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 get this quarterly magazine with its stories of San Francisco transit history as an exclusive member benefit.)
by Art Curtis
Stand on Market Street today and watch the streetcars go by. You’ll notice they pretty much stay in the same order all day. You might see the Boston PCC, then the yellow Milan tram, then the Harvey Milk car (Muni 1051). Back when I was operating streetcars on Market in the 1960s though, it was a much different story.
They were all streamliner PCCs then, of course, all painted green and cream, so that casual onlookers couldn’t tell if the order of the cars changed. But the order of the cars made a big difference to many of us operators – the difference between a good day and a bad day.
Here’s why. Today, it’s just the F-line on Market, but back then all five streetcar lines, the J, K, L, M, and N, shared those Market Street tracks. Those of us who were “runners” – who liked to take advantage of the PCCs fast acceleration and rapid braking to keep to our schedule – did our best to be sure we had room to run.
Let me give you an example. I once worked a run [a day’s worth of trips] named 27-K, which meant it was run number 27 primarily routed on the K-Ingleside line. I picked up the car from its previous operator every day at 4:47 p.m. at the West Portal of the old Twin Peaks Tunnel. Usually, though, the operator was six to eight minutes late. As a runner that just heightened my enjoyment of the day’s work.
You see, that run was scheduled to start its next trip, from the old Phelan Loop at City College, at 5:06 p.m., less than 20 minutes after I was scheduled to get the car at West Portal. It was a daily, but totally rewarding challenge to get the heavy load of students at that hour on board at the terminal and make it back to West Portal within the bare ten minutes allowed by the schedule (laughably short compared to today’s schedules).
Achieving that reward was especially important during one particular sign-up, because if I got to West Portal late, my follower on the L-line would cut me out, get ahead of me through the tunnel and down Market. That motorman was the infamously slow Joe Shook, who was already a couple of minutes late when he reached West Portal. I would often make a “Hollywood Stop” at West Portal & Ulloa, rolling through the inbound point-on switch ringing my gong and waving at Joe to stop and let me go ahead of him.
If I got in place ahead of Joe, I still had to hot foot it through the Twin Peaks Tunnel and down to Church Street on Market to make sure I got in place ahead of my J-line follower, “Shaky Jake” Grabstein, who always liked to run a couple of minutes ahead of schedule. The final challenge on this first trip on 27-K was to get up the hill to Duboce and make sure I got in place ahead of my “N” follower, whose name I can’t remember – but I do remember that just like the other two, he was so, so slow!! If I could get ahead of them, I could make up any lost time. Nothing better for a runner like me to start down the hill from Duboce and see my leader somewhere down around Fourth or Third Street. Then I could really move!! It made no difference if we had a “swinging load” of passengers or not – just as long as we could move!
But if any of these guys got in front of me, I knew that when I finally got back to West Portal outbound, I’d be really late. That would force the inspector, Bill Veach (whom I had “helped” at West Portal as a young railfan before I was hired), to set up a car trade for me. I usually inherited a “good” car (which to me meant either a double-ended “Torpedo” or a “Baby Ten,” not an ex-St. Louis 1100) when I began my run. But if I was late on the first return trip from East Bay Terminal, I’d be stuck for the rest of the night with whatever car Bill could get another motorman to trade at West Portal. Though he did always try to get me a Baby Ten or a Torpedo if he could, it all depended on which motormen were willing to make the car trades and pull-in late. If he couldn’t make a trade, I told him to just let me run and I’ll get back on time!
This may sound trivial to some readers today, but let me tell you, having a good car to run, and room to run it, made all the difference between a frustrating day at work and a satisfying one – and of course it made things better for passengers, too, since I knew how to keep my car on schedule if no one got in front of me to slow me down!!
Art Curtis’ family has generously asked that donations in his memory can be made to Market Street Railway. If you’re so inclined, click here, and put Art’s name in the honoree box near the bottom of the donation page. We’ll use those donations for something special to honor him.
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 swarming with riders, some carrying protest signs. Other like-minded people waited outside the carbarn. For a time, they blocked Muni efforts to pull No. 51 inside, until the police were called. While the cable car wars weren’t yet over, that moment was the last time a cable car ran the full length of a line that opened in 1891.
