Best Version Yet of Iconic 1906 Movie

In 1906, it didn’t get more high tech than this iconic 12-minute movie, filmed from the front of a cable car headed down Market Street. If you’re a San Francisco history buff (or transit buff), you’ve probably seen it before, but not like this. A new digital transfer by the noted film archivist Rick Prelinger breathes more life into it, sharper and wider-screen. (Back then, the image was captured to the edges of the film, even between the sprocket holes; this version includes that.)

Surprisingly to us, the film had never appeared in a narrated version, explaining exactly where you are and providing the social and economic context of what you’re seeing. Market Street President Rick Laubscher, a San Francisco historian and former journalist, did that several years ago, and has now updated that narration with new information that has come to light. Additionally, we have added sound effects by Mike Upchurch to provide some atmosphere.

Thanks to film historian David Kiehn, we now know that this iconic film, by the Miles Brothers, was shot on or about April 14, 1906, just four days before the great Earthquake and Fire. (It was previously believed to have been filmed in August 1905.)

To commemorate the 113th anniversary of the April 18 catastrophe, which ended an era in San Francisco, we have posted this new version of the film on YouTube. We will be providing it through our online store and in our San Francisco Railway Museum in coming weeks.

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Happy Centennial to One “L” of a Streetcar Line

The first L-line streetcars to reach the Beach were the “dinkies” bought for the E-Union line across town, shuttling only between West Portal and the sand dunes of outer Taraval. MSR Archive

On April 12, 1919, the first L-Taraval streetcar hit the rails, overcoming obstacles to begin a century of service that continues today.

The Twin Peaks Tunnel had opened fourteen months before, bringing fast streetcar service from downtown to the nearly empty southwestern quadrant of the city. Initially, there was just one line, the K, but property owners in the areas above and west of the tunnel, who had paid for its construction, expected – and demanded – more. So, Muni negotiated with the private United Railroads to share the tracks of URR’s little used Parkside line on Taraval Street between 20thand 33rdAvenues. URR wanted the city to share the Twin Peaks Tunnel in return for sharing this track and Ocean Avenue track for the K, line but the city refused and paid cash for the rights instead. Muni then laid tracks from West Portal via Ulloa Street, 15thAvenue, and Taraval to connect to the Parkside line tracks, allowing the L to open as far west as 33rd Avenue.

There was little development west of Twin Peaks in April 1919. United Railroads, by far the dominant transit company compared to the 6-year old Muni, did run downtown from the area, but by slow surface streets (Ocean Avenue and Mission to the south, 20th Avenue and Haight to the north), making it faster for downtown workers to take ferries from Oakland than to take the long way around Twin Peaks by streetcar. At first, the L streetcars stopped at West Portal, where riders had to transfer to K-line streetcars to . go through the tunnel and along Market Street. Muni used its full-sized streetcars for the L-line shuttles at first, but as soon as smaller “dinky” single-truck cars were delivered for Muni’s hill-climbing Union Street line in 1922, a few of them were dispatched to the L, where they were big enough to handle the still-sparse ridership.

By early 1923, the L-line tracks reached Ocean Beach across the sand dunes and by the end of that year, the shuttle was replaced by service through the tunnel to the Ferry Loop, using full-size streetcars. The Twin Peaks Tunnel service significantly accelerated the development of blocks along the new, fast streetcar lines, while blocks deeper in the central Sunset District languished as sand dunes, with only the odd house here or there. In 1928, the Muni matched the L-line on the northern edge of the Sunset by building the Sunset Tunnel under Buena Vista Park and opening the N-Judah line.

In 1937, Muni took advantage of federal funding through the Works Progress Administration to extend the L line south from 46thAvenue and Taraval to Wawona Street, very close to the popular zoo and Fleishhacker swimming pool, heightening competition with the competitor’s 12-line on Sloat Boulevard.

When Muni got its first five modern streetcars in 1939, they often dispatched them on the L-line (shown here at 22nd Avenue and Taraval on April 24, 1940). These cars, known as “Magic Carpets” because of their smooth ride, were the precursors of the PCC streetcars that later took over all Muni service and still run on the E and F lines today. SFTMA Archive
By 1938, the L-line (yellow line near bottom) had brought full development to Taraval Street and surrounding blocks between 21st and 29th Avenues, as shown in this aerial photograph, while blocks to the north, further removed from the fast streetcar service, were slower to develop. Harrison Ryker photograph, David Rumsey Collection.

Muni took over its competitor (renamed Market Street Railway in 1921) during World War II. The 12-line on Sloat Boulevard was included in the purchase. It featured a private right-of-way in the middle of that broad roadway, and could have been used as a tool to spur higher-density residential development on that corridor, if only the Sloat tracks had been connected at St. Francis Circle to use the Twin Peaks Tunnel. (The giant Parkmerced development at the south end of 19th Avenue, and the nearby Stonestown shopping center, which both arose after the war, benefitted from Muni’s adjacent M-Ocean View line, which used the tunnel, but had been little used after it opened in 1925 and had even been shut down for a time for lack of ridership.)

“Magic Carpet” Car 1001 has just turned from Ulloa Street into the Twin Peaks Tunnel on its L-line run around 1950, meeting an old-fashioned “Iron Monster” on the M-line. Both streetcars required two operators at that time by city ordinance, although the Magic Carpets were designed to be operable by a single operator, and were converted when voters allowed one-operator streetcars in 1954, likely saving the remaining streetcar lines. Robert McVay photo, Walter Rice Collection, MSR Archive

One factor that weighed against Muni keeping more streetcar lines in that period was rising labor costs. San Francisco voters had mandated two operators for each streetcar, although only one for a bus. This caused Muni to substitute buses for the outer ends of the K and L lines on nights and Sundays in the early 1950s, and studies were done to see if it was feasible to convert the Twin Peaks Tunnel to bus operation. (It wasn’t: too narrow.) Approval of single-operator streetcars in 1954 ended this existential threat to the L-line, and it has been an enduring part of Muni’s streetcar network ever since, converting to light rail vehicles in the early 1980s when the Twin Peaks Tunnel was connected to the new Muni Metro subway under Market Street.

PCC Streetcar 1039 leaves the L-line zoo terminal at 46th Avenue and Wawona Street shortly before modern LRVs took over the L-line in the early 1980s. The delay in opening the Market Street Subway meant the PCCs had to soldier on longer than intended, getting quite beat up. This particular car is one that Market Street Railway bought back from a museum, returning it to Muni, where it is stored for future restoration. George Locke photo, MSR Archive

More recently, Muni has moved to improve safety on Taraval Street by building boarding islands for L-line trains, and has shortened L-line trips by reducing the number of stops on Taraval.

Today, the Parkside District is a vibrant, diverse neighborhood made possible, and still kept moving, by the L-Taraval. Muni is planning various centennial events, which we will keep you informed of here. SFMTA’s Jeremy Menzies has dug into the archives for a great story, and the Examiner has a nice tribute to the L-line here.

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Black Barrier-Breakers in San Francisco Transit

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

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

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

Omnibus Railroad horsecar on Montgomery Street

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

Audley Cole: Audley 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… — Read More

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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… — Read More

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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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