Streetcars in the Sunset

Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph operates the first N-Judah car through the Sunset Tunnel, October 21, 1928.

When one thinks of San Francisco’s Sunset District, the image of fog, cold salty winds, and sand dunes comes to mind. People have aptly developed their perceptions of this part of San Francisco. While it might be sunny and warm in the Mission District, the Sunset often shivers under a blanket of fog with a biting wind off the ocean and a temperature fifteen degrees lower.

The Sunset, west of Twin Peaks and south of Golden Gate Park, is geographically the largest district in the City, and, with almost 90,000 residents, the most populous as well. It was also the last major chunk of town to be developed. That’s where Muni, its former competitors, and streetcars come into the picture.

Sand dunes and scrub

When people thought of San Francisco in its first 75 years of existence, they thought almost exclusively of the bustling port, downtown, and posh residential districts, all near San Francisco Bay. This made sense, as our unmatched natural harbor generated much of the city’s commerce. The city effectively turned its back on the mighty Pacific Ocean, so much so that the 11 square miles on the city’s oceanfront was known as the “Outside Lands”.

In 1870, inspired by New York’s then-new Central Park, the city engaged William Hammond Hall to design a similarly grand public open space cutting east to west across the Outside Lands. A street grid for the western part of town had been laid out, still mostly on paper, and the city claimed the four-block-wide swath of land between D Street (now Fulton Street) and H Street (now Lincoln Way) for the park, starting at Stanyan Street and running westward to the breakers of the Pacific. Residential neighborhoods were rising east of Stanyan, accelerated by the advent of direct-to-downtown cable car service on Haight, Hayes, and McAllister Streets. in 1883.

That same year, 1883, Southern Pacific interests, including Leland Stanford, effectively extended their Haight Street cable line westward by opening the Park and Ocean Railroad, using a steam train, from the Stanyan Street turntable to the doorstep of the already popular Cliff House. The steam line followed H Street/Lincoln Way almost to Ocean Beach, then turned north through the western edge of Golden Gate Park into the outer Richmond District, ending at B (Balboa) Street. The first weekend, 10,000 people reportedly rode that steam train to the beach. (San Francisco historian Gary Kamiya has a wonderful write up on the backstory of the Park & Ocean, linked here, but behind a paywall for some.)

From steam to electric

Car 703 (identical to preserved 578) on a Sunday “tripper” run behind what’s now the Beach Chalet restaurant in Golden Gate Park, October 1903. As its livery showed, this car served the 10th & Montgomery route on weekdays.

This steam route was electrified in 1898, and by 1902 was operated by conventional streetcars, though not really for residents — because there were hardly any. The northern end of Ocean Beach, where the Cliff House and Adolph Sutro’s grand bathing palace were located, were a prime Sunday recreation destination, soon attracting a fast growing amusement park called Chutes-at-the-Beach as well (renamed Playland in 1926). The Lincoln Way route to the beach was faster for San Franciscans from the Mission District and other working class neighborhoods south of Market and on Sundays, and United Railroads (which had consolidated several private companies in 1902) would add streetcars from other lines to the Haight/H Street line to handle the crowds.

Dumping “Street Sweepings” in Golden Gate Park, 1905

Having the streetcar tracks right up against the park had a side benefit. The city contracted with United Railroads to carry ‘street sweepings’ (horse manure) to fill in sandy gullies in outer Golden Gate Park. The company had special work cars with tilting bins that did the deed, using temporary trestles built from into the swales in the park. So in a way, streetcars built the Sunset’s park before they built the Sunset itself.

Carville

The few residents in the Sunset early in the 20th century were concentrated near Ocean Beach and generally lived what was called a Bohemian lifestyle. They turned discarded horsecars and cable cars into beach cottages.

Carville, 1905. This shot is at what became 48th Avenue and Judah Street, where the N-line turns around today. Note the detail below. Car 1207, far left, painted green, had served what became the 14-Mission line; Car 1197, center, painted yellow worked Kearny Street. Both had been rebuilt from horsecars just nine years before, reflecting the fast evolution of electric streetcar technology.

In his book Carville-by-the-Sea, San Francisco historian Woody LaBounty says the retired railcars were used as “residences, vacation homes, clubhouses, restaurants, and even churches.” Famous people, including Jack London and poet George Sterling, visited. Gradually homes were built around the railcars and they disappeared from view, but LaBounty says at least one, a shingled box on Great Highway, has “a unique living room created from two cable cars while the bedroom is an intact horsecar.”

Streetcar startup service

H Street (Lincoln Way) near where Sunset Blvd. was later built, 1908

Carville residents used the Lincoln Way streetcars, which came to be numbered the 7-Haight line, but there wasn’t much else in the way of residents out west then. A developer subsidized a United Railroads (URR) subsidiary called Parkside Transit Company, running a line on 20th Avenue from Lincoln Way to Taraval Street, then west on Taraval to 33rd Avenue and south to Sloat.

Another of those single-truck dinkies passing a lonely house on 20th Avenue between Kirkham and Judah Streets, 1914.