Seminal year: 1954
The ‘Battle of Car 51’ in 1954 was a seminal moment in what was a decade long political and social war over San Francisco’s beloved cable car system. The place where cable cars were invented in 1873 had seen many cable lines converted to streetcars right after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. In 1912, Muni’s first streetcar lines, on Geary, replaced a privately owned cable car operation.
In those days, all cable car lines were privately-owned. The California Street Cable Railroad Co. (Cal Cable) owned its namesake line (which ran on California all the way to Presidio Avenue near Laurel Heights), the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, and a five-block shuttle that ran on Jones between O’Farrell and Market.
Our namesake, Market Street Railway Co. (MSRy), owned the two Powell lines of the era, the Powell-Mason to the Wharf (still there on the same route), and the Washington-Jackson, which ran through Pacific heights all the way to Alta Plaza Park at Steiner Street. (MSRy also owned the Castro cable line, which closed in 1941, and the Sacramento-Clay line, which used a portion of the very first cable car route, shut down in 1942).When Muni bought out MSRy in 1944, it inherited the Powell cable lines. In 1947, Mayor Roger Lapham proposed replacing the Powell cable cars with twin-motored buses capable of climbing the hills. This public relations blunder of historic proportions unleashed the fury of San Franciscans led by a woman from Telegraph Hill named Friedel Klussmann.
In an era when ‘ladies’ weren’t supposed to speak out or take the lead on policy matters, Mrs. Klussmann, supported mostly by other woman, galvanized opposition to Lapham’s plan, which was repudiated at the ballot box by a margin of more than 3-1, enshrining protection for the City-owned Powell cable lines in the City Charter. (As for those replacement buses, they had a brief and undistinguished career on other routes. Market Street Railway has helped Muni preserve one of them for its historic value.)
Cal Cable collapses
Buoyed by the saving of the Powell cars, Mrs. Klussmann and her allies followed up with a ballot measure to buy the private Cal Cable system in 1948. It received 58 percent support, but fell short of the two-thirds required. But in November 1949, a revised measure that required a simple majority passed with 52 percent of the vote, allocating up to $150,000 in taxpayer money to buy the Cal Cable system.
While the City’s representatives and the company’s leaders were trying to come to agreement on a fair price, the company’s financial situation was rapidly deteriorating. Labor strife (including a 25-day strike in 1949), construction of the Broadway Tunnel (which shut down the Hyde tracks in 1950), and finally the cancellation of its insurance, caused it to shut down its operations and file for bankruptcy in August 1951.
In January 1952, the City finally acquired Cal Cable for $139,000, and within a week reopened all three lines, including the Jones shuttle. Less than two years later, in November 1953, two Muni rehabilitation bond issues, which would have paid for rebuilding the California Street cable car tracks and partly rebuilding the powerhouse and barn at Hyde and California, failed at the ballot box.
By then, Muni was under increasing financial pressure itself because it faced a $4 million deficit (a rounding error today, but in those days, politicians believed a transit system should at least break even, as indeed Muni had done for most of its history).
Muni and City officials did take their financial situation seriously, though. In this same time period, streetcar service was cut to a bare minimum, with buses taking over all but the tunnel portions of lines nights and weekends. (Muni had been unable to win voter approval of a City Charter amendment to allow one-operator streetcar service. Even the then-new PCC streetcars were required at the time to have a conductor as well as a motorman).
In the aftermath of the bond defeat, a flurry of proposals quickly emerged to ‘consolidate’ cable car service in the name of saving money. It was clear that the most vulnerable stretch of trackage was the inner section of the O’Farrell Jones & Hyde line, which carried cable cars through the Tenderloin District, considered dangerous and tawdry by many, to reach Union Square and Market Street. Downtown interests wanted O’Farrell to become an auto thoroughfare, one-way eastbound, in part to serve a proposed (later built) garage opposite Macy’s.
In drafting options for future cable car operation, the Public Utilities Commission, which oversaw Muni, relied heavily on a consultant named Marmion D. Mills, a former transit bus salesman, who had led the implementation of its conversion of two dozen streetcar lines to buses over the preceding four years. Mills’ preferred “Plan A” for cable car consolidation called for retaining the Powell-Mason line and combining the inner end of the California line with the Hyde Street portion of the O’Farrell line to create a new California-Hyde line. The Washington-Jackson line, which at the time extended past Hyde Street, through the mansions of Pacific Heights, and past Fillmore to Steiner Street and Alta Plaza park, was protected by the City Charter, but Mill’s Plan A called for its scrapping anyway, though that would presumably require a public vote, plus formal abandonment approval from the Public Utilities Commission and the Board of Supervisors.
