“My City, My Game”

“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.

Dashiell Hammett

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.)

Union Square, 1927, looking east on Geary at Powell. Muni Car 187, right; Market Street Railway Company’s Powell Cable Car 502, left.

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.

The Hunter-Dulin Building, about 1930. Note the streetcars on Sutter.

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

Looking east on Geary at Leavenworth, 1930, the route Spade rode in the book.

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.

Rail lines Spade/Hammett could have ridden. Click to enlarge, then click again on the magnifying glass; on the underlying map you’ll see the tracks of every downtown streetcar and cable car line in 1927.

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.

Montgomery Street “dinky” north of Sutter, 1927, with Spade’s fictional office in the Hunter-Dulin building in the background.

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).

Postcard image of the Lincoln Building, Fifth and Market, 1922; The Emporium to its left. Samuel’s Jewelers far right and in the detail below, next to F.W. Woolworth. The street clock is now across Market, next to the Flood Building.

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.

A 20-line streetcar, shown here turning from westbound Ellis onto northbound Hyde, might have been Hammett’s ride home after an evening at John’s Grill.

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.

A ‘Pink’

Perhaps Dashiell Hammett, on his way to work, has just stepped off the #4-Turk & Eddy car angling onto Market Street past the Flood Building in the upper right of this 1925 view looking east on Market from Fifth. The buildings on the left were all ripped out in the late 1960s to build Hallidie Plaza, and the Powell Street BART/Muni Metro station.

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.

California Street Cable Railroad Company Car House at California and Hyde Streets, site of a holdup Dashiell Hammett investigated as a Pinkerton detective. A Trader Joe’s occupies this corner today.

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 may have ridden the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Street cable line to connect to the ferry (top right) to Sausalito to visit his wife and daughter in Marin. He would’ve gotten a bonus: a whiff of chocolate from the Ghirardelli factory to the left.

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

A Muni streetcar on the original F-line enters the Stockton Tunnel, headed north. The fictional murder of Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s partner, which opens The Maltese Falcon, took place on what was a vacant lot next to the portal, to the right of that truck exiting the 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.

The “dingus” that caused all that running around San Francisco, immortalized in Hammett’s book.

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.

For those with a New York Times subscription, check out this great 2014 story retracing Hammett’s haunts.

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The Octopus Moves the Mail


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 Norris’ mind, no doubt, since the Market Street Railway Co. was controlled by the Southern Pacific.

In the early 1890s, the U.S. Post Office Department began nationwide studies to facilitate city mail delivery and processing using local rail transit systems. At the time, private wagons moved mail between San Francisco post offices. In June, 1894, former San Francisco mayor and state senator Frank McCoppin was appointed Postmaster of San Francisco and came up with a plan to transport mail between post offices in sealed pouches carried on street railway vehicles.


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Ding Dong Daddy: The real story

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 news, which was dominated by the kind of titillating story that’s now standard fodder for cable television.

The story had many elements familiar today—sex, allegations of crime, local celebrities: San Francisco District Attorney Edmund G. ‘Pat’ Brown (later governor), noted criminal defense attorney Jake Erlich, financier Louis Lurie, hotelier Ben Swig, and others. And at the center of it all, a Muni streetcar conductor.

dingdongdaddy-2.jpgVan Wie Meditates—In a contemplative mood, Francis Van Wie sits behind bars after his arrest on bigamy charges in 1945. San Francisco Public Library photo. Click to enlarge photos in story.

Francis Van Wie liked women. He met lots of them on the job: holding down the rear platform of aging streetcars heaving themselves around the city under the crush of wartime loads. With so many men overseas in the service, there wasn’t a lot of competition. So he courted them and married them. Quite a few of them. At the same time.

An unlikely lothario, Examiner reporter Norma Barzman described Van Wie as “on the wrong side of 50, round as a beer barrel, pale and meek looking with a shiny bald head and eyeglasses.” At 5′ 2″ and 180 pounds, beer barrel was a pretty good description…and he became so famous locally, he complained, that whenever he walked into a San Francisco tavern, the bartender would buy his drink and someone would put a nickel into the jukebox and play the Trolley Song. Actually, for a time his fame spread nationwide—thanks to a story first scooped by Examiner reporter Ernest Lenn, but immortalized by Chronicle reporter Stanton Delaplane. It was the story of the Ding Dong Daddy of the D-car Line. Sort of.