In 1916, URR used the Parkside Transit trackage to run a new line, the 17- Haight & Ingleside from the Ferry alongside the 7-Haight & Ocean line, then cutting across the Sunset on 20th almost all the way to Sloat, jogging over on Wawona to 19th Avenue (back then then a regular-width, sleepy street) to go around what became Stern Grove and reach Sloat. There, the 17-line met up with the 12-Mission & Ingleside line that came down Mission Street from the Ferries, then across Ocean Avenue. The 12 then ran in the middle of extra-wise Sloat Boulevard to the Beach. But for decades, these lines traversed what were truly the “Outside Lands”, with few houses to serve at and no ‘built-in’ attractions like the beach amusements in the Richmond District (the Zoo and Fleishhacker Pool at Ocean Beach and Sloat) didn’t open until the 1930s).

The 12 and 17 lines were roundabout routes because Twin Peaks, Mt. Davidson, and Mt. Sutro separated the Sunset from the developed part of town. Coming in from Haight or Mission Streets was a slow ride and did not do much to attract people to live under the blanket of gray.

Muni burrows its way in

“Sunny Jim” Rolph’s first tunnel trip, opening the Twin Peaks Tunnel, February 3, 1918. SFMTA Archive

Enter the Municipal Railway, the City-owned streetcar system opened in 1912 on Geary Street. Real estate developers saw a potential gold mine in the Sunset, and encouraged politicians to extend fast Muni service to the district by means of tunnels and agreed to assess themselves to pay for it.

For ‘can-do’ City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy, that encouragement fit right in with his own vision. In 18 months, he holed through one of the longest streetcar tunnels ever built, from Castro and Market under Twin Peaks to the middle of nowhere. When it opened on Feb. 3, 1918, with Mayor ‘Sunny Jim’ Rolph at the controls of gray-and-maroon car No. 117, 10,000 turned out to cheer. Here’s a comprehensive look at how the Twin Peaks Tunnel came to be.

West Portal from Edgehill Way, 1920, with sand dunes and the Pacific beyond. (Dig that Buick!) The Twin Peaks Tunnel portal is just behind the man’s hat brim, the empty West Portal Avenue stretches out in front of his hat brim. Contrast this with the shot below, taken in 1929 from above the portal, below, showing the vibrant village that had grown up. The L-line tracks turn right here onto Ulloa Street.

New upscale neighborhoods soon appeared because of the fast tunnel service to the downtown business center. Forest Hill spread out around the station in the middle of the tunnel; indeed, real estate developers helped pay for the tunnel. Just beyond and south of the tunnel’s West Portal, the ritzy St. Francis Wood grew up.

But here, we concentrate on the development of the expansive sand dunes that formed the flat part of the Sunset District. So we won’t discuss two of the three lines that Muni established through the Twin Peaks Tunnel: the K-Ingleside, which shared tracks with URR’s 12-line on Junipero Serra and Ocean Avenue, and the M-Ocean View, which ran through sparsely settled land southeast of the tunnel, but later grew important with the development of Parkmerced, Stonestown, and San Francisco State University.

The Twin Peaks Tunnel line that made the big difference in developing the southern Sunset District (which many call the Parkside District, though its nowhere near Golden Gate Park) was the L-Taraval, which opened in 1919 as a shuttle from West Portal and was extended through the tunnel in 1923. The L was originally planned for Vicente Street, but instead shared the tracks of the URR’s Parkside line from 20th Avenue to 33rd Avenue. See our centennial celebration of the L-line here for more detail on the L.

33rd Avenue and Taraval, looking west, 1923. This is where the tracks of the Parkside line turned south via 33rd, Vicente, and 35th to reach Sloat Boulevard and the 12-line. Judging from the Parkside Sales Office, center, the Parkside line (discontinued in 1927) had limited success in spurring residential development, unlike the Muni lines in the Sunset did.

Sunset Tunnel

Ten years after Twin Peaks, Muni tunneled again, this time under Buena Vista Park to create the N-Judah line from the Ferry Loop to a loop at Ocean Beach. The N made the parallel MSRy 7-line on Lincoln Way seem poky, what with all its stops on Haight while the N zipped through the tunnel.

Two rarely-seen photos of the N-line opening day, October 21, 1928. Above, Mayor Rolph pilots the first car past 31st Avenue toward Ocean Beach, Below, the end of the line at the Great Highway loop. The run numbers in the two visible cars (3 and 4) suggest that the Mayor’s car and its follower have come and gone. but the crowd continues to celebrate.
That building at the corner of Judah and LaPlaya (behind the streetcars in both the above and below shots) has been a restaurant for as long as the N has been a streetcar line. For decades it was Dick’s at the Beach (pictured below with PCC 1143 in 1961), popular with N-line operators and rail fans.

The L, and N, running parallel ten blocks apart through the Sunset, facilitated a building boom in the 1930s, further fueled by low-interest Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans. Developers such as Henry Doelger and Standard Building Company (“Sunstream Homes”) came to dominate the district, focused on working-class families.

Looking north on 31st Avenue from Lawton, 1930, two blocks north of the third photo up. A 1938 aerial map shows these vacant blocks built out, typical of what quickly happened within a few blocks of both the N and L lines.