Mills’s Plan A was openly pitched as the most effective arrangement to draw more tourist ridership, keeping them out of the Tenderloin, while downplaying the usefulness of cable cars to actual San Francisco residents. Eliminating all cable service that crossed Van Ness Avenue would also benefit that heavy automobile corridor, then as now US 101.
City Public Utilities General Manager James Turner disagreed with Mills’ Plan A, calling the conversion work to create a California-Hyde line too expensive and instead proposing to abandon all three Cal Cable lines completely, continuing to run only the City Charter-protected Powell-Mason and Washington-Jackson lines.
Two members of the Board of Supervisors, first Francis McCarty, then J. Eugene McAteer, initially supported the proposed California-Hyde line. McAteer also proposed extensions for both the Hyde and Powell-Mason lines into the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, where he happened to hold restaurant interests.
Cars vs. cables
As arguments raged, attorney Morris Lowenthal began speaking out against the cuts and allied with Friedel Klussmann and others to forge a opposition movement to save all the cable car trackage. The active role of Mrs. Klussmann, by now widely regarded as the cable car savior, made politicians begin to twitch, as they had already seen the passion she aroused in 1947.
The Downtown interests, whose main target was O’Farrell, apparently approached Ms. Klussmann and offered to support a compromise where the Hyde line and Jones shuttle would be combined to provide through service, abandoning only the tracks on O’Farrell. Mrs. Klussmann said no. McAteer backed off his California-Hyde proposal and told Mrs. Klussmann he would support a Board of Supervisors resolution to save all five cable lines. This caused her forces to postpone a voter initiative drive to accomplish the same thing.
At the last minute, though, McAteer changed his position again, throwing his weight behind a compromise plan (Mills’s “Plan B”) to create the cable car system we have today, by ripping out the California line west of Van Ness, combining the Hyde trackage with the inner portion of the Washington-Jackson line, and scrapping the outer part of Washington-Jackson between Hyde and Steiner.
Thanks to McAteer’s flip-flop, that ‘compromise’ cable car alternative (so called because it kept at least some of the Cal Cable trackage) faced no competition on the June 1954 ballot. The Public Utilities Commission had already irked cable car supporters by shutting down the Jones Street shuttle in February, then really fanned the flames by closing the O’Farrell line and the Cal line west of Van Ness on that May evening, without waiting for the June vote.
The Klussmann-Lowenthal forces girded for battle against ‘Proposition E’ while Downtown interests campaigned for it. That kind of face-off has been a staple of San Francisco politics for a century. What was different this time is that the Public Utilities Commission, which ran Muni at the time, interfered in the election in a way that would be unthinkable today. They put an outside public relations man, David Jones, on the city payroll, with explicit instructions to get Prop E approved. Jones set up bogus committees of ‘cable car ladies’ and ‘labor’ intended to confuse voters into thinking this plan was agreeable to the Klussmann forces.
Jones issued misleading statements in the campaign, such as “every cable car on the street today is here to stay.” Literally true at the time, since the O’Farrell cars were by then off the streets, along with half the Cal cars, and while the Washington-Jackson line was to go, the cars on it would stay, on the new Powell-Hyde line. Ads paid for by the ‘Cable Car Festival Committee’, the David Jones-front ‘ladies’ group’ said “Yes on E–Keep the cable cars rolling…bring back the Hyde Street grip”–another extreme stretch, since a ‘no’ vote would have kept twice as many cable cars running, and retained the entire Hyde Street operation on its traditional alignment, not just the Russian Hill slice.