The setting

dingdongdaddy-1.jpg22-Fillmore Car, still in MSRy ‘zip stripe’ livery shortly after the 1944 merger with Muni, rattles around the turn from Duboce to Fillmore. Some of Francis Van Wie’s wives lived very close to the 22-line, his ‘home turf’. Today, MSR’s Pharr Division restoration yard sits less than two blocks from this scene, on the old N-Judah Duboce right-of-way, abandoned when the Market Street subway opened in the late 1970s. Phil Hoffman collection.

When the US entered World War II in December 1941, Muni still competed with the privately owned Market Street Railway Co. (MSRy), our namesake. Both companies faced severe personnel shortages as regular employees left for military service. Out of necessity, long-time employment prejudices fell, and many African-Americans and women stepped through the ‘gate of opportunity’ to relatively well-paying jobs by climbing the two high steps onto a streetcar platform. (After the war, returning male veterans squeezed out almost all the women, the majority of whom had been hired on a ‘limited tenure’ basis. That’s a story we’ll bring you in a future issue of our member newsletter, Inside Track.)

The moniker

A common practice of newspaper editors in those competitive days was to find a catch phrase to stoke public interest in the story. (A classic example of this was the unsolved dismemberment murder of a young Los Angeles woman that grew in public attention after a newspaper dubbed her the Black Dahlia). In the early going of the Van Wie story, one paper nicknamed Van Wie the Car Barn Casanova; another called him the Trolley Toreador. However, all other sobriquets soon gave way to the inspired invention of Chronicle reporter (later long-time columnist) Stanton Delapane: Ding-Dong Daddy of the D-car Line.

dingdongdaddy-3.jpgFrancis Van Wie (bald, in overcoat) stands at his 1945 San Francisco trial. To his immediate right is famed defense attorney Jake Erlich, and next to Erlich is District Attorney (and later California Governor) Edmund G. ‘Pat’ Brown. San Francisco Public Library photo.

Delaplane later admitted he filched the name from a popular song of the previous decade—Ding Dong Daddy of Dumas, recorded by Louis Amstrong—given the fact that San Francisco streetcar conductors rang bells to signal the motorman, or ‘motorette’, and…bingo! Higher newsstand sales. There was one unfortunate fact in the way…Van Wie almost certainly never worked the D-line. Presumably, Delaplane and his editors followed the newspaper adage of the time: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Muni and MSRy employment records of the period were destroyed, but recollections of contemporaries make it clear that during his spree, Van Wie was assigned to Turk and Fillmore, a MSRy division, while the D-line, always a Muni line, ran from Geary Division about twenty blocks away. (Muni officially acquired its private competitor, lock, stock, and employees—apparently including Van Wie—on September 29, 1944.)

dingdongdaddy-4.jpgThe Ding Dong Daddy of the D-car Line enters San Quentin State Prison. San Francisco Public Library photo.

Ruth Losaga, a retired MSRy ‘motorette’ and conductor, recalled in an interview with this author that during her tenure at the Turk and Fillmore Division, she had Van Wie as her conductor on Fillmore Street. She said, he was “The last person in that carhouse I would have expected to have been a bigamist,” and said that he did not cause her any concerns. Market Street Railway Historian Philip Hoffman recalls riding on Van Wie’s car on the 22-line and says that, after the trials, one of the papers staged a photo op with him on the rear platform of Muni D-line car No. 172.

dingdongdaddy-5.jpgO’Farrell, Jone & Hyde Cable Car No. 62 passes by the Padre Hotel at 241 Jones Street (at Turk) where Van Wie was put up by financier Louis Lurie after his arrest, to await his trial. Jack Tillmany collection.

In that period, Turk and Fillmore housed only two main streetcar lines, the 22-Fillmore and the 31-Balboa. Additional circumstantial evidence all points to the 22-line as Van Wie’s line. Consider that Wife Number Eight reportedly lived at 8 Sanchez Street (one block west of the 22-line’s turn from Duboce onto Fillmore—photo, p.3). Another wife lived at 426 Oak Street, two and one-half blocks from the Fillmore line.