Consolidating Sunset service

Expansion of Muni to the Sunset was a deliberate act of public policy. The investment in tunnels was made knowing Muni’s private competitor couldn’t afford to match it, and would lose competitive advantage. The City wanted that: its goal was to municipalize–take over–all transit services, which it did by buying out the old Market Street Railway Co. in 1944 and the Cal Cable Railway Co. in 1952.

20th Avenue and Judah, 1937. Market Street Railway Car 131 crosses Muni’s N-Judah tracks, headed for Stern Grove (a full size replica of the cab of this 1911 streetcar type is on display in our museum).

Lack of money blunted Muni’s expansionist fervor, though. After the takeover of Market Street Railway in 1944, Muni could have rebuilt the worn-out track of MSRy’s 7, 12, and 17 lines and routed them through the Muni tunnels to speed those lines’ riders downtown. But voters had only funded purchase of the MSRy’s decrepit assets Instead, Muni ripped out the tracks and either discontinued parts of the routes or put buses on. Nor did Muni leverage its tunnel investment by adding additional lines on streets built extra wide to accommodate transit, such as Noriega.

Buses make their mark

By 1951, the Sunset had grown enough to need extra rush hour bus service. Here, a 16 Noriega bus from White Motor Company loads neatly queued passengers on Mason Street near Market Street for an express run home.

However, Muni did take advantage of wide Sunset streets for bus service. Muni opened a pioneering bus on Noriega Street in 1941 that connected to the N at 22/23 Avenues and Judah. (This was extended downtown at the end of the 1940s to become the 71-Haight-Noriega with rush-hour extra service on the 16x-Noriega Express.) Another Haight Street bus, the 72-Haight-Sunset, ran down Sunset Boulevard (built in the 1930s as an automobile thoroughfare between 36th and 37th Streets) to Sloat. And after 19th Avenue was widened in 1937 to carry Highway 1 between the Peninsula and the Golden Gate Bridge (which forced the cutback of the southern terminal of the 17-line streetcar), Muni established its 28-line in 1949, still one of its most important crosstown lines, now running from Fort Mason to the Golden Gate Bridge and then all the way south to the Daly City BART Station.

Real estate was so cheap in the Sunset back in the day that Muni’s private competitor bought two entire blocks to serve its streetcar operation (even though it had few lines out there). It owned the block bounded by Lincoln Way and Irving Street, Funston and 14th Avenues, originally intending to build a massive car barn there. Tight finances led them to turn it into a “boneyard” for out of service cars. The 1943 photo above shows a billboard at the boneyard promising to sell the land for housing if voters would approve purchase of Market Street Railway. (They finally did, the following year.) Of lesser value, but still important to Market Street Railway operations, was the block bounded by Pacheco, Ortega, and 21st and 22nd Avenues. The sand dunes there were “mined” by a conveyor belt on rails and loaded onto a differential dump car, which accessed the lot via a spur on Pacheco Street from the 17-line, delivering the sand to streetcar barns for use in helping stop streetcars when tracks were wet. This shot was taken in the late 1930s, after MSRy had already sold the strip at the right of the photo along 21st Avenue for new houses.

Other Muni bus lines connecting the streetcar trunk lines included the 18-Sloat, which took over the outer 12-line when streetcars were abandoned there after World War II and then crossed the Sunset on 46th Avenue, and the 66-Quintara, a lightly ridden route that serves now as a feeder for the N, but formerly ran rush hour service downtown via Haight Street. Today, Quintara is mainly served by the 48-line, another “Bay to Breakers” route that runs from Third Street in Dogpatch over 24th Street, Portola Drive, West Portal, and Quintara, with the distinction of connecting all six Muni light rail lines. In the past decade, heavy demand on the N-line led Muni to add peak hour express bus service to the N between Ocean Beach and Downtown.

But for the narrowness of the Twin Peaks Tunnel and (to a lesser extent) the Sunset Tunnel, the K, L, M, and N streetcar lines might have been converted to buses too, instead of being put into the Market Street Subway in the 1980s with modern light rail vehicles. By the 1950s, transit managers around America were bus-crazy, and operating costs of Muni’s old style streetcars, which required two operators by city ordinance, led Muni to cut streetcar service way back, even substituting a bus line called the 48- Ingleside-Taraval for K and L streetcars nights and Sundays in the early 1950s.

PCC 1037 on the new N-Judah right of way, in 1976, looking east from 15th Avenue.

Muni Metro era

Fortunately, though, voters repealed the two-operator requirement for modern streetcars in 1954, enabling Muni to replace its original streetcar fleet by 1958 with the streamlined “PCC” (like the F-line’s colorful daily fleet). The 1962 passage of the BART bond issue included a new subway under Market for Muni. To complement it, Muni planned major upgrades on its streetcar lines in the Sunset for faster operation. The deteriorating N-Judah trackway was rebuilt as a raised right-of-way in the mid-1970s, but opposition from residents over more difficult access to their driveways kept the trackway from being extended to the beach or from being implemented on the L-line. Fitfully and over significant resident opposition, Muni has been able to make incremental operating improvements on the N and L lines since then.

Just emerged from the Market Street Subway in early 1980, an N-Judah Boeing-Vertol LRV heads west on Duboce Avenue for the Sunset Tunnel while PCC 1134 is headed for Market in surface service during the phased opening of the subway.