When voters pulled the levers in June 1954 following this deluge of disinformation, they passed Prop E by a scant 12,000 votes. Allies of Mrs. Klussmann, led by attorney Morris Lowenthal and his ‘Cable Car Vigilantes’ group (including eager young volunteers like Philip Hoffman, longtime historian for our nonprofit) rapidly qualified an unprecedented initiative to amend the City Charter to undo what Prop E had done. Again, Jones, still on the City payroll, went to work. Merchants groups were offered zoning changes to permit parking lots in exchange for their opposition to the cable car restoration initiative, Prop J. Muni books were cooked to make a claim that the smaller cable car system implemented by Prop E was saving money, when in fact, deficits were actually higher than when all five lines were running.
This all came out in a subsequent trial, when Lowenthal sued Jones and won. However, by that time, Prop J had lost, and the city had already torn up the tracks on O’Farrell. Turner and Jones were both found liable and Jones was forced to return two months pay to the City. But the ballot measure results stood, and half of the city’s cable car system was gone forever.
Washington-Jackson ends, 1956
While Muni shut town all of the former Cal Cable trackage in 1954 (except California from Van Ness to Market), they kept the Washington-Jackson line running all the way to Steiner Street through September 2, 1956. Many residents of Pacific Heights, which supported the Washington-Jackson line, didn’t even know it was threatened, because it was never mentioned in the voter handbook and the Jones-led disinformation campaign claimed “every cable car on the streets today is here to stay”, but failing to mention that those assigned to the Washington-Jackson line would be shifted to the new Powell-Hyde line.
Even though voters had approved rescinding the City Charter protection for the Washington-Jackson line achieved several years earlier by Mrs. Klussmann and her allies, the city kept that line (and the shortened California line) running while designing new track curves to connect Washington and Jackson Streets to the remaining trackage on Hyde, as well as changes needed to consolidate California Street operations into the Muni carbarn at Washington and Mason Streets.
They left the track on Hyde between Washington and California and installed a pull-curve from California onto Hyde (something PUC GM Turner claimed would be too expensive to do) to enable the California Street cable cars to get to and from Washington-Mason. When the design was finished, they abruptly pulled the plug on the Washington-Jackson line September 2, 1956, and almost immediately hired a contractor to rip out the tracks west of Hyde (tracks which had been relaid only a few years before). This blunted last ditch-attempts by Pacific Heights supporters of the line to save it.
In fact, in yet another shady act by the city government, Muni leaders never took the abandonment of the Washington-Jackson line to their own Public Utilities Commission, nor to the Board of Supervisors, as required. When this was found out and publicized, the tracks were already gone.
What might have been
Looking at the available evidence, it appears clear to this writer that if the city hadn’t put its thumb on the scales with the activities of consultant Jones, voters would have retained all the cable lines, or at least most of them. The Chronicle had run a poll in February 1954 which showed public support running at a ratio of 13 to 1 to retain all five cable car lines. The strongest negative influence was downtown interests who wanted cable cars off O’Farrell Street. If Mrs. Klussmann had accepted the compromise proposal that would have run the Hyde line straight down Jones Street to Market (over the shuttle route), it quite possibly would have been adopted. Tourists drawn to that scenic route might have transformed the troubled area around Jones and Market and invigorated the stretch of Market between Powell and Jones.
Alternatively, if the California-Hyde compromise had been adopted, the foot of California Street, then a dreary collection of hotels and bars, might have been revitalized sooner, and the California line cars would be packed on the trip between the Ferry Building and Aquatic Park. As it turned out, the California line, while traversing beautiful sights through the Financial District, Chinatown, and Nob Hill, really doesn’t have a destination. Efforts to reverse that mistake, by extending it to Japantown on California or to City Hall on Polk, have come to nothing, and today’s environmental process and extreme costs of new construction make future extensions unlikely.
Either of those alternatives would have saved the Washington-Jackson line, which would likely have transformed the surrounding blocks of Fillmore Street and Alta Plaza Park to visitor destinations, a mixed blessing to nearby residents to be sure.
As it turned out, of course, the 1888 Powell-Mason line was joined by the “new” Powell-Hyde line in 1957, each connecting one part of the Fisherman’s Wharf area to Union Square and Market Street, clearly enhancing retail businesses at the ends of the lines. The California line still struggles to find significant ridership, especially after Muni through-routed the 1-California trolley coach via Sacramento and Clay Streets parallel to and immediately north of California, and started charging more than twice as much for locals to ride the cable car instead of the bus.