Additionally, in January 26, 1945, the press reported that a younger woman, describing Van Wie as ‘that silly old fool’, disclosed that he leered at her through his bifocals daily that summer of 1944 when she climbed aboard his trolley and that he even asked for a date. This 28 year-old potential victim listed her address as at 650 Oak Street (again, between Fillmore and Webster, just steps from the 22-line).

The clincher

Stanton Delaplane himself reported in the January 25, 1945 Chronicle that the Ding Dong Daddy “cashed in at the Fillmore car barn.” But while Delaplane and his editors had to know Van Wie’s actual assignment, Ding Dong Daddy of the 22-car Line wasn’t alliterative and didn’t scan either. So what the heck, make it the D-line. (To throw in a complete red herring, a 1952 Examiner item claimed that the Ding Dong Daddy of the D-car Line in reality plied the F-Stockton line, but this seems plain wrong, as the original F-line ran out of Geary, along with the D-line and several other Muni lines.)

The crime

Van Wie was too old to be drafted, but not too old to flirt—and them some! As the newspapers and D.A. Brown unraveled his story in early 1945, the number of women he married kept increasing from four to fourteen—all without a single divorce! Brown indicted him for bigamy, for which Van Wie faced a maximum of ten years in state prison if convicted.

dingdongdaddy-6.jpgIn this staged press photo, ex-conductor Van Wie (in sedan) shakes the hand of one of his motormen, tellingly aboard a 22-Fillmore car. San Francisco Public Library photo.

While the papers treated it generally as a lighter counterpoint to the grim wartime news, all was not the jovial merriment the papers tended to emphasize. Most wives reported that within weeks, Van Wie became abusive—stayed out late or was gone for weeks at a time. Wife Number Three summed up what it was like for her. “Frank’s a card in the parlor, a gentleman on the street, and a beast in the home.” Another said that after two months he became insanely jealous, accusing her of stepping out with other men, and then beat her. She promptly ended the relationship.

The M.O.

Wives seemed to be rather unabashed in explaining how they fell for this lothario…most were middle-aged women. Several sat together at his trial and were photographed engaging in good-natured conversation with him—together! Indeed, many met him on the streetcar. Interestingly, the Ding Dong Daddy sought work on the rear platform, rather than the front, where he would have stood beneath a prominent ‘Do Not Talk to Motorman’ sign.

dingdongdaddy-7.jpgVan Wie reported for duty to the Turk-Fillmore Division. Once onboard his run, he ‘went to work’. This site was razed, replaced by a market in the 1950s, which in turn was converted to a police station. Across the street, though, the old brick Market Street Railway Co. powerhouse remains, still owned by the city, but derelict, and badly in need of seismic work before it can take on a new life of some sort. Market Street Railway photo.

Wife Number Eight, Myrtle, explained how she met him in a January 22, 1945 Examiner story. “I was standing on the rear platform and he was the conductor…When the car lurched…I fell right into his arms and I ‘fell’ for him, too. It was love at first sight.”

Later that week, Van Wie matter-of-factly explained his wiles to Examiner reporter Norma Barzman: “You’re a woman. I could get you to marry me in a month…[Women] want to be told they’re loved more than anything else—and they want their own way.

“It’s simple. If I wanted to get you to marry me, I’d help you cook dinner some night and I’d make you feel how cozy and secure love can be…

“Older women are the ones who like to feel secure. They want to feel they’re building a home and just starting out like a sixteen year-old bride…I know how to make a woman feel as if she’s the only woman in the world—and I’m the only man.”

His proposal line? “Let’s build a life together.”

Van Wie relished his role as streetcar conductor. “If any of my occupations made women like me it was being a streetcar conductor. It was a position of authority and seemed to represent standing in the community…It was a very respectable job—and they thought they could be sure of getting my weekly pay check.”

The committee

This is where Lurie, Erlich, Swig and others (including Oakland Oaks baseball club owner Joseph Blumenfeld and Atherton Mayor James B. Howell) enter the story. Between Van Wie’s arrest and his trial, they formed a support committee that persuaded five bail bond brokers to chip in $200 each toward his bond. During the trial, Lurie even put him up in one of his holdings, in Room 707 of the Padre Hotel at 241 Jones Street (see photo at left), where, conveniently, the Daddy could hear the bells of both the Jones Street cable on the street below as well as those of the MSRy’s Balboa High Speeds on neighboring Turk and Eddy Streets.)

