once in operation, the spirit of the Trolley Festival was definitively captured by the senior motorman operating the vintage streetcars, Jack Smith, the son of one of San Francisco’s first African-American streetcar operators. Jack literally learned the craft of piloting streetcars at his father’s knee. His encyclopedic knowledge of San Francisco transit history and his unquestioned expertise in streetcar operation was looked up to by the other operators and by management as well. After his retirement from Muni, he served on Market Street Railway’s board of directors with distinction for several years, and was a long-time volunteer on restoration activities of our organization, focused on original San Francisco streetcars. Here’s how we remembered him after his unexpected passing in 2004, at age 72.

Motorman extraordinaire Jack Smith (left), who could operate any streetcar (or cable car), including the complicated Russian Tram 106, at first sight, receives a mock “tribute” from Maurice Klebolt, who brought the tram from Russia, at 17th and Castro in 1987. MSR Archive

There were many other members of the LGBTQ community that played positive roles in the Trolley Festival, particularly residents and merchants the Castro’s District, whose embrace of the vintage streetcars were a significant boost to their success. The Festival streetcars had to go where tracks already were, making Castro Street the logical terminal. Several gay business groups came together to issue a guide to introduce streetcar riders to neighborhood businesses. A booster committee was formed, led by a gay man named Robert Hunter, who asked the Chamber if they could create their own poster. Of course, came the reply. We have recently been offered a mint-condition copy of this artifact and offer this rough photograph we’ve been sent here.

And speaking of posters, we celebrate John Wullbrandt, then a young San Francisco artist who had done whimsical posters of a PCC and a cable car when we approached him to create posters for the first two Trolley Festivals. John raised the money from two other gay men, Bob Campbell and Joe Caplett, and we gained wonderful promotional tools. John is now a renowned fine artist based near Santa Barbara. We offer John’s 1984 poster of famous San Franciscans riding the Boat Tram (shown below) in our online store and at our museum store. The Chamber of Commerce focused on patronizing LGBTQ businesses for the promotional services needed for the Trolley Festivals, including purchasing signage from a small business on Brady Street, Budget Signs, owned by a young gay man named Mark Leno, who went on to a very successful political career in San Francisco and Sacramento.

Beyond the openly LGBTQ people who helped enable the F-line to become reality, there were other prominent people involved who chose not to reveal their sexual orientation during their lifetimes, and we honor that choice. But their contributions are certainly remembered and appreciated. (Anytime one attempts recognizing people who contributed to a team effort, there is always the risk of missing someone. We apologize if so.)

The historic streetcars have always been wildly popular in the Castro District, from the first article we remember being written about them in a local gay publication (with the headline “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” from Judy Garland’s ‘Trolley Song’) to loud complaints from merchants and residents when F-line service was threatened with extended interruptions. On several occasions, vintage streetcars have taken pride of place in the annual Pride Parade, something we hope will happen again in the future.

During the Trolley Festival’s first year, 1983, both the Blackpool Boat Tram and Muni’s very first streetcar, Car 1, participated in the Pride Parade. MSR Archive

On a national and international level, many gay men took leadership roles in rescuing streetcars from the scrap heap starting after World War II, and in creating museums to operate them. They did this in an era when coming out was to risk severe professional and personal consequences, so they often did not reveal their preferences. But you can see their legacy in museums all over the world. Our nonprofit has likewise benefited by the work of openly gay folks who have served on our board, among them Maury, Jack, Steve Ferrario, and our longtime board member and secretary, Art Curtis, who worked his way up from PCC operator to Chief Inspector at Muni.

Today of course, Muni’s parent, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is headed by a gay man, Jeff Tumlin, a San Franciscan for 30 years and frequent F-line rider. Its board of directors currently includes out small business leader Manny Yekutiel and has had other prominent LGBTQ leaders in the recent past, including former State Senator and State Democratic Party Chair Art Torres, and long-time board Chair Tom Nolan, who was previously a San Mateo County Supervisor. Indeed, at all levels, from front line workers to leadership to governance, the LGBTQ community is extensively represented at SFMTA.

Happy Pride Month!

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Take a 1906 “Trip Down Market Street” with experts

April 18, 1906, a date forever seared into San Francisco history. The cataclysmic earthquake and fire divided eras and impressed unforgettable memories on all who experienced it.