The PCCs gave way to shiny new Boeing-Vertol light rail vehicles as the J, K, L, M, and N lines migrated into the new Market Street subway by 1982.

Remnants of streetcars past

Today, by looking carefully, one can catch glimpses of the early transit investment that spurred the Sunset to life: the spur of the L-line on Taraval from 46th to the Beach, now the oldest (1923) surviving streetcar trackage in town; the wide median running the length of Sloat, put there to carry the old 12-line; and Railroad Trail behind the Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park, the route of the old steam trains, and later the 7-line streetcars, discontinued through the park in 1947. All part of the legacy of streetcars in the Sunset.

Looking north on the 7-line’s right-of-way through Golden Gate Park, about 1946. The Big Dipper roller coaster and Playland-at-the-Beach are in the background.

Written by Rick Laubscher. Thanks to the Western Neighborhoods Project and SFMTA Archive for use of their photos. Uncredited photos are from the Market Street Railway Archive.

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The Castro’s rich transit history

Cable cars on Castro? An ‘elevated’ railway at Harvey Milk Plaza? Four streetcar tracks on Market? It’s all part of the transit history in a San Francisco neighborhood that has truly seen it all over the years.

What the heck is a steam dummy?

That’s one, right there, on Market at Castro in the 1880s, looking north from where the Chevron station is now. The little box on the right, called the dummy, holds a steam engine and the operator. The trailer holds the passengers. They had to dynamite the hill next to where the Mint stands now, at Duboce Avenue, to cut Market through from downtown. The Market Street Cable Railway Co. ran this steam dummy for several years to connect with cable car service to the Ferry Building at Valencia Street. (A similar steam dummy ran on Market Street downtown for a few years starting in 1860 but the noise drove people nuts on the crowded street.  

The neighborhood cable cars built

No crowds in Eureka Valley (as The Castro was then called) back when the Market Street Cable Railway Company, owned by Southern Pacific interests, replaced the steam dummy in 1887 with a direct cable car line from the Ferry to Castro on Market, then over the hill on Castro to 26th Street in Noe Valley. The shot above, from the 1890s, looks along Market west of Noe toward Twin Peaks. The ornate building just left of the cable car is the site of the later Bank of America building (now occupied by Soulcycle). The Castro cable line completed the Market Street cable car network, with most of those routes surviving even today as large portions of Muni’s 5, 7, and 21 trolley bus lines, and the F-Market streetcar.

Each of the Market Street cable lines had different colored cars, so riders downtown could see their car from a distance. Castro cable cars were ivory (Valencia was blue, Haight red, McAllister yellow, Hayes green).

The coming of the cable car and its speedy (9mph) trip downtown brought a building boom along its route on outer Market and over the Castro Hill into Valley. Victorian row houses marched up the streets within walking distance of a car stop. More remote blocks atop Dolores Heights took decades longer to develop for lack of public transit.

Electric streetcars take over

Streetcar 1588 and Streetcar 1590 on the 8 Line on Market Street East of 16th Street | December 5, 1917

The 1906 Earthquake ended an era for the Castro as well as the City. While the buildings of the neighborhood survived, the Market Street cable system was badly damaged. United Railroads (URR), by then the owner, had for years wanted to replace the cables on Market with faster electric streetcars, but had met resistance from those who considered overhead trolley wires to be unsightly. In the confusion following the earthquake, URR’s owners took a straightforward approach to get what they wanted. They bribed the entire Board of Supervisors. Within weeks, the wires were up on Market and streetcars reached the Castro, numbered as the 8-line. (The two cars above are on Market at 16th Street in 1917.) But from 18th Street south, the Castro hill was too steep for streetcars. So that portion of the cable line was left in place as a kind of shuttle.

Along Comes Muni

The obvious corruption surrounding the private transit operation, coupled with the arrival of the Progressive Era in San Francisco, brought forth the nation’s first major publicly owned transit system in 1912: the Municipal Railway. Muni’s first line went out Geary from Market along an old cable route, but bigger things were in the offing. The ambitious and capable city engineer, Michael M. O’Shaughnessy, encouraged by the peripatetic mayor, ‘Sunny Jim’ Rolph, laid plans for what was the biggest infrastructure project built in San Francisco to that time: a streetcar tunnel under Twin Peaks, to open up the distant sand dunes in the west to housing.

Where to start the tunnel? O’Shaughnessy felt there was only one logical spot: what was then the end of Market Street, at Castro. The Twin Peaks Tunnel opened in 1918, its east portal recessed into a little rise (adjoining what is now Harvey Milk Plaza) so that one day it could be connected to a subway under Market. The private United Railroads wouldn’t share its tracks on Market, so Muni built its own alongside, making four streetcar tracks running all the way up Market. (The 8-line tracks can be seen turning onto Castro in the 1935 photo above; more detail of the tunnel portal below.)

With the additional streetcar service from Muni, the neighborhood around Castro and Market prospered. The streetcars of the 8-line, by then owned by Market Street Railway (MSRy), successor to URR and namesake of our organization, competed with the K and (after 1923) L tunnel cars of the Muni. Together, they provided the largely working-class residents of Eureka Valley with some of the most convenient public transit in the City.