The employer

As embarrassing as the notoriety of this employee must have been to Muni, Utilities Manager E.G. Cahill’s comments reflect wartime employment tolerances and the challenges facing the railway in just providing service. “I can’t find anything in the City Charter against him having more than one wife. I believe the public cares more about getting streetcar service than whether a man has one or five wives.”

The defense

Van Wie’s attorney, James Toner, downplayed the Ding Dong Daddy as being a ‘sheep in wolf’s clothing’, claiming that he was harmless, that “He meant no harm to his wives; that he was sentimental, and that he did not harm them or run away with money.”

The prosecution

District Attorney Brown presented a different portrait, citing evidence that Van Wie had abandoned one wife with a baby—who was later adopted. (Van Wie denied this—claiming it couldn’t be his child as he was sterile.) Brown portrayed him as a youthful horse thief and later, a man who absconded with union funds (a very serious charge in pro-Labor San Francisco.) Finally, Brown dropped the bombshell that Wife Number Five, Mabel, was really his daughter by his first wife. Van Wie finally claimed that she was indeed the daughter of Wife Number One, but that he was not her biological father.

The stories

dingdongdaddy-8.jpg22-Fillmore car crosses Market before the 1944 Muni-MSRy merger. Phil Hoffman collection.

San Franciscans have always been mesmerized by a good storyteller, and Francis Van Wie was a consummate liar. One wife recounted how he would turn up wearing an army uniform after being missing for a while. As his excuses unraveled publicly, the FBI bureau chief’s ears perked up when he heard one wife say that in 1942 he told her that he was actually an FBI agent, dropping the first names of the local bureau chief and referring to the agency’s director as ‘J. Edgar.’ He explained his long absences to her by the excuse that he was involved in secret undercover work examining the attack on Pearl Harbor. Van Wie saw no bounds to his cover, claiming to one wife that his investigator role required him to pose as a married man to other women.

The judgment

By early February, things were looking bad for the Daddy in court. He entered an unsuccessful insanity plea (which the jury deliberated on for 55 minutes before denying on the second ballot). He was convicted of Bigamy, and sentenced to ten years, entering San Quentin State Prison on April 12, 1945, the day Franklin D. Roosevelt died. He quickly disappeared from the news…for awhile.

The return

Within a year, Van Wie’s trial judge was petitioned for his release on parole. He was described as an ‘elderly man’ and his case was seen as lending a ‘great moral lesson to our youth’. Two years to the day later, Frances Van Wie was paroled, with a special condition that he was not to wed for five years without the approval of his parole officer. As he had lost his job at Muni, on release he worked first as a peach picker, then as a janitor in Oakland at Machek’s Waffle and Cocktail Lounge at 22nd and Telegraph, where he undoubtedly witnessed the last days of Oakland streetcar service.

dingdongdaddy-9.jpgVan Wie with his fiancee and Judge Kaufman. San Francisco Public Library photo.

Fantastic though it may sound, Van Wie surfaced again in late 1949 when he approached none other than his trial judge (Kaufman) with a request to be married. After the stunned judge ascertained that he was free to marry since he had cleared all his prior marriages through annulments or divorces, he insisted that Van Wie bring the fiancee into the court. There, he ‘strongly advised her against marrying him’. When she insisted, he relented and married them.

In 1952, Van Wie popped up in the press again, working at the El Rey Burlesque Theatre at 35th and San Pablo Avenues in Oakland. Here he starred in an act entitled My True Love Story wherein he and the accomplished performers all wore conductor’s hats.

The last time we found coverage of the Ding Dong Daddy in the San Francisco press was May 8, 1958, when an article noted that Francis Van Wie, then 73, married his eighteenth wife in Southern California. He soon dropped out of sight and died in the town of Lake Elsinore, Riverside County, in 1973.

The end

After World War II ended, financially strapped Muni did everything it could to free itself from the labor costs of conductors, converting lines to single-operator buses whenever possible (the 22-line changed over in 1948, the D-line in 1950), and trying to pass law changes and acquire newer streetcars that didn’t require two-person crews. In 1958, the last regular run of a two-person streetcar pulled into the car barn…until the first Trolley Festival 25 years later. Today, those vintage streetcars on the F-line that originally operated with two-person crews still do.