Still frame from “A Trip Down Market Street”

All who experienced that horror firsthand are gone now. But by unbelievable good fortune, a compelling vision of the old San Francisco survives in the form of a motion picture, and the knowledge it provides us of the way it was keeps growing. Sunday afternoon, April 18, 2021, 115 years to the day after fire engulfed the shaken city, there will be a free webinar talking about how that previously little-known film became world-famous due to a combination of tireless detective work and creative technology. The link to sign up for the webinar is below.

We’re talking about the famous “Trip Down Market Street”, filmed just four days before the earth shook and the sky burned, by professional filmmakers the Miles Brothers, shooting a hand-cranked motion picture camera mounted on the front of a cable car as it rolled eastward on Market between Eighth Street and the Ferry Building. It was long thought to have been shot in 1905, and the only surviving copy, in the Library of Congress, was badly degraded.

But then, magic happened. Film historian David Kiehn, head of the Niles Film Museum in Fremont discovered the true filming date, greatly increasing the historic value of the film. Archivist and film preservationist Rick Prelinger arranged for a vastly improved transfer of the film, revealing many new details. And television’s most-watched news program, 60 Minutes, did a remarkable story, produced by David Browning and reported by Morley Safer, that brought much new attention to the film. (Safer later said it was among his favorite stories of the more than 900 he reported for 60 Minutes.)

Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher was interviewed for the 60 Minutes story, in part because he had written and recorded a narration for the film, explaining what the camera sees as it moves along Market Street, adding economic and social context as well as explaining the extensive cable car system then operating on our main street. You can watch that narrated version here, and purchase your own DVD of it in our online store.

The webinar is sponsored by the Niles Film Museum as part of its annual 1906 earthquake commemoration. Rick Laubscher will moderate the webinar, talking with David Kiehn, Rick Prelinger, and two descendants of the Miles Brothers, covering all aspects of the film and the 60 Minutes story. The experts will answer questions you have about the film.

You can join the webinar via Zoom at this link. The webinar will then be posted online so you can watch anytime; we’ll update this post with that link when we have it.

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Play Ball…the Muni way!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play ball!

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End of (last original) track

When street railway companies laid tracks in San Francisco streets, they were responsible for maintaining the area around the tracks. That’s part of the reason it was customary to lay a row of basalt pieces right next to the outer rails. The dense, heavy, gray stone is correctly called Belgian block or sett though often mistakenly called cobblestone. (Cobbles are more egg shaped.) The Belgian block provides a buffer between the rails and the street paving. When streets are paved… — Read More

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Streetcars to buses

See gallery at end of story The Covid-19 pandemic caused Muni to convert all its rail lines to buses in 2020, with rail service fitfully resuming, in stages, in 2021. Quite a reversal for the transit agency born as the San Francisco Municipal Railway, whose service was dominated by streetcars for the first 35 years of its existence, and had never before been strictly a bus operation for longer than a weekend at a time. Here’s a story we put… — Read More

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Happy 108th Birthday, Muni!

December 28, 1912. Fifty thousand San Franciscans gathered at Market and Geary Streets. Was it a presidential visit? No, it was the transit equivalent of a late visit from Santa. It was a new streetcar line. But symbolically it was a lot more than that. For the ten locally-built gray and maroon streetcars that began running up and down the A-Geary line that day had letterboards on the side emblazoned in gold leaf “MUNICIPAL RAILWAY.” They were the first publicly… — Read More

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Market Street 1932: Wowza!

Market Street, in color, in 1932, when essentially all film was black and white. And not just static, like the photo above, but in full and glorious rumble. Click the video below and prepare to get lost in the past for the next four minutes. This trip up Market Street between the Ferry and Grant Avenue was original actual black and white motion picture footage that our friend Rick Prelinger, founder of Prelinger Archives, turned us onto several years ago.… — Read More

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What might have been: Geary

Editors Note: An early version of this article appeared in a past issue of Inside Track, our member magazine with exclusive stories and inside information about Muni’s historic streetcars and cable cars. Click here to become a member and receive it. Geary was Muni’s first “backbone”. It is still easily its busiest corridor, operated now with buses longer than it was with streetcars. By any transit measure, its ridership justifies rail service on Geary, including a subway through at least… — Read More

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