Still with us
While the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line is a half-century gone now, it lives on, not only in the Hyde Street trackage (now operated as part of the Powell-Hyde line), but in many of the cars that originally ran on the line.
When Muni eliminated about three-quarters of the mileage of the old Cal Cable lines, dozens of the double-ended maroon and yellow cable cars were sold off as surplus. (Author Paul Bignardi tracked down the fate of all of them in his fleet history of all Muni vehicles, available at our museum or online store.)
In the mid 1990s, Market Street Railway volunteers, led by the late Dave Pharr and master craftsman Fred Bennett, spent thousands of hours meticulously restoring one of these, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 42, to its original condition, including solid tongue-and-groove ends and ornate hand lettering and striping. The car, reacquired from a rancher in Santa Maria who had protected it from the elements, is now again part of Muni’s fleet — the only one wearing the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde livery — serving as Muni’s ceremonial cable car and carrying the public every year during Muni Heritage Weekend.
While the bodies of the cable cars that ran on the California and Hyde lines were identical, the grip mechanisms were not, so each line had its own dedicated fleet. After the ‘consolidation’ of 1954, Muni standardized all the grips, then picked the best double-end cars from both lines–California Street, and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde–to be used on the reconstituted California Street line. Six ex-O’Farrell cars, Nos. 50, 51, 53, 56, 57 and 58, migrated to the California line, where they still run today.
Written by Rick Laubscher. Photos by Walter Vielbaum, except where noted..
This story is an updated version of one originally published in our quarterly member magazine, Inside Track, in 2004, to mark the 50th anniversary of the cable car massacre of 1954. Inside Track always contains exclusive content you won’t find anywhere else (at least until much later). We depend on your support to further our mission of Preserving Historic Transit in San Francisco, so please join Market Street Railway or donate. Thank you.
“This is my city and my game…You birds’ll be in New York or Constantinople or some place else. I’m in business here.” – Sam Spade
Dashiell Hammett invented the genre of the hard-boiled detective (now often called Noir) with his short stores in the magazine Black Mask and then in the most famous of his works, The Maltese Falcon, published in 1930 and widely recognized today as a seminal work of American literature.
In that novel, the main character was cynical private eye Sam Spade, who became one of the most famous characters ever in detective fiction despite appearing in only that one novel of Hammett’s. But in both Falcon and in his earlier short stories, the major supporting character is San Francisco.
When the book was written, San Francisco was Hammett’s city too, a fact made obvious from the rich detail imparted in the spare, muscular prose Hammett favored. And though they only make cameo appearances in the book, streetcars and cable cars were a constant presence in the neighborhoods traversed by Spade, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo, and Wilmer Cook. By doing a little sleuthing of our own, we can extract some valuable clues into how San Franciscans like Hammett — and his creation Spade — relied on the rails to get around our town in the 1920s.
A, B, C, D, 1, 2, 3
“Spade…crossed [Geary] street to board a westbound street-car. The youth in the cap boarded the same car. Spade left the car at Hyde Street and went up to his apartment. His rooms were not greatly upset, but showed unmistakable signs of being searched. When Spade had washed and had put on a fresh shirt and collar he went out again, walked up to Sutter Street, and boarded a westbound car. The youth boarded it also.”
The Maltese Falcon
In that single passage, Hammett captures the quintessence of San Francisco’s streetcar environment in the 1920s. (From actual events mentioned in the book, experts have established that the novel is set from December 6-10, 1928.)
After leaving Joel Cairo at the Geary Theater, Spade boards a gray ‘Battleship’ on the first American big-city street ever served by publicly owned streetcars. The A, B, C, and D were all trunk lines on Geary, and though they began diverging from Geary at Van Ness, Spade would’ve climbed on the first car that came along, because he was only going four blocks, almost not worth wasting a nickel on.
Then, after ascertaining that his ‘rooms’ on Post Street had been searched, Spade hikes one block up Hyde to Sutter where he would’ve boarded a streetcar owned by Muni’s fierce competitor, Market Street Railway Company. It could’ve been on the 1, 2, or 3 line; again, it didn’t matter to Spade since he was only riding a few blocks. By that time, all the Sutter cars should have sported the recently patented ‘White Front’ paint scheme, making them much more visible in the night than their fog-colored Muni counterparts.