The legacy

Francis Van Wie’s fifteen minutes of fame had an odd afterlife. Ask almost any San Franciscan from that time about the Ding Dong Daddy and they will remember a surprising amount of detail from an event that took place 60 years ago. Google the Daddy and you’ll find some odd references, including one artist who did a Ding Dong Daddy tribute, confusing the Dumas song with the Van Wie case, and making Van Wie a cable car conductor.

Speaking of songs, perhaps the oddest legacy of all is another song by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies from the 1990s. Ding Dong Daddy of the D-car Line makes him a train conductor. It is perhaps fitting that this contemporary song should get it wrong, since we now know the original press coverage was also wrong.

Also, while the press reported testimony from multiple wives that Van Wie was physically and mentally abusive, the coverage carried a ‘boys will be boys’ undertone, not surprising from a newsroom culture completely dominated by men. But, though it all happened a long time ago when societal mores were far different, there is an eerie resonance captured by the modern song. Tune in any of the crime and court-covering cable television stations today, and it won’t be long until you see some oddball story that in one way or another echoes Ding Dong Daddy. Except today, it just might be a mommy.

— Rick Laubscher

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“Fair, Please”: Streetcars to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition

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 Canal, this event had become a celebration of the rebirth of San Francisco following the devastating Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Millions of dollars went to develop the site and to promote San Francisco as the host city. When San Francisco was selected for the Fair over New Orleans, President William Howard Taft stated, “San Francisco knows how.”

The Ferry Building was the landing point for Fairgoers from the East Bay, and as far away as Sacramento. Emblazoned on the Bay-side of the Ferry Building, approaching passengers saw a huge sign: “California Welcomes the World – Panama-Pacific Exposition” with the year “1915” in lights on the building’s famed tower. Photo courtesy BAERA Archives at F.M. Smith Library, Western Railway Museum.

Indeed, San Franciscans had much to be proud of. They had used one of the worst natural disasters on record as the springboard for a number of civic improvements, including the new City Hall and Municipal Auditorium. Another civic improvement would prove to make all the difference in getting crowds to the Fair. This was the launching of the Municipal Railway of San Francisco (Muni)–an ambitious experiment in street railway ownership, construction, and operation. The Railway began operations December 28, 1912 with just ten cars on Geary Street. Yet just twenty-six months later as the exposition opened, Muni was operating almost 200 streetcars over ten lines, and had vaulted into a much stronger competitive position against its dominant private rival, United Railroads.

The site

PPIE construction commenced in 1912 on 635 acres in an area called “Harbor View”, extending from Van Ness Avenue almost to Fort Point. The site, later known as the Marina District, was cobbled together from a piece of the Army’s Presidio, a stalled real estate development, and land reclaimed from San Francisco Bay. It was a long way from downtown hotels and other neighborhoods. To succeed in an era totally reliant on public transportation, there had to be an efficient and reliable way to move crowds of people to and from the Fair.

Newly-rebuilt Car No. 642 leads a “crush load” two-car “train” on Fillmore at Green Street. A crowd of people chose the steep walk down the steps to the Exposition rather than wait in line for the clearly overtaxed counterbalance service. Photo courtesy Bancroft Library, Jesse Brown Cook Collection.

This posed several significant challenges that had to be overcome by the city’s street railway system during the scheduled 288-day run. In light of this, the Board of Supervisors engaged Transit Consultant Bion J. Arnold to make suggestions “in order to improve the transportation facilities of this city.” Arnold described the existing lines’ inadequate capacities to transport people to the PPIE. He stated that the only “important line” that “reasonably approaches” the Exposition site was the Polk Street line of the United Railroads with a capacity of 12,000 passengers per day. The Union Street electric line of Presidio & Ferries Railroad could carry 4,800 passengers per day, while California Cable Railroad’s Hyde Cable Line and the United Railroads’ Fillmore Line together only had a capacity of an additional 9,300. He noted, however, that the Polk line’s terminal was a mile from the main exhibits and two miles from the sports and drill grounds.