The transit picture diversified in 1935. San Francisco’s first trolley bus line opened: Market Street Railway’s 33-line along 18th Street (shown here at 18th and Castro) and over Twin Peaks to the Haight. It was converted from a streetcar route partly to save money, since the streetcar required two crew members and the bus one. The same year, Muni brought the motor bus to the neighborhood, with what was then called Muni’s 6-Eureka-Diamond line (now essentially the 35-line), running from the now-vanished Eureka Valley station of the Twin Peaks Tunnel (at Market and Eureka) southward up the hill, competing with the Castro cable car. Muni was soon using little White gasoline buses on the line, including No. 042, preserved by Muni with our organization’s help.

Castro Cable’s Odyssey

So in the years just before World War II, the Castro was the only neighborhood in the City served by all four modes of transit: streetcar, trolley bus, motor bus, and cable car. That ended April 5, 1941, when the Castro cable passed into history.

But what a ride it was. The photo above shows Castro Cable Car 6 pulling into its terminal south of 18th Street around 1940, with the Ferry-bound 8-line streetcar across the street, along with the Castro Theater.

The Castro cable cars were rebuilt by Market Street Railway in 1927 into the prosaic design you see above from a rebuild 20 years earlier by United Railroads that was fancier, and even included the stunning open “breezer” below, pictured in 1916, which operated for a number of years on nice days. (Imagine climbing the hill on that!)

This was never a tourist line, though. It provided a connection from Noe Valley to downtown for workers and shoppers … and a great way for a kid to get over the hill by hitching a ride on his bike, as in this 1941 shot at 21st Street.

When it closed for good on April 5, 1941, the Castro Cable was mourned by a small but sorrowful group of riders and friends (photo below), replaced by a new crosstown motor bus line, the 24-Divisadero. There was neighborhood support for keeping the cable cars, but the line was losing buckets of money, and the private operator could not sustain the losses.

Sadly, no Castro cable cars were preserved, but Muni recently restored a near-twin from the Sacramento-Clay line (abandoned in 1942), which now operates on special occasions on California, Mason, or Hyde streets.

During the War, rationing of gasoline and rubber tires caused a national boom in transit ridership. Both Muni and MSRy ran their streetcars into the ground (literally in a few cases, when rotten platforms fell off). In 1944, after saying ‘no’ several times over the years, San Francisco voters okayed the public purchase of MSRy, which was consolidated into Muni, lock, stock, and streetcars. As the war ended, it was clear the equipment would have to be replaced, but with what?

The decision came down to convert all of the old MSRy streetcar lines, and some of Muni’s, to bus operation: trolley bus in most cases, to take advantage of the overhead wires and poles already in place as well as cheap City-owned Hetch Hetchy hydro power. In fact, all the streetcar lines might have been scrapped if the Twin Peaks Tunnel and the N-line’s Sunset Tunnel had been wide enough for buses.

Steel wheels to rubber tires

After 43 years of running by the Castro Theater, the 8-line lost its streetcars in 1949, replaced by trolley coaches. The outer streetcar tracks on Market had already been removed, and Muni’s K, L, and M lines took over the 8’s familiar spot in the center of Market. The tracks on Castro were removed too. (In the 1937 shot above, the 8 car switches tracks at its terminal, in front of what’s now Cliff’s Variety. In the 1976 shot directly below, trolley coach 776 is in the exact same spot, with Cliff’s on the far right. That 1950 bus, painted at the time for the national bicentennial, was preserved by Market Street Railway and Muni now runs it on special occasions. The shot below that dates to 1973 and shows how the block of Castro between Market and 18th looked from about 1950 until the street was redone around 2017.)

On Market Street itself, the Art Deco-style “PCC” streetcars had finished replacing the drafty boxy original Muni streetcars by 1958. (The photo below shows one of Muni’s original streamliners at Castro and Market in 1959. In case you’re wondering, the gas station has been at that location since the early 1920s!) With upholstered seats and a springy suspension, the modern streetcars attracted a loyal following among Castro riders, and were the City’s streetcar standard for 30 years.

Muni Metro Suffers Birth Pains

In the 1970s, Muni finally built the Market Street subway that had been dreamed about since the 1910s. It connected directly to the Twin Peaks Tunnel, obliterating the old East Portal at Castro.

During the protracted construction, though, Muni had to keep running the PCCs, because there weren’t enough buses to substitute. The streetcars were moved off Market, so the subway between Duboce and Castro could be built easily. The “temporary” streetcar detour included new tracks on 17th Street (still there!) between Church and Castro.

Building the Castro Metro Station while streetcar service continued was more complex. The streetcars had to wind back and forth on trestle track above the station excavation to gain temporary access to the tunnel. Wags called it the ‘Collingwood Elevated,’ for the side street it blocked, but the neighbors on that street and others nearby had more pungent names for it. After station construction was finished in the late 1970s, “temporary” portals shored up with steel and wood retaining walls (also still there) gave the K, L, and M line streetcars access to the Twin Peaks Tunnel, until the subway could open (it was delayed several years).