Although the book doesn’t say so, Spade’s regular commute to his office would also have been on the Sutter streetcars. Hammett aficionado Joe Gores—an excellent mystery writer in his own right—deduced from clues in the novel that Spade’s office was in the Hunter-Dulin Building, which still stands at 111 Sutter. (Across Montgomery Street, in the Holbrook Building at 58 Sutter, were Market Street Railway Co.’s executive offices.)
Hammett as Spade
It’s quite clear that Hammett set The Maltese Falcon in places he knew well from his own daily experiences in San Francisco. His ‘rooms’, for example, were more than likely Hammett’s own apartment of the period, 891 Post Street, #401. In 1928, this corner, Hyde and Post, was almost as rara avis as the black bird everyone was pursuing in the novel: a downtown intersection without any streetcar or cable car tracks at all, making it a relative oasis of serenity, largely free from the near-constant growl of nearby streetcar motors or clatter of track joints. Since this apartment is where Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon, perhaps that lack of streetcars in the streets immediately below is why they appear only rarely in the book.
Hammett (and Spade) had plenty of transit options within walking distance, though, with the Geary and Sutter lines each one block away, as was the 10th & Montgomery Streets line, which ran up Post as far as Leavenworth, a block east. However, that line was so unimportant that it was usually operated by only one car (identical to preserved Car 578) to protect its franchise for Market Street Railway, and never even received a route number. The Montgomery portion of the was discontinued without replacement in 1927; the rest of the line was gone by 1932.
In the real world, Hammett would have used streetcars every day to get around town, as he had no automobile. At the beginning of his literary career, when he was writing short stories for Black Mask, the leading detective pulp fiction magazine of the day, his ‘day job’ was working as an advertising copywriter for Albert S. Samuels Jewelers at 895 Market, in the Lincoln Building at the corner of Fifth (now Westfield Center shopping mall, housing Nordstrom).
For five years earlier in the 1920s, he mostly lived with his wife and young daughter at 620 Eddy, between Larkin and Polk. ‘Mostly’ because Hammett was tubercular, and when the disease was active, he stayed in other nearby rooms to avoid the risk of infecting his family. In those days, before the 31-Balboa opened, Eddy was served by the westbound 4-Turk & Eddy line, which ran from the Ferries to the Richmond District. Hammett’s regular commute to the office would probably have taken him a block south to catch the inbound 4-car on Turk. That line made a clumsy dogleg when it reached Market, jogging a block north to Eddy before heading east again to merge into Market’s ‘Roar of the Four’ streetcar maelstrom at Powell.
For Hammett’s job at Samuels, it would’ve been quicker to jump off the car at Turk and Market and walk the short block to Fifth. For his previous job, as a Pinkerton detective, he would have stayed on the car until Eddy and Market (an intersection eradicated by the excavation of Hallidie Plaza as part of the BART project in the 1970s). Alighting from the car, he would have passed the Powell cable car turntable, sitting in the middle of an active street with no tourists waiting in line, and entered the ornate Flood Building at 870 Market Street, there to ride the open-sided birdcage elevators to the Pinkerton office in Suite 314 (five floors below Market Street Railway’s office today, Suite 803).
After work, if Hammett chose to grab a drink or meal at John’s Grill—then, as now, next door to the Ellis Street entrance of the Flood Building—he might have gotten home by jumping a 20-line streetcar westbound to Hyde, where the line jogged a block north to continue west on O’Farrell. From there, it was a two-block walk to 620 Eddy.
Tagged as a communist during the witch hunts following World War II, Hammett was known as a ‘Pink’ in the early ’20s for a completely different reason: it was the standard term for Pinkerton detectives. It was this job that gave Hammett the grist for his detective novels. His first protagonist was a rotund nameless detective known as the ‘Continental Op’ after the fictional San Francisco detective agency the character served as an operative. The short stories featuring the Op built Hammett’s confidence and reputation.
Many of the Op stories were set in San Francisco and featured the same detailed city flavor as The Maltese Falcon. In The Whosis Kid, Hammett describes the Op tailing a suspect as he left the boxing matches at the Western Addition arena called Dreamland (later the site of Winterland). ‘The Kid walked down to Fillmore Street, took on a stack of wheats, bacon and coffee at a lunch room, and caught a No. 22 car. He—and likewise I—transferred to a No. 5 car at McAllister Street, dropped off at Polk…” (The same trip can be made on the same lines today, only on trolley buses instead of streetcars.)