The plan

A two-car train waits for the signal from the starter to proceed over the crest of Fillmore Hill at Broadway. This is an example of a Wednesday morning load taken April 14, 1915. The house at the extreme left still stands today. San Francisco Municipal Railway photo.

In response, the Board of Supervisors turned to City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy to provide a plan and estimate of cost of a “Municipal System of Street Railways…designed to furnish to the Panama-Pacific Exposition a fully adequate street railway service…” While outlining several route options, O’Shaughnessy indicated that the Exposition was expected to draw as many as 8,640,000 visitors overall and stressed that, on the day of maximum attendance, a total of a quarter-million persons were expected. Many of these would arrive from points east at the Ferry Building or come from the Peninsula and points south via the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Motor vehicle alternatives

While automobiles were not considered to be a primary form of transportation, there were options to reach the Exposition, including the new competition of nickel jitneys and open-buses mounted on early truck chassis. Bus routes were to operate to the gates, and the Arnold Report warned, “If adequate street railway facilities are not available, motor buses will have to be relied upon for a considerable share of land traffic.” Unfourtunately, the buses of that time were rather precarious devices of limited seating capacity.

The street railway system

Given the size of expected crowds, very limited private automobile ownership, and the state of bus development, it was clear that streetcars would be the primary means of serving the 1915 Exposition. Both Muni and URR would respond by establishing new terminals, routes and (in the case of Muni) new lines.

United Railroads lines & routes

With its strong philosophical and political support of the nascent Municipal Railway, the city had become increasingly combative with rival United Railroads over its franchise rights on city streets. In this environment, URR indicated it was unwilling to build track extensions to serve the Fair.

Sandwiched between Roos Brothers and Painless Parker’s Dentistry, a new Muni “B-type” car (identical to preserved Nos. 130 and 162) changes ends at Stockton and Market Streets during the Fair. It sports a “Zone Entrance Transportation Dock” dash sign indicating that it is using the Fort Mason loop. Today, that very Roos Bros. building is occupied by the Virgin Megastore. Jack Tillmany Collection.

The URR’s regular 19-Polk line offered service from Ninth and Bryant via Larkin and Polk to the PPIE Van Ness Avenue Entrance. URR also adjusted the route of the 23-line (Fillmore-Valencia) from its terminal at Sacramento and Divisadero to Fillmore and Broadway, to connect with its existing counterbalance on Fillmore Hill. Four new routes on existing trackage provided service to the Fair from the Southern Pacific Depot, Mission District, Ferry and the Haight. United Railroads did build a few feet of new trackage, in the form of a temporary loop at the north end of its 19-line, and assigned three new routes to it, augmenting the 19: the 32-Depot-Exposition, from the Southern Pacific depot via Townsend, 4th, Ellis, Hyde, O’Farrell, Larkin, Post and Polk Streets (returning via Polk, Post, Larkin, Ellis and Fourth); the 33-Mission-Exposition, from 29th and Mission via Mission, 9th Street, Larkin, Post, and Polk; and the 34 Sutter-Exposition, which ran from the Ferry Building via Market, Sutter, and Polk. Additionally, the 35-Haight-Exposition line operated from Carl and Stanyan via Carl, Clayton, Frederick, Masonic, and Page to Fillmore, returning via Oak Street. It allowed transfer to the URR Fillmore lines 22 and 23, which in turn connected with the Fillmore Hill counterbalance line to reach the Fair. [Note that after the Fair, the numbers of these temporary lines were reassigned to newer lines.]

Muni Car No. 14 (like Car No. 1) operates southbound on Van Ness at Union, displaying a “33rd Ave Geary” destination sign, probably on opening day, Feb. 20, 1915. While the roof route boxes are empty, this destination sign is consistent with the short-lived I-line, making this a rare picture indeed. Photo courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.