During this period, of course, the neighborhood was going through more profound changes than any transit line could bring. The earlier generations of immigrants that originally populated the district, largely German and Irish, were gone, and their children and grandchildren were migrating to the suburbs.

A new wave of immigration was sweeping the neighborhood, predominantly gay men, drawn by the City’s relative openness and the attractive (if somewhat down at the heels) housing in the area.

The new residents transformed the neighborhood in many ways, restoring its vintage homes, bringing new life to the street scene, even discarding the old name. No one called it Eureka Valley anymore. It was the Castro now., complete with its own Muni Metro station.

The Trolley Festival: 1983

It looked like surface streetcar service to Castro was history when the last ‘green torpedoes’ pulled into the barn in September 1982. But an unusual coalition of downtown business, Upper Market merchants, and Castro residents, organized by members of our nonprofit Market Street Railway, put together something called the Historic Trolley Festival, to operate restored Muni antiques and vintage streetcars from around the world on the Market Street tracks to provide a ‘substitute attraction’ for the cable cars, then being rebuilt. That’s Mayor Dianne Feinstein, opening the first festival on May 27, 1983 aboard Muni’s very first streetcar from 1912, Car 1, at 17th and Castro. It was supposed to be a one-year thing, but its popularity among Upper Market residents, many of whom preferred the old cars to the crowded Metro or the 8-line bus, called for its return. It ran five summers in all, with a mix of streetcars from around the US and the world, including the 1905 Council Crest streetcar from Portland, Oregon, below.

The permanent F-line: 1995

The great success of the Trolley Festivals led to the construction of the F-line, with Castro providing the western anchor of the operation. The opening event on September 1, 1995, featured the popular open-top Blackpool, England boat tram, but basic service has been provided by popular PCC streetcars, painted to honor the various cities that once operated this historic vehicle type.

The F-line replaced the 8-line trolley coaches, and was immediately so popular that Muni realized it would need additional cars to operate the planned extension to Fisherman’s Wharf. Muni acquired ten 1928-vintage trams from Milan, Italy, and opened The Embarcadero extension on March 4, 2000, providing direct service from the Castro to Fisherman’s Wharf for the first time. The F-line has proven to be a big help to the small businesses of the Castro and all along its route.

Castro by Cable Car Poster

We at Market Street Railway are proud members of the Castro Merchants and have many supporters in the neighborhood, with the Twin Peaks Tavern next to the F-line terminal being one of our longest-standing business members.

We are also proud to offer a number of great Castro-themed products, part of our exclusive Historic Travel Series, at our online store and our museum. We at Market Street Railway are proud members of the Castro Merchants and have many supporters in the neighborhood, with the Twin Peaks Tavern next to the F-line terminal being one of our longest-standing business members.

So the Castro has seen a great deal of transit change and social change as well. But thanks to the F-line, one constant remains. When Castro residents head downtown, they ride the rails of Market Street, just as their predecessors have for more than 130 years.

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Tunnel Vision

The opening of the Twin Peaks Tunnel February 3, 1918, brought mobs of San Franciscans way out west to St. Francis Circle, which was as far as the Muni K-line went then. (The crowd is listening to Mayor Rolph speak, out of frame to the right.) Soon, an agreement would be reached with United Railroads to extend the K over its Ocean Avenue tracks. SFMTA Archive

Though it sits on the western edge of North America, San Francisco had always looked eastward – to its bay, rather than the vast Pacific. Its magnificent protected harbor had driven the City’s economy, and its population, since the Gold Rush of 1849. Residential neighborhoods gradually fanned out from the downtown core in the decades that followed. With the jobs clustered around the waterfront, residential growth followed the early transit lines that connected homes to those jobs.

Improvements in transit technology helped. Horse-drawn streetcars were eclipsed by cable cars, twice as fast. By the end of the 1880s, cable cars ran from the Ferry Building halfway to the Pacific, even to the end of Market Street and then over the Castro hill into Noe Valley.

Then came the electric streetcar, twice as fast as the cables. By 1903, these high-technology vehicles ran all the way south to San Mateo, 20 miles from downtown. The 1906 earthquake and fire decimated most of the City’s remaining cable system along with much of its housing stock and business property. Still blessed by its harbor, the City quickly began rebuilding. But many San Franciscans had been forced to Oakland and other close-in East Bay cities by the shaking and flames. They found their new surroundings attractive, and fast and frequent ferry service coupled with streetcars and interurban trains that met the ferries on the Oakland side made their daily commute to the City faster than even some San Franciscans enjoyed—and at the same price: just a nickel!

Envisioning Speed

While the northeastern quarter of San Francisco was densely packed with residents by 1910, the western half of the city was still sparsely settled. Except for the Cliff House and Sutro Baths at Land’s End, the city’s seven-mile Pacific shoreline seemed deserted. An exception: a collection of discarded cable cars and horsecars festooned among the dunes along the beach south of Golden Gate Park. Pioneers turned them into modest homes and dubbed it Carville.

Streetcars had reached the beach by this time, but only where they could skirt the giant pair of hills that bisected the city – Twin Peaks. The 5 and 7 lines of United Railroads framed Golden Gate Park on Fulton Street and Lincoln Way, and the 12-line ran down Mission from the Ferry, then out Ocean Avenue and Sloat Boulevard to the ocean. But commuting from the ends of those lines, especially the 12, often took longer than taking a ferry from Oakland, where the weather was better anyway.