In The House in Turk Street, the Op tries to gain information by spinning a story to residents that he was looking for witnesses who might have seen his (phony) client ‘thrown from the rear platform of a street car last week’—a common enough occurrence in those days to be credible.
As a Pink, Hammett worked on a variety of assignments that contributed flavor to his later writing. One of his cases, though, never was fictionalized: the holdup of the California Street Cable Railroad—presumably at Cal Cable’s offices at California & Hyde. According to William F. Nolan’s biography, Hammett: A Life at the Edge, he took on this case, among others, as extra work because he needed the money. In October 1921, he became a father when his daughter, Mary Jane, was born at St. Francis Hospital, just a block from the Cal Cable offices.
Hammett and cable cars
Cable Cars are never mentioned in The Maltese Falcon, although action takes place both on Powell Street (in a hotel dubbed the St. Mark, though from its location it is clearly the St. Francis), and in Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s apartment, likely located at 1201 California Street. Given Hammett’s familiarity with them and his penchant for local color, this may seem like an odd omission. It is possible that Hammett wanted to paint an urban landscape familiar to big-city dwellers all over America, and while streetcars were ubiquitous across the US in those days, cable cars were then running only in San Francisco, Seattle and Tacoma. It’s also possible he didn’t want to clutter his prose by explaining what a cable car was.
Whatever his reasons, Hammett himself would have ridden his fair share of cable cars in those days. For a brief time in 1926, he and his family lived at 1309 Hyde Street, between Clay and Washington. To cable car aficionados even then, this was a famous stretch of Hyde, carrying the last completely new cable car line opened in the city.
When the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line opened in 1891, the rules required that the cable on new lines be ‘inferior’ (pass underneath) every older cable line it crossed. This meant that the gripman had to drop the ‘rope’ (cable) at every cable crossing to avoid snagging the ‘superior’ cable of the older line it was intersecting—22 times in all on one round trip for this newest line. In this particular stretch near Hammett’s apartment, the Hyde line crossed older lines at five successive intersections: California, Sacramento, Clay, Washington, and Jackson. (The tribulations of operating this line was memorialized by Gelett Burgess in 1901 in his poem The Ballad of the Hyde Street Grip.)
Going north on Hyde was a lurching, jerky ride, as the first four blocks of this stretch were uphill, requiring the rope to be dropped and picked up again at each intersection before cresting the hill at Washington and coasting across Jackson. Southbound on Hyde, however, was a freewheeling joyride after Jackson, all the way past the carhouse on the southwest corner of California and Hyde (a supermarket today). Watch out, though: the line turned east (and uphill) at Pine, so the gripman had to be sure to take the rope after the carhouse.
Hammett might have enjoyed this ride when he was living on Hyde, because the line then jogged down Jones to O’Farrell, a two-block walk from Samuels. (This portion of the great Hyde trackage disappeared in 1954.) Perhaps an even faster solution would have been jumping on a Washington-Jackson cable car a half-block from his house and riding directly to Powell and Market, with the jewelry store just across the street. Samuels later moved across Market to a location just east of the Flood Building. Its massive street clock made the move across Market too, and is today the only remnant of the family-owned jewelry firm that billed itself as ‘The House of Lucky Wedding Rings’.
It does not appear that Hammett wrote that slogan as part of his Samuels job. It would have been ironic if he had, for his own marriage was on the rocks. After leaving the Hyde Street apartment and his family for 891 Post, he rarely lived together with his wife again, famously beginning an affair with the playwright Lillian Hellman just a few years later, a relationship that would last until his death in 1961.
During an earlier family split, Hammett lived for a time at 20 Monroe Street, an alley off Bush near Stockton, while his wife and daughter lived across the bridgeless Golden Gate in San Anselmo. He visited them frequently on weekends, likely using cable cars for the first part of the journey: walk two blocks north to California Street for a ride on the Cal Cable, with a free transfer to the company’s Hyde line, then onto the Northwestern Pacific ferry at the Hyde Street Pier, switching to the electric interurban train at Sausalito for the rest of the trip.