Most of the URR routes only reached the eastern edge of the Fair, the so-called ‘Fun Zone’–far away from the main exhibitions. The only URR line directly serving the main area was the Fillmore Hill line, which operated over Fillmore Street’s 25-degree grade from Broadway to Green by use of an ingenious counterbalance system. Tiny, single truck electric streetcars (twins of preserved ‘Dinky’ No. 578s) were secured by a “wishbone” to a fixed grip “plow” connected to an underground cable at the top and bottom of the hill simultaneously. The northbound car descended the grade (with power on); its weight helping pull the southbound car up the hill. Attempting to meet traffic demands, the URR closed the formerly open cars and coupled them in pairs, with the lead car receiving power and feeding it through its controller to the two motors on each car using connecting cables. The public must have expressed some trepidation about the ominous Fillmore Hill grade. Despite installing a stronger cable and newer connecting “plows”, the URR felt compelled to note in its revitalized April 1915 Transit Tidings service brochure that “the Fillmore Hill Line is absolutely safe.” In fact, given the overview of the Exposition site from atop Fillmore Hill, the line may have also been one of the more exciting rides of the entire PPIE experience.

New municipal railway: Lines and routes

In light of O’Shaughnessy’s recommendations and the fact that the URR would not be building new lines, the Board of Supervisors augmented the existing Municipal Railway Geary Street lines by approving the creation of three new Muni lines and purchasing a fourth, all with the immediate purpose of serving Fairgoers. These four lines went on to serve San Franciscans beyond World War II with streetcars, and with some changes, they still carry Muni riders, albeit with buses. During the Exposition, though, these lines sometimes served terminals different from their later ones.

San Francisco Day–November 2, 1915–brought 348,472 patrons to the PPIE, a crowd exceeded only on Closing Day. The “J” terminal had been extended on July 9, 1915 to the Scott and Chestnut Street main entrance. Photo courtesy Bancroft Library, Jesse Brown Cook Collection.

When the franchise of the Presidio and Ferries Railroad’s Union Street line expired in December 1913, the City bought it, rebuilt it to Muni standards, and renamed it the “E-Union”. It ran from the north Ferry terminal on The Embarcadero through the Produce District on the one-way pair of Washington (outbound) and Jackson (inbound) Streets, then over Columbus Avenue to Union, and over Russian Hill via Union, Larkin, and Vallejo Streets, then jogged on Franklin to reach Union, which it followed to the Presidio. It served the Baker Street and Presidio entrances to the PPIE. The D-Van Ness began operating on August 15, 1914, from the Ferry via Market, Geary, and Van Ness, until it reached the E-line trackage at Vallejo. From that point, alternate cars provided service in both directions on the “Exposition Loop” formed by tracks on Union, Steiner, Greenwich, and Scott to Chestnut Street. After the Fair closed, the route operated both directions on Union, Steiner, Greenwich, and Scott to a crossover installed on Chestnut Street. Later, on May 4, 1918 after new tracks were installed on three blocks of Greenwich from Steiner to Baker Street, the D-line joined the E in serving the Presidio, utilizing a unique route following Steiner and Greenwich to avoid the steep grades on outer Union. The “mountain goat” single truck cars of the E could navigate grades that the double-truck cars of the D could not handle.

A-type cars operating on Columbus Avenue displaying “Ferry” and “Scott St.” destination signs and ‘J’ rooof plates. J.B. Monaco photo, courtesy of Richard Monaco.

On August 15, 1914, the H-Potrero began offering cross-town service from 25th Street and Potrero Avenue via Potrero, Division, 11th Street, Van Ness Avenue to Bay Street. Upon completion of a right-of-way through the ‘upper post’ of the Army’s Fort Mason. It was extended to a loop on Laguna Street on December 29, 1914. Supplemental services were also offered over H-line track to the Chestnut loop from both Sixteenth and Potrero and from Market Street. The F-Stockton was inaugurated on December 29, 1914 from Market and Stockton Streets via Stockton, through a new tunnel drilled between Union Square and Chinatown, then via Columbus, North Point, and Van Ness before it reached its terminal at the Fort Mason Loop. After the Fair, it was re-routed on Van Ness and out Chestnut to Scott. Muni showed flexibility during tthe Fair in adapting to Fairgoers’ travel patterns. Three additional Muni routes were established specifically for the Fair.

Though the dash signs may suggest otherwise, neither of these URR cars directly served the exposition. They promoted connections to URR’s 19-Polk and 22-Fillmore lines, which did. San Francisco Municipal Railway photo.