But what if you could go under Twin Peaks with fast streetcars? An area of 16 square miles would then be within reasonable commute distance of downtown.

Construction of the eastern end of the tunnel, starting at Castro Street, was cut-and-cover for several blocks. Early 1915. SFMTA Archive

The idea was attracting public debate at least as early as 1908, even before the bond issue that created Muni. When Muni opened its first lines, on Geary Street at the end of 1912, excitement about a Twin Peaks Tunnel grew, and the idea was at the core of a city transit plan prepared by famed consultant Bion J. Arnold in 1914 and strongly endorsed by Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph and powerful city engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy. What cinched the tunnel was the willingness of large property owners who would be served by the tunnel to pay for it. It ended up costing $4 million.

While several locations were initially considered for the east portal of the tunnel, the obvious choice was the end of Market Street, a wide boulevard that already had streetcar service by United Railroads as far as Castro Street, where the ground started climbing up to Twin Peaks. The City paid for the tunnel by assessing property owners who wanted it and would benefit from it. That included those looking to develop residential neighborhoods that came to be known as Forest Hill, West Portal, and St. Francis Wood.

Construction on the tunnel started at the end of 1914, clawing through the very soft ground near Castro, which caused the eastern end of the tunnel to be built with a “cut-and-cover” method. A small station was built at Eureka Street, just inside the Castro portal, even though there was a surface stop at Castro. O’Shaughnessy wanted to make it easy to connect the tunnel to a future streetcar subway under Market Street, which he was confident would have to be built soon. As this part of the tunnel was completed, with each track in its own concrete box, new streets were created above, including an extension of Market Street and a short street, Storrie, which the tunnel’s contractor named after himself.

Forms for the concrete façade of the West Portal are already being erected on March 12, 1915, even though the digging of the tunnel had barely begun. Mule-drawn wagons hauled away the dirt; the sign promotes a real estate development. SFMTA Archive
Real estate developers heavily promoted the new tunnel and its Forest Hill Station. Not surprising, especially since assessments on their land paid for the tunnel and station. MSR Archive

The bulk of the construction was deeper tunneling, with a single bore spanning both streetcar tracks. Just east of the tunnel’s midway point, a second station, named for the nearby lake, Laguna Honda, was installed at the deepest part of the tunnel. Elevators, manned by Muni operators, took riders to and from the platforms. Soon after the tunnel opened, a new neighborhood, Forest Hill, sprang up, and the station eventually took the neighborhood’s name.

The tunnel itself was completed in July 1917, though tracks and wires had not yet been installed. At a dedication ceremony on July 25, 1917, Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph rather grandiloquently stated, “Westward the course of Empire takes its way” (though streetcar service through the tunnel was still seven months away).

The Board of Supervisors fought about whether the private United Railroads, which already reached the West of Twin Peaks area by roundabout routes, would be allowed to share the tunnel with the Municipal Railway. Answer: no. Instead, Muni built its own set of tracks along Market Street from the Ferry to Castro Street, flanking the private company’s “inside tracks.” The sound of competing streetcars rumbling along Market side by side on the quartet of tracks became known as “the roar of the four”.

Automobiles have made it through the Twin Peaks Tunnel on rare occasions (usually with an inebriated driver), but only once did autos parade through the tunnel legally. On June 15, 1917, an authorized motorcade climbed over Twin Peaks and entered the West Portal for a bumpy underground ride on a bed of temporary ties to reach Castro Street. Arthur Spaulding photo, SFMTA Archive

The 12,000-foot Twin Peaks Tunnel was the longest streetcar tunnel in North America until eclipsed in 1998 by the Robertson Tunnel in Portland. The original West Portal of the tunnel was monumental, dominating the new neighborhood shopping street named for it. That imposing façade was demolished in the 1970s to build a station inside, when the long-wished-for subway under Market Street was finally built and connected to the tunnel at Castro. (That connection wiped out the Eureka Street Station, whose ghostly platforms can still be seen by riders traversing the tunnel.)

San Francisco Mayor James Rolph, Jr. pilots the first streetcar through the Twin Peaks Tunnel, February 3, 1918. Ten years had elapsed since the idea of a streetcar tunnel to open up the southwest quadrant of the city had started to gain traction. The tunnel itself took three years to build. SFMTA Archive

The Twin Peaks Tunnel opened for service February 3, 1918, with Mayor Rolph personally piloting the first Muni streetcar, No. 117, all the way through. A huge crowd turned out. The first line to serve it, the K-Ingleside, originally ran just a few blocks from West Portal to St. Francis Circle until an agreement was reached with United Railroads to share that company’s trackage on Junipero Serra Boulevard and Ocean Avenue.

The following year, the L-Taraval line opened as a shuttle from West Portal to 33rd Avenue. It reached Ocean Beach by 1923 and fostered growth for blocks in each direction through what became known as the Parkside neighborhood.

In 1925, another shuttle, the M-Ocean View, opened from West Portal to Broad and Plymouth Streets, running through open country in a narrow right-of-way bounded by empty residential lots, then following the alignment of 19th Avenue before turning east.