Murder atop Stockton Tunnel
Of more import to the literary world, during his time at 20 Monroe Street, Hammett daily passed the scene of the most famous fictional crime in San Francisco history—a crime of his own creation.
To reach Samuels, Hammett would have either walked three-quarters of a block west on Bush to catch a Powell cable car, or jogged a few feet east on Bush to descend the stairs at the south portal of the Stockton Tunnel, taking an F-Stockton Muni streetcar to its terminal at Market, then walking a block to his office.
Certainly, then, Hammett was quite familiar with the rather foreboding portal, constantly rent by the echoes of Muni ‘A-type’ streetcars (including preserved car No. 1) roaring through the tunnel. Though the novel doesn’t mention it, that ear-splitting sound of streetcars emerging from the portal would have been an effective mask for the sound of the bullet from the Webley-Fosbery revolver in Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s hand. That bullet, of course, killed Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, to open The Maltese Falcon, setting off the entire adventure. The scene of the crime was the dark alley named Burritt Street, just across Bush from the apartment on Monroe. In those days, there was a steeply sloped vacant lot between Burritt and the tunnel portal, down which the dying Archer tumbled.
Up in the world
Even before The Maltese Falcon was published as a book in February 1930, its successful serialization in Black Mask was bringing Hammett great success. His last San Francisco address, 1155 Leavenworth, showed he was literally moving up in the world, onto the upper slopes of Nob Hill, between California and Sacramento Streets. Here again, he was sandwiched among three cable car lines, but by now he was well off enough to take taxis when he needed to get around town. He left town for good in October 1929, bound for New York and then Hollywood before writer’s block truncated his career.
Of course, Hammett’s writing also led to one of the most loved movies ever made. The Humphrey Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon was actually the third version of the book put to celluloid, and by far the most faithful. The first-time director, John Huston, is said to have created the screenplay by simply converting the book’s dialogue into script form, using the book’s narrative as screen direction. There was, of course, some necessary editing and a little simplification, including the removal of the book’s streetcar scene. Few movies of the day were filmed outside Los Angeles, and except for the first panoramic stock shot of the City from the Bay, The Maltese Falcon was filmed on Hollywood sound stages or back lots.
Hammett’s legacy includes some of the most vivid prose ever penned in a San Francisco setting. It also conveys enduring insight into the way transit served as the vital circulation system bringing mobility to San Franciscans—just as Muni does today.
Written by Rick Laubscher; photos from Market Street Railway Archive unless otherwise noted.If you’d like to keep stories like this coming, please consider supporting us.
San Francisco on the brink of disaster
On April 17, 1906, San Francisco was the West’s grandest metropolis. Four companies provided the city’s street railway services. San Francisco’s largest transit provider — with 139 route miles out of the city’s total of 154 — and its only city-wide street railway system was United Railroads of San Francisco (URR).
Editor’s note: Our organization’s namesake, the Market Street Railway Co. (of 1893), consisted of the Market Street Cable Railway and many smaller competitors that its Southern Pacific owners had voraciously gobbled up. This and other business tactics won it the unflattering description of ‘Octopus’ in a San Francisco Chronicle article of February 19, 1895. Six years later, Frank Norris took the term ‘Octopus’ as the title of his classic muckraking book about the Southern Pacific Railroad. An easy transference in… — Read More
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… — Read More
During the first weeks of 1915, Pancho Villa proclaimed himself in charge of Mexico. Germany began open submarine warfare in the Atlantic as the Lusitania prepared to sail to England. California’s only active volcano, Mount Lassen, was erupting–spewing ash for hours at a time. And as bad weather pelted San Francisco, workmen toiled ’round-the-clock on the city’s northern shoreline to complete preparations for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). Initially conceived in 1904 to occur upon the completion of the Panama… — Read More
Comments Off on “Fair, Please”: Streetcars to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition
Editor’s Note: This article, by Marshall Kilduff, appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 15, 1979. Maurice Klebolt went on to become a board member of Market Street Railway and one of the forces behind the Historic Trolley Festivals from 1983-87 that led to the permanent F-Market and Wharves vintage streetcar line. A German streetcar was trundled on the back of a flatbed truck to the front steps of City Hall yesterday where city officials fashioned a reluctant welcome… — Read More