A new “G” (Columbus Line) operated from Stockton and Market over parts of the Presidio and Ferries Union Street Line via Stockton, Union, Larkin, Vallejo, Franklin, Baker, and Greenwich to the Presidio & Ferries terminal in the Presidio. An “I” line ran from 33rd and Geary to the Exposition Loop via Geary and Van Ness, making the same loop as the D. Municipal Railway Operating Revenue Logs for FY 1914-15 reveal that, in addition to the first three days of the Fair, it ran on Sundays and holidays, and a few Saturdays, at least through July, 1915. Despite infrequent operation, it generated considerable revenues per day. A “J” route (not to be confused with the current J-Church) began operations on February 10, 1915, sharing E-line trackage from the Ferry to Columbus and Union, then F-line tracks to Van Ness and the Fort Mason Loop. On July 9, 1915, it was re-routed up Van Ness and out Chestnut to Scott. Beyond these regular dedicated exposition lines, there is evidence that both Muni and URR diverted service from other lines to the Exposition on particularly heavy demand days. But even when on their normal routes, URR cars operating on the Market, Haight and Sutter Street lines regularly bore “Exposition via Polk St. or Fillmore St.” dash signs to encourage transfer to URR Fair routes.


Both URR and Muni installed high-capacity loop terminals to disgorge and load crowds rapidly at various Fair entrances. To expedite car loading at the Fort Mason Loop, Muni constructed an enclosed temporary station to allow for change making and prepaid boarding of cars. The United Railroads also constructed a loop and high-capacity loading shed on a block of land it owned bordered by Francisco, Polk, Bay, and Van Ness Avenues (now occupied by Galileo Academy of Science and Technology).

Success by any measure

This misidentified URR photo is actually taken from the corner of Francisco and Polk, and shows the construction status of the Exhibition Loop a scant nine days before opening day. San Francisco Municipal Railway photo.

The Panama Pacific Exposition was a success in all respects. By the time that the last turnstile had turned, 18,876,438 admissions had been recorded, ten million more than the planning estimates, showing that many people came back again and again. Average daily attendance of 65,543 more than doubled the estimate of 30,000. Although planners estimated the highest attendance day of the PPIE would draw about 250,000 people, the closing day crowd was 459,022 (almost equal to the city’s population of 485,000). Undoubtedly, the efforts of San Francisco’s transportation services contributed to the Fair’s success. Both the United Railroads and Muni enjoyed windfall profits from this service as did the Ferry services of both the Key Route and Northwestern Pacific.


The nascent Municipal Railway met the construction and operational challenges of the Exposition while acquiring 125 “B-type” cars that would be the backbone of its fleet for the next forty years. Although construction delays on Muni’s “A” and “B” lines along Geary Street raised skepticism, all construction and car deliveries for the Fair were completed ahead of schedule. Throughout the PPIE, the fledgling Muni management staff also gained considerable operational experience in meeting varied service demands.

This photo shows the URR Exhibition loop in operation, including a “32” car (Depot and Exposition). The Yellowstone Lodge and Grand Canyon can be seen to the right near Bay Street and Van Ness Avenue. The Tower of Jewels, rising a mile away in the distance beyond the roller coaster, is opposite the Scott Street main entrance. Photo courtesy BAERA Archives at F.M. Smith Library, Western Railway Museum.

San Franciscans today often cite the Palace of Fine Arts as the only surviving remnant of the PPIE, but there are in fact several others. The Auditorium at Civic Center (now named for Bill Graham) was constructed by the PPIE and presented as a gift to the city. The Stockton Tunnel was built so the original F-line could serve the Fair, and the Fort Mason Tunnel was built for freight railroad service to help build the Fair. (It later served the Army, and is now being studied as an extension of the latest E-line–the E-Embarcadero–to reach Fort Mason from Fisherman’s Wharf.) The Broadway Tunnel, while not built until 1952, was originally proposed to provide access to the Harbor View area for the PPIE. However, the main legacy for Muni was a well-built system connecting the northeastern and north central portions of the city to the Ferry Terminal as well as the financial and retail areas. When the Fair closed, Muni service along the D, E, and F lines fostered the residential developments and retail streets that became known as the northern portion of Cow Hollow and the Marina District. In the end, the city was left with the route structure upon which streetcars would operate for the next 35 years. Most importantly, by meeting the challenges presented by the Exposition, Muni demonstrated that it was a vital and mature agency of the “City that Knows How”.

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A Streetcar Named Undesirable

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

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