 
The East Portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel at Castro Street, August 19, 1935. The middle tracks that turn left onto Castro are for the 8-line of Muni’s competitor, Market Street Railway. SFMTA Archive

These same three lines run through the tunnel today, transitioning underground to the Market Street subway under Castro Street, but oh, how their surroundings have changed, especially the M’s.

While new homes sprang up along the routes of the K and L in a steady progression, the M saw much higher density growth – but not for decades. In fact, the M was so poorly patronized that streetcar service was suspended for five years starting in 1939.

Forest Hill Station in the middle of the Twin Peaks Tunnel was austere to say the least, and always had a distinctive musty smell. Here, on February 26, 1948, “Magic Carpet” Car 1001, built in 1939 and outbound on the L-Taraval, passes vintage-1914 “Iron Monster” 129, inbound on the K-Ingleside. SFMTA Archive

The end of World War II brought many returning soldiers and sailors home to San Francisco and attracted many more who had passed through on their way to and from the war and liked the city they saw. The GI Bill gave benefits to these veterans including help buying homes and attending college. San Francisco State College mushroomed in size, growing a large campus on empty land along 19th Avenue at Holloway. Just south, a massive apartment complex named Parkmerced sprang up, and to the north, the City’s first large suburban-style shopping center, named Stonestown. The M-line served all these developments, and ridership steadily grew.

M-Ocean view “Iron Monster” Car 150, built in 1914, meets L-Taraval “Magic Carpet” Car 1001 at West Portal, June 1, 1951. MSR Archive

Coulda, Shoulda

There have been thoughts about altering or extending the Twin Peaks Tunnel several times, going back to the earliest planning stages, when one proposal called for a branch heading northwest from a point between the Eureka Valley and Forest Hill stations, to serve the central Sunset District, perhaps along Noriega Street. The Sunset Tunnel, completed farther north under Buena Vista Park in 1928, addressed this need instead, with the N-Judah line.

A later proposal came much closer to reality. The 1962 BART bound issue included money to extend the Twin Peaks Tunnel under West Portal Avenue to St. Francis Circle. When building the tunnel, the City could have made West Portal Avenue as wide as it wanted, since there was nothing but sand where the tunnel daylighted. As the shopping district developed outside the tunnel’s western entrance, drivers parking their automobiles slowed down the streetcars along the street. But the merchants on West Portal Avenue wanted that easy automobile access and opposed the disruption to their businesses the underground subway construction would pose. Muni ended up “trading in” the money set aside for a West Portal Avenue extension of the tunnel to help finance an additional Muni Metro/BART station at Embarcadero.

As part of the Market Street Subway project, the monumental West Portal was demolished to make way for a new station. In this August 21, 1978 view, PCC 1158 threads its way across the newly replaced switches for the L-Taraval line at Ulloa Street. MSR Archive
The conversion of the Twin Peaks Tunnel into an extension of the Market Street Subway required work at both ends. While the new Castro Station was being built underground, Muni PCC streetcars had to access the tunnel via scary temporary trestles and tracks that wags dubbed the “Collingwood Elevated,” named for the adjacent street. August 22, 1973. SFMTA Archive

Second Century: More Important

If anything, the Twin Peaks Tunnel will become even more important in its second century. The connectivity provided by the M-line was a key factor in the city approving increased density for Parkmerced, where 5700 additional housing units are planned. Muni expects enough ridership growth there to be actively planning projects to speed up the M-line, including undergrounding the tracks under West Portal Avenue. The tab could reach $3 billion if all of the M-line from West Portal to Parkmerced were undergrounded. This, in turn, would allow a true subway-style operation of the M, with trains of up to four cars.

West Portal Station, July 14, 2015. SFMTA Archive

The passage of time has proven the value of the vision its boosters had for the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

We thank the wonderful SFMTA Archive for the use of most photos in this story, and we invite you to visit their great gallery of Twin Peaks Tunnel photos.

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Positively (Twenty-)Fourth Street

Okay, the headline reference is anachronistic, because this shot goes WAY back beyond Dylan. So evocative, though, we couldn’t resist the reference.

Few are still around who remember streetcars on 24th Street, now the cultural center of the City’s Latino community and known to many as Calle 24. But here we are in 1938 (based on the streetcar and the automobile license plate) looking east on 24th at York Street, staring at a 35-Howard line streetcar. It has just descended the very steep hill on 24th from its terminal at Rhode Island Street on Potrero Hill, crossed the Muni’s H-line tracks on Potrero Avenue, and is bound for South Van Ness, where it will turn right and continue on that street and Howard to reach the south terminal at the Ferry Building.

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

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

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

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

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

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Third Street Memories

When Muni’s T-Third light rail line opened in 2007, we asked Market Street Railway’s historian, Phil Hoffman, to share his childhood memories of the old Third Street streetcar operation, along with some history of the lines that ran there. By Philip Hoffman (1930-2011) Far from busy Third Street and its two streetcar lines, my childhood was spent in a quiet section of Cow Hollow which was “Dinky territory”, with center-door Municipal Railway E-line cars and the Market Street Railway Co.… — Read